Very compelling pathological murder story, adapted from a novel by Patrick Hamilton. In Edwardian London, a concert pianist, George Harvey Bone (Laird Cregar) commits two murders, and attempts two more. He has a literal Jekyll and Hyde transformation triggered by sharp, shrill sounds. Similar to the Stevenson story, the protagonist doesn’t remember what his evil nature does.
Unlike the Hyde character, though, once transformed, George’s in a sort of fugue state, and isn’t aware of what he’s doing while under its influence. Other tell-tale bits of the psychosis are hallucinatory vision, choking/stabbing as the means of murder, and an obsession with fire. The other obvious difference with Jekyll/Hyde is the means of the psychological switch; Bone’s trigger is a reaction to his mood and certain stimuli, not artificially induced.
George Sanders plays the sympathetic criminal pathologist Dr. Allan Middleton. Linda Darnell is the flirty singer Netta, who becomes a nemesis for George. Glenn Langan is her smug betrothed, Eddie Carstairs. Faye Marlowe is George’s faithful Barbara, and Allan Napier is her father, Sir Henry.
After disposing of a shady antique dealer, with a dagger and consuming fire, Bone flees. What he knows is that he has blacked out; but it does bother him that he has no idea what’s happened–except that there’s little clues. Most noticeably, his face was messed up as his victim threw stuff at him before succumbing.
So, interestingly, after visiting with Barbara and her dad, he goes to see Middleton, who knows about his condition. Middleton wonders if he had something to do with the antique dealer’s death. But Middleton’s analysis of the blood on the Bone’s coat and dagger comes up negative. Nonetheless, he has officers watch Bone’s place. He does suggest that Bone “get away from his music.” Well, the immediate result is Bone’s patronzing the scruffy pub where Netta performs. But what Middleton had in mind was to “mingle with ordinary people” not become obsessed with them.
Bone’s fascination for the cunning Netta is somewhat reminiscent of Somerset Maugham’s awkward protagonist Philip Carey in Of Human Bondage, who likewise can’t shake the desire for a woman who continues to mistreat him. At first Netta’s drawn to George because he can help her career by writing songs for her. But despite his help, and some rather swanky courting, it soon becomes obvious that she only cares about what he can do for her. She’s really interested in the more confident, suave Eddie. George almost gets over her, but not quite. Meanwhile, just what’s wrong with Barbara? She obviously likes and respects him, and they are much more naturally suited to each other; even her father likes him.
Nonetheless, determined to win Netta at all costs, George professes his love and even proposes to her. Much to his displeasure, he learns the sobering truth; she’s going to marry Eddie, who’s inconveniently standing by. George attacks him, but Netta’s able to distract him enough for Eddie to get away. When George gets fully over to the dark side, he corners Netta and strangles her. For him, that’s not quite enough.
In very macabre fashion, he disposes of Netta’s body on a traditional Guy Fawkes Day bonfire. He even puts a mask on it to fit in with this English Halloween-esque ritual. He had a sort of tune-up by doing away with the cat first. Allan, with other policemen drop in on Bone. “These periods of forgetfulness” aren’t good for alibis. He talks to Barbara about his thoughts for Netta.
Middleton waits for him, discussing how the strangling weapon was prefigured by his article on the subject (a publication he finds in Bone’s place), and proceeds to describe every known bit of Netta’s murder and the manner of destroying her corpse.
At his concert that night he starts to slip into the fugue state. Retiring to a back room, his coworkers try to calm him down. But the police show up intending to arrest him; that naturally ramps up his anxiety, and he hurls a gas lamp at them. Fire quickly spreads in the concert hall. Regardless, George’s returns to the hall and continues playing, with the flames all around. Everyone but him gets out ok. What an ending! Sort of a mash-up of Phantom of the Opera with The Wax Museum. As Sir Henry says, why didn’t they try to get George out?
Also, why did the police allow him to play at the concert anyway? By this time, Middleton is sure that George is the murderer; and they held him earlier. If they’d really intended to release him they wouldn’t show up at the concert to re-arrest him. It would be make sense only if they had released him for lack of evidence or whatnot, and then he just performs as scheduled.
This could have ended in the same fashion, but without the police intervention. Instead of throwing the lamp at the police he could’ve done the same thing to the folks who were trying to calm him down–that is, when the bad stuff started to take over. Agonisingly, the very goal of his career, to earn recognition as a concert pianist, is also inherently devastating psychologically.
It seems that a musical career would never work for someone with this disability; in a concert, with a full range of instruments playing, there’s bound to be the sort of “dissonant noise” that sets him off. It’s not as though he can hide it.
After George’s initial meeting with Dr. Middleton, the focus is only the criminal elements concerning George’s condition, not on any sort of ongoing help or treatment. Middleton’s idea of hanging out with regular folks clearly does work for George, as all the workmen and tradesmen he meets are friendly, kind and respectful, despite sometimes running across him in the throes ofhis altered condition. What he can’t deal with is stress; which, however, is unavoidable.
This is one movie that I wish had been a bit longer; maybe we could’ve had some more background on George to fill in the blanks. I can see that he can’t control when the evil state overtakes him, but his choice of victims seems strange. There’s no indication that he even knows the antique dealer, it appears to be a random killing. Obviously, though, Netta’s killing–and the attempt on Eddie–are acts of revenge; that is, willful. The most bizarre incident was the attempted strangling of Barbara. All of the attacks make some sense in that the first trigger is anger, which, followed by the “dissonant” noise, eventuates in the full-blown fugue state.
Anyway, this is very entertaining, with beautifully arranged sets having complete fidelity to the period. It’s very haunting visually, suggestive and mythic. Farmermouse was scared of the whole deal; but he thought the bonfire was pretty cool, so he gives this eight unfortunate cats. 8/10