Monday, 5 December 2011

At the movies with Patrick Hamilton

In The Midnight Bell, his first great novel, Patrick Hamilton paints a picture of the pub at one minute to five: "a faint bustle of preparation in the other bars, but deep silence in the saloon. The governor had now reached the door. He slid back the upper bolt... a sharp click, a grunt of achievement, and The Midnight Bell was open." The similarity to the hush of anticipation before a theatre curtain goes up is intentional - to Hamilton, the pub (most likely The Prince Of Wales' Feathers on Warren Street, Fitzrovia) was his theatre. Same characters but a different performance every night, and he rarely missed a show.

Peter Ackroyd has called Patrick Hamilton one of London's great voices. Born into a reasonably wealthy Sussex family in 1904, he fell disastrously in love at 23 with a West End prostitute called Lily. While moping after her he spent much time in saloon bars, lounge bars, public bars, hanging out with small-time crooks, broken bar staff, fascist sympathisers, and other misfits and losers. According to his brother Bruce, it played havoc with his complexion and hairline, but gave him an ear for a turn of phrase and a talent for finding gold in the everyday. It also catapulted him from minor writer into the role of critics' choice when The Midnight Bell was published in 1929.

Yet neither The Midnight Bell nor 1941's grimly terrifying Hangover Square are what Hamilton is best remembered for. In 1929 he also wrote a play called Rope; ten years later he wrote another called Gaslight. Both were enormously successful, running for years around the world, and both were turned into Hollywood films. Separating art and commerce, he considered Rope "a thriller, nothing but a thriller" but his plays made him a fortune at a time when writing stage melodramas was still, in the early days of cinema, a viable career. Even so, he thought of them as popular entertainments, and almost entirely unrelated to his novels.

Compared to The Midnight Bell, Rope was a strange, stilted thing. It concerned two students of Nietzsche who attempt the 'perfect' murder purely for kicks, and was based around a gimmick: centre stage throughout the play was a trunk containing the victim's body. The story seemed to be based on the case of Leopold and Loeb, two rich, smart American kids who kidnapped and killed 14-year old Bobby Franks. Brandon, the more manipulative killer, is one of the thoroughly heartless types who crop up in most of Hamilton's work - whether it is Netta, the bitchy actress in Hangover Square, or Ralph Ernest Gorse, the clinical anti-hero of a post-war trilogy.

Alfred Hitchcock's 1948 film of Rope is best remembered for being shot in a sequence of eight minute takes. It also played up the Leopold and Loeb link, inferring the killers were gay (Loeb was killed in prison after making advances to another inmate) which was enough to see the film banned in Chicago, Seattle and Memphis. The tension of the script, though, is dissipated by both Hitchcock's experimentation - you can't for a second forget that the takes are v-e-r-y long - and Farley Granger's continuous darting around the screen like a sweaty chicken. His performance couldn't be further from Hamilton's cold, clipped script. The author was unimpressed, describing the film as "sordid and practically meaningless balls."

Gaslight was a different story. By 1938 Hamilton was a confirmed Marxist, and the grisly greed of the evil Gregory, quite happy to spend years driving his wife to madness in order to gain some jewels, reflected his belief that capitalism - accelerated by the rise of the Nazis - was coming to an end. The British film from 1940, directed by Thorold Dickinson is desperately claustrophobic with Gregory (Anton Walbrook) marked out as Bella's (Diana Wynyard) persecutor from the off. Everywhere there is melancholy and menace. "A dirty evening for a stroll, sir" remarks a policeman. "There are a lot of dirty things in London" replies Gregory.

George Cukor's 1944 slow-burning remake finds a lambent Ingrid Bergman cast as Bella, rather than the ageing spinster Hamilton envisaged. Charles Boyer, away from his usual matinee idol roles, is well cast as a more insidious Gregory than Walbrook's. Still, amidst the gloss there is plenty of room for Hamilton's casual English banter; on a train journey, a woman offers Bella a digestive biscuit - "unpleasant name, isn't it? I always call them diggy biscuits!" When the maid Nancy (a slatternly Angela Lansbury in her debut film) first appears, Gregory asks "I hope you're not a flighty girl."
"I don't think so, sir" she replies, with a sly air that Hamilton must have been quite familiar with.

