Saturday, October 20, 2007


This remarkable thriller, set in the early 1900's, begins with a panning shot down a London street and into a second-floor shop window where we see an antiques dealer knifed to death by the hulking Laird Cregar, who then sets fire to the room and leaves. As he walks down the street, he calms down and we soon realize that he has committed this act during a mental blackout; when he is especially tense and/or angry, discordant sounds trigger the blackout and when he returns to "normal" he has no recollection of what he has done, except for a nagging awareness that he has lost time. Cregar is a rather tightly-wound composer working on a concerto; Faye Marlow, his lovely friend (not quite girlfriend), has gotten her father, Alan Napier, a famous conductor, interested in his work and Napier promises that if the finished product lives up to its potential, he'll premiere the piece himself. When Cregar realizes that he came out of his blackout near the scene of the murder, he goes to Scotland Yard inspector George Sanders for help. Because the physical evidence is inconclusive, Sanders clears Cregar but keeps an eye on him, especially when Sanders himself gets interested in Marlow. While visiting a tavern, Cregar falls for Linda Darnell, a lovely but somewhat slatternly singer. He agrees to write some songs for her and he does indeed help her in her career, but at the expense of his own work on his concerto. When Marlow criticizes Cregar for wasting his talents, he suffers another blackout and tries to kill her, but is unsuccessful, though she is unaware that he was her attacker. Later, Cregar proposes to Darnell and she sneeringly turns him down; one blackout later, he hunts her down, strangles her, and disposes of the body on a large Guy Fawkes Day bonfire. As Cregar finishes his concerto, Sanders starts putting two and two together and he goes to bring Cregar in on the night he's to play his concerto. The climax occurs in the concert hall, with Cregar going mad as he plays his music to a packed house, with Sanders and police waiting at the exits.

This film is newly available on DVD in the Fox Horror Classics set, which contains three films directed by John Brahm including the better-known Jack the Ripper-thriller THE LODGER, also with Cregar. I'd seen this movie years ago, taped off cable, but the DVD print is a revelation: though it still has a bit of damage present, it is crisp and dark, unlike the muddy, grayish TV print, and sounds quite good, a added bonus in a movie in which music, written by Bernard Herrmann, plays a large role--the final concerto is actually a grand piece of music. Cregar, who died at the age of 28 not long after this film wrapped (of complications from abdominal surgery done in order to lose weight), is excellent here; occasionally his cultured voice reminded me of Vincent Price, but Price didn't have the imposing size needed for the role. The other actors, including Glenn Langan as Darnell's fiance and Michael Dyne as her pianist, are not particularly memorable, and even Sanders fades into the background whenever he shares a scene with Cregar. Brahm makes the movie a treat for the eyes: the camera moves a lot, but not ostentatiously so; each blackout scene is shot well, and the final scene [SPOILER] with Cregar playing the climax of his piece as the concert hall burns down around him, is spectacular, one of the most satisfying endings to any classic-era horror film. And speaking of horror, though this is usually described as a horror film, it's really more a rudimentary psychological thriller, though practically no attempt made at explaining Cregar's state of mind or background. In any case, this is a movie that classic movie (horror and otherwise) buffs should see. [DVD]

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