Tag Archives: charles laughton

Three times around the square and then off to the pub.

Last night I watched a film starring Laird Cregar for the first time… there’s a lot of similarities between Cregar and Charles Laughton… I noticed them immediately, without knowing anything about Cregar’s personal history. Honestly – as soon as I saw his face I was reminded of Laughton’s features, and his voice and behavior… I saw immediately that he was a talent, and I would also have guessed that just like Laughton he was gay. The pre-“out of the closets and into the streets” variety of homosexuality which seems to have given many of our greatest actors a strangely incalculable depth. The film was Hangover Square, and it was Cregar’s last. He died of a double heart attack before its completion. Like Laughton, Cregar saw himself as a grotesque… he was overweight and did terrible damage to his body with various regiments of diet and exercise, wanting to lose enough weight to move from playing heavies and villains to being like his idol, John Barrymore. In Hangover Square he is at his thinnest, and in a certain light, he is oddly reminiscent of Barrymore. Again, that was a thought I had while watching the film, before finding out anything about his life. 

 

Laird Cregar as George Harvey Bone.

Laird Cregar as George Harvey Bone.

 I wanted to see Hangover Square based on two things: an incredible still from the final shot of the film (a pianist playing in a huge room up in flames) and the wonderfully off-kilter premise described in the caption: “Many noir protagonists are a little bit mad, and some are a lot mad. After hearing a discordant sound, composer George Harvey Bone (Laird Cregar) blacks out and commits murders at the behest of his subconscious. Here, he plays a final, bitter symphony.”

 

Reader, beware: Hangover Square is an underwhelming thriller, save for Cregar’s performance (the best American playing an Englishman that I have ever seen! One thing I would have gotten wrong about him is his nationality) and one incredibly twisted and unforgettable scene that takes place on Guy Fawkes Day. Even the pyromanic ending cannot eclipse that one particular scene. I’m not sure if I would recommend this film with much enthusiasm, but it certainly wasn’t bad. Like Herzog does many times over in his work, Hangover Square does have one unforgettable image.

Leaning on the everlasting arm…

Let’s now move on to another film that is one of my all-time favorites: Night of the Hunter is a masterpiece, but it is also a tragedy. I came to discover it not like film students do – that is, I wasn’t pummeled into appreciation by a teacher obsessed with the stunning photography of Stanley Cortez. I discovered this film because it is the one and only directorial effort of one of my absolute favorite actors in the world, if not my favorite: Charles Laughton. The man was a genius, and I say that of very very few. And Night of the Hunter is as complicated as one of his characterizations. For Laughton there was no negative and no positive, there was no judgement when he played a role. He was able so clearly to discover the needs that drove his characters that he never had to hide behind morality. Yet as a director… his powers of observation were exposed, and not hidden beneath the unforgettable features of his own face. Night of the Hunter might seem… anti-religious or at least anti-fundamentalist to some people, but I don’t think it is… I think the very thing that makes the film as mesmerizing as it is is the struggle between the Right Hand of LOVE and the Left Hand of HATE as illustrated by Robert Mitchum in a Southern ice cream parlor to an audience of old people and children. Robert Mitchum… boy, now there was a man.

Night of the Hunter shocked people when it came out and the reception devastated Laughton so that he never made another film. That’s a tragedy, a real tragedy that makes something like the death of James Dean look like absolutely nothing to me. And it also highlights an important difference between actors and directors, even the greatest actors though perhaps not the worst directors… a director must learn to love being alone.