The only novel that made it to the big screen was Fox's 1945 take on Hangover Square. Suffice to say that in place of the novel's alcohol-drenched pre-war paranoia is a period drama about a bunch of fancy Edwardians who live in Hangover Square, Fulham. It really is that crass. A fine, forgotten actor called Laird Cregar (also in This Gun For Hire with Veronica Lake) loved the book and persuaded Fox to make the film only to see it bowdlerised beyond recognition - as George Henry Bone, the principal character, he was probably more embarrassed by the results than even Patrick Hamilton and died of heart failure, aged just 28, before the film was released. All Hangover Square has to recommend it beyond Cregar's browbeaten performance is the quite beautiful Linda Darnell (Rex Harrison's wife in Preston Surges' Unfaithfully Yours) as Netta, and an early Bernard Herrmann score that anticipates his Hitchcock work.


The BBC chose Hamilton's best early work for their 2005 adaptation, Twenty Thousand Streets Under The Sky, a trilogy in which Hamilton captured the whole rootless population of London by focusing on just a few characters, and one setting - The Midnight Bell. Bob and Ella work behind the bar. He is young and handsome, but drinks heavily, and fatally falls for a prostitute called Jenny who slowly tears his life to shreds; Ella, secretly in love with Bob, watches helplessly.

Oddly, it is filmed in an impure monochrome, like a colourised film that has been left in a damp cellar: once you get used to it, the relentless greys, greens and browns of thirtiess Fitzrovia look all the glummer for it. This is just about the only liberty taken - the screenplay adheres to Hamilton's dialogue without missing a beat. Which puts a lot of pressure on the performances. Zoe Tapper's Jenny is as dizzyingly pretty, blonde and coquettish as she is blank, a combination intriguing enough to ensnare Bob beyond all reason. When he proudly points out that Dickens used to live on the same street as her, Jenny giggles "Dickens! Silly old bugger, ain't he?"

Ella is clearly warm-hearted but, rejected by Bob, can find no outlet for her genorosity. The doe-eyed Sally Hawkins, fresh from Fingersmith, has a permanently melancholy expression that betrays Ella's endless disappointments. Still, her stoicism can't prepare her for the leech-like attentions of Mr Ernest Eccles (Phil Davis): his family are "army" he keeps reminding her; he's a "good catch" everyone else chips in. You can smell his rotten teeth, his stale port and stilton breath. He is horrid. The only real flat note is Bryan Dick's Bob: streetwise and smirking, flat cap fixed at a rakish angle, he seems far too savvy to fall for gauche Jenny's looks alone. Hamilton's creation was surely more bookish. While Jenny's daft comment on Dickens  should ruin the learned Bob's whole evening, here he just rolls his eyes as if it to say "Women, eh?"  We never really understand his intentions - why he doesn't just slip her a tenner and get it over with.

It's hard to fault the settings (recognisably Fitzrovia) or the score (think Pennies From Heaven), though, and the attention to detail in a BBC period drama is something to be treasured after catastrophes like their make-over jobs on Casanova and Beau Brummel. The final episode - with Ella fending off the grisly, grasping Eccles - is particularly claustrophobic, engrained with sooty black humour. No small feat: this is the first time anyone can claim to have captured the real fug and fog of Hamilton's novels.

Hamilton naively believed that the end of the war would lead to a bright new Britain and he became quite disillusioned, seeking solace in the sauce more than ever. "Even Marx was the victim of the same pathetic illusion" he wrote to his brother. "He could see the bloody struggle ahead. What he failed to see was that the bloody struggle was so horribly distant." The contentious character that grew from Hamilton's increasing misanthropy was Ernest Ralph Gorse, a thoroughly believable monster who gently, ruthlessly destroyed everybody around him before moving on, from Brighton to Henley to some other town full of willing victims. There is no love and precious few sympathetic characters in the Gorse trilogy (loosely adapted in the eighties by ITV as The Charmer) which was poorly received at the time. Today Gorse's inscrutable evil feels blackly convincing. He is a man cut from the same cloth as fifties petty crims turned killers like George Smith, John "Acid Bath" Haigh and Neville Heath. Far too nihilistic to be filmed, he may be Hamilton's strongest, if most elusive, creation.

In the end, Patrick Hamilton's true life's work was unfilmable. While his plays invariably ended with truth and justice emerging victorious, the hours he spent in gin palaces, chasing hopeless romances and wasting small fortunes, were worked into deeply atmospheric novels of great humanity and obliterating darkness. With little hope of redemption to be found in the bottom of a bottle, Hollywood turned away.

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