Film Studies: Baleful, dark, mysterious - why is it so hard to capture Patrick Hamilton on screen?

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While welcoming the season of films adapted from Patrick Hamilton's novels and plays at the National Film Theatre in London, I wonder if it has the most appropriate setting.

While welcoming the season of films adapted from Patrick Hamilton's novels and plays at the National Film Theatre in London, I wonder if it has the most appropriate setting. The NFT, despite its hunchback stance beneath Waterloo Bridge, is so airy, wholesome and high-minded. Of course, Hamilton would have been as vulnerable to being taken seriously as anyone, and he lived and died "a success" without gaining recognition as an extraordinary writer. Doris Lessing admitted in 1968 (six years after Hamilton's death), "I'm continually amazed that there's a kind of roll call of OK names from the 1930s, sort of Auden, Isherwood, etc. But Hamilton is never on them and he's a much better writer than any of them."

So it's splendid to have Hamilton at the NFT - or would be if "splendid" wasn't the last word to apply to him. Let's just hope that the season will send more readers to Patrick Hamilton. The films made from his works are often fascinating, yet it's easy to see how Hamilton himself despaired of an association with the movies - apart from the money, of course. The film business upgraded him. They pumped up the décor and raised the social level of his stories. All steps in the wrong direction, alas, just as the NFT is a kindness but an error. The real Hamilton season should have been located in the kind of dingy suburban theatre that hardly exists now - the Tolmer in Euston, the Imperial in Portobello Road, or the Clifton on Brixton Hill, a shabby, apologetic place where the dirty raincoat asleep in the next row could be a corpse.

He died badly, though only 58, having outlived his early fame. But he was born in Hassocks, Sussex, on St Patrick's Day (notable for its drinking, he might have added), and thereafter resided in sedate Hove. He was the child of two "authors", though his best biographer, Nigel Jones (Through a Glass Darkly, 1991), observes that Bernard Hamilton's first book is "a monstrous 500-page bag of a book into which Bernard stuffs all his favourite religious and historical obsessions". Bernard dumped his wife and family on the south coast and kept a London flat for romances; in response, the mother, Nellie, wrote light romance novels. As for Patrick, he viewed both types of book, their authors and Hove with a common disdain or incredulity. He was drawn, like a wolf to blood, by the great city, and he knew it for what it was. Who can resist this, which comes from The Slaves of Solitude (1947) his last great novel: "London, the crouching monster, like every other monster has to breathe, and breathe it does in its own obscure, malignant way. Its vital oxygen is composed of suburban working men and women of all kinds, who every morning are sucked up through an infinitely complicated respiratory apparatus of trains and termini into the mighty congested lungs, held there for a number of hours, and then, in the evening, exhaled violently through the same channels."

Hamilton ended up on the cold Norfolk coast, largely forgotten, with cirrhosis of the liver, having found the dismay and failure in private life that he always anticipated. I suppose he would be called depressive now; he was an alcoholic then. And he had stopped writing, no matter that between 1925 and 1947, he published nine novels, three stage plays and two radio plays. Two of those plays - Gaslight and Rope - were considerable hits, and with the novel, Hangover Square (1941), J B Priestley called him "the novelist of innocence, appallingly vulnerable, and of malevolence, coming out of some mysterious darkness of evil".

Gaslight was a hit in London in 1938, and it was filmed in 1940 by Thorold Dickinson, with Anton Walbrook giving an exquisitely sadistic performance as the husband who wants to drive his wife mad (and find the lost jewels in the house). It is shameless melodrama, yet it is also a rueful insight into a particular kind of marriage, where power and needling have taken over the erotic function. The play was an even bigger hit on Broadway (Hamilton was flush for a while), and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer scooped up the film rights along with every print of the Dickinson film they could find (and then destroy). In Hollywood, the standard of living in Gaslight's studio-made London was richer. George Cukor directed and Ingrid Bergman won her Oscar opposite Charles Boyer as the husband.

This was enough to make Hamilton seem very desirable, so when Hangover Square appeared, to fine reviews, Twentieth Century-Fox got the film rights. It was a novel about a schizophrenic, a man who kills when pressured by a certain level of noise, and a fool besotted with a spiteful actress - this was rooted in Hamilton's own forlorn love affair with Geraldine Fitzgerald. The novel was sub-titled "A story of darkest Earl's Court", and Hamilton intended to put it just one notch above the sordid in a London waiting for the Blitz. But far away, Fox set it in the Edwardian period in lush homes. They made the central figure a crazed composer (the film's score is by Bernard Herrmann). And they ruined it. The lead role was played by a remarkable, but very overweight young actor, Laird Cregar, who had actually urged the novel on the studio. But when the travesty was clear, Cregar died - some said of a broken heart.

One man who had followed Hamilton's London success in the Thirties, and who shared his taste for sexual obsession and the underclass, was Alfred Hitchcock. Rope had been a stage success in 1929, set in London - Hamilton always denied that it had been based on the infamous Leopold-Loeb case where two rich kids in Chicago sought to commit the perfect murder. Hitch moved the action to New York and he engaged Hamilton as a screen-writer - $3,000 for the rights and $300 a week for the scripting.

Hamilton enjoyed this work: "Doing Rope was exciting as well as exhausting. In colour, if you please! - and all indoors with five rooms - a Hitchcock stunt. The camera, like an invisible man, simply walks about the flat ... And sees and hears everything. Never done before, and so, as you can imagine, a difficult job for an inexperienced screen writer."

This was Hitch's famous 10-minute take in development. The eventual Rope has just 11 shots, with the effect of being one unbroken strip of film. That the experiment was dead-ended is shown by how quickly Hitchcock abandoned this way of shooting. But Rope - with later script work from Hume Cronyn and Arthur Laurents - is one more movie that misses Hamilton's baleful atmosphere, the mix of lowly realism and metaphysical dread.

Of course, The Slaves of Solitude is still there, begging for a film. And Patrick Hamilton is available, thirsty for readers. You won't be let down - and you won't get the loneliness of his prose out of your head.

Patrick Hamilton season, NFT, London SE1 (020 7928 3232), until 30 March

d.thomson@independent.co.uk

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