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Patrick Hamilton

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Patrick Hamilton was one of the more successful playwrights and novelists of the 1930s and '40s, and saw his two greatest plays turned into extremely popular movies. He was born Anthony Walter Patrick Hamilton in Hassocks, Sussex, in 1904, the son of Benard Hamilton, a barrister, and Ellen Hamilton. His parents later divorced, and both suffered from more than their share of psychological problems, as well as alcoholism. Hamilton was educated at the Westminster School and aspired to be an actor. He made his stage debut in 1921, at the age of 17, but failed at this career and soon turned to working as a typist and stenographer in London, writing in his spare time. He published his first novel, Monday Morning, in 1923 at age 19, and he wrote five more novels over the next 12 years, all of them successful. Hamilton's books, which all dealt with the seamier sides of lower-class life in England, were filled with vividly realistic dialogue and descriptions, and were populated by men and women in disturbed, psychologically warped relationships; indeed, one of his novels, The Midnight Bell (1929), was based upon his own infatuation with a prostitute. Hamilton had already established himself as writer of fiction by 1929, when he published Rope (produced as Rope's End in America), a play dealing with two Oxford students who murder a fellow student for the thrill of doing it. Although Hamilton denied any connection, some aspects of the play closely paralleled elements of the real-life 1923 Leopold and Loeb murder case in Chicago, in which a pair of well-heeled young men murdered a 14-year-old boy. The crime and the ensuing trial, in which they were sentenced to life in prison rather than the expected death penalty (through the efforts of defense counsel Clarence Darrow), had held much of the United States and the rest of the English-speaking world in suspense. In Hamilton's forward to Rope, Hamilton wrote, "I have gone all out to write a horror play and make your flesh creep. And there is no reason to believe that this reaction is medically or chemically any worse for you than making you laugh or cry. If I have succeeded, you will leave the theater braced and recreated, which is what you go to the theater for." The play was an immediate success in London, and established Hamilton's reputation as a master of theatrical suspense. In 1932, Hamilton published a sequel to The Midnight Bell, The Siege of Pleasure, and he returned to the stage with his dramatization of The Midnight Bell. That same year, he was run down by a car and severely injured. Despite reconstructive surgery, Hamilton's face was left partly disfigured, and it was sometime after this that he began drinking to excess. While recuperating, he published The Plains of Cement, the sequel to The Siege of Pleasure, and saw all three novels reprinted together with the clever title Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky: A London Trilogy. Hamilton didn't return to writing for the stage until 1938, when he brought forth his magnum opus, the play Gaslight. The story of a newly married man who deliberately torments and nearly kills his wife in his search for a missing fortune in jewels, the play put Hamilton on the map permanently, enjoying a long run in London and becoming the first of his works to reach the screen. The film version, variously titled Gaslight and Angel Street, was made in 1940 by director Thorold Dickinson. Starring Anton Walbrook and Diana Wynyard, the film was one of the most highly regarded thrillers ever made in England and was a huge success with audiences in the U.K. and elsewhere. The film rights to the play passed to Columbia Pictures, and, in the meantime, the play began a three-year run on Broadway, in which Leo G. Carroll got one of the finest roles of his career as the duplicitous, murderous husband. Ultimately, Columbia sold the rights to MGM, which intended to remake the movie as an opulent vehicle starring Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer. The studio was so concerned about the quality of the earlier British production that it suppressed the movie with the intention of obliterating it, at one point ordering the destruction of all known prints (an instruction that wasn't carried out). Gaslight, as a play and a movie, became part of the popular lexicon -- to "gaslight" someone became a familiar expression. The MGM movie, directed by George Cukor, became a Hollywood classic and earned Bergman an Oscar for Best Actress, though most critics who have seen the British National version consider it far superior to the MGM production in almost every respect. Hamilton's stock had risen so high that his other works were attracting the major Hollywood studios. In 1945, 20th Century-Fox produced Hangover Square, a thriller similar to The Lodger, about a strangler named George Harvey Bone stalking women in London. It was adapted from Hamilