Top billing for Laird Cregar. You mean to say that people didn't go to the movie for Linda Darnell? She’s hot stuff, but too damned malicious and empty and and scheming. Sort of ex-girlfriend you tell to go die in a fire. George Sanders? always good for that exquisitely civilized self-loathing evil.
The title's almost over the top:
Unfortunately, it’s not noir. I shouldn't put it in this section, but it's part of the Laird Cregar Trilogy, so what the hell. The typeface warms you that this is a period piece. Takes place in gaslight London, complete with here-now-wot’s-all-this cops and clip-clop horses drawing carriages down the streets of the titular neighborhood. Laird plays a composer who loses his mind when he hears discordant sounds – a parable of modernism, perhaps, except most of them kept their minds and got tenure – and he remembers nothing of the crimes he commits. Or does he really commit them? Could the real killer be . . .Alfred, Batman's butler?
Seriously, that's Alfred. Alan Napier. He looks old here too. He always looked old.
Could the real killer be . . . the doctor?
Of course it’s the doctor. He’s George Sanders. He’s a rotten scrap of sin wrapped in velvet, and it’s only a matter of time before we learn how he committed the murders!
Then you remember that the movie began with the hero stabbing someone. Oh, right. So a mystery this isn’t. What is it? Who cares?
Meet the composer:
And here’s a tale. Below, Laird Creger in 1941's “I Wake Up Screaming.”
He’s shed some weight, hasn’t he. Creger, convinced he could be a leading man, went on a crash diet, and in half the movie he looks haggard and drawn. If nothing else, though, the diet showed that his presence didn’t come from his bulk. I don’t know what it was that he had, frankly, but as one fellow on the DVD’s Cregar biography said, whenever he was on screen, your eye could not leave him when he was on screen.
Except, maybe, when Linda Darnell showed up.
She played Netta, a devlous biatch who toyed with the composer’s affections in order to get him to write songs for her to sing in her new show:
The movie has noirish moments, such this shot:
What makes it noir? The guilty man is in white, the authority figure in black. The usual hues of morality are reversed, and we’re not sympathizing with the Good Guy – he’s just a shape, a presence. The guilty man is made incandescent by his knowledge of his situation. But he has to go play his concerto! He is a murderer, an artist - O fate! Can he do it?
Not to worry; the lovely young lady he spurned for that HOOR who done showd her britches to ‘AFF A’ PICCADILLY will fill in, since she knows the piece – and its composer – by heart. In true movie tradition, she cries while she plays.
Lots of candles around; shame if any of them were knocked over –
Oh. So he dies in the fire, not the girlfriend? Well, I’m not spoiling anything. From the moment the film began we knew he was guilty, and he would be punished. But only in the 40s could you conclude a movie with a man pounding the piano in a burning room, and it’s quite a scene. Cregar looks ready to die, frankly; he plays the piece because he has to be played, because he has to play it to remove the stain the nasty vixen left on his work. Flames, smoke, final chords: the end.
Literally. Cregar had already died when the movie was released. He went on a crash diet to improve his Hollywood chances, and it killed him.
Linda Darnell? Died in a fire a few years later.
The music? It’s by Bernard Herrmann, always a dark brooding gloomy favorite, and since the main character is a composer, there has to be a composition. Herrmann supplies a theme that has all the Romantic elements – brash individualism, bold statements, the Tragic Nature of Life – but it’s very much a 1940s piece. When you see 1903 audiences listening with rapt expressions, it’s like a movie about WW2 USO shows where everyone’s going crazy over Hendrix.
Very short excerpt gives you the idea: