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Compulsion, Self Destruction and the Films of Laird Cregar

Compulsion, Self Destruction and the Films of Laird Cregar
© Photograph by Paul Raul

In this way, Chaney showed strong similarities with Laird Cregar, another large actor who was “haunted by his homosexuality” (Newman 1996, 81). Although he died young, and played a range of roles, Cregar found his niche playing “twisted villains”, and it has been claimed that he was “ideally cast as tortured psychopaths” in films such as ‘The Lodger’ and ‘Hangover Square’ (Newman 1996, 181).

For Newman, Cregar was a “haunted” figure while, for Thomson, he “is at his best as a cultivated man possessed by evil” (Thomson 2002, 187). Consequently, although he played a range of non-horror roles, this sense of being oppressed, tortured and dominated by dark forces was central to many of his parts.

In ‘I Wake Up Screaming’ (1941), for example, he is described as “a shade on the psychopathic side” as a “detective inspector” who is therefore “too easy to spot” as the villain (Crowther 1942, 13) and, in ‘Joan of Paris’ (1942), his performance as ‘the head of the Paris secret police is positively described as “thoroughly repulsive” (Crowther 1942, 18).

Not only did ‘I Wake Up Screaming’ strongly suggest its association with horror through its title (which was changed in the United Kingdom where horror a problem for the censors) but it was also an adaptation of one of the key horror writers of the period, Cornell Woolrich. Similarly, Joan of Paris was described as featuring “fearful uncertainties” and “one of the most sinister villains of the season”, an “evil visaged secret agent” who “terrifyingly” pursues the heroes.

However, it was ‘The Gun for Hire’ (1942) that showcased him as a mentally disturbed heavy. Not only was the film described as “morbid” and “hair-raising” (Crowther 1942, 23) but Cregar plays an industrialist who is “engaged in the manufacture of poison gas for ‘the enemy.’”

Furthermore, he is not just a traitor, “a double portion of deceit and cowardice”, he also has a strange compulsiveness. Early on he asks paid killer, Raven, how he feels after a killing to which Raven responds that he feels “fine”.

As one review noted, this response should have been “warning enough […] not to double cross [Raven] on the payment of his killer’s fee”, but “Mr. Cregar does double-cross him, and thereby hangs the tale.” The question itself suggests a fascination with the killer on the part of Cregar’s industrialist and an ambivalence about the practice of crime, but his decision to betray Raven seems to be more than mere arrogance and tantamount to a death wish.

Later films featured Cregar as a “brutal” major “whose sole aim is to break the spirits” of his men with little justification beyond sheer perversity (T.M.P., 1942: 23), and as a “tyrannical art dealer” (Crowther 1942, 25). In ‘The Black Swan’ (1942), he played Sir Henry Morgan, a former pirate who achieves “a temporary return to grace as Governor of Jamaica” and sets about trying “to sweep an unrepentant henchman, Billy Leech, from the seas” (T.S. 1942, 18). The film was dismissed as “hokum” but “hokum” that would please “a good many small boys” and “a lot of grown-ups […] too”, being the kind of film in which “the villains have a gay old time of it” and Cregar “bellows oaths like an irate Opera singer”. He even played the devil in ‘Heaven Can Wait’ (1943).

However, it was as Jack the Ripper in ‘The Lodger’ (1944) — and as a similar “homicidal maniac” in ‘Hangover Square’ (1945) — that he made his mark. The former was clearly “designed to chill the spine” and featured Cregar as a “maniacal killer” who is eventually killed when Scotland Yard “pours more bullets into the murderer than even Frankenstein’s monster was ever asked to absorb” (T.M.P. 1944, 15). The association with Frankenstein’s monster clearly identifies this as little more than a lavish horror film that requires Cregar to “continually go around trying to scare the delights out of everyone.”

By the release of ‘Hangover Square’, Cregar was already dead, but judgments on the film were very similar. Despite its “plushy replica of a rich turn-of-the-century English home”, the film is seen as a “horror film” in which Cregar plays a “schizophrenic genius”, who transforms from “brilliant composer” to “homicidal maniac” (T.M.P. 1945, 15).

Furthermore, his “blank, murderous spells” are signalled by “wild grimaces” and “clutches at his neck in a manner reminiscent of Frankenstein’s monster.” However, as one review complained, rather than sending “chills coursing up and down your spine”, the film lacked a single “first class shiver.” ‘Hangover Square’, like ‘The Lodger’, features Cregar as a tragic and sympathetic figure, a man overwhelmed by psychological compulsions over which he has no control.

While many psychological killers gain excitement and pleasure from their perverse drives, both Chaney’s and Cregar’s characters were often dismayed and horrified by their psychological compulsions, and rather than conveying a sense of perverse energy, they more usually displayed a sense of paralysis. Unable to trust themselves, they became tortured, frozen and unable to perform a valid action.

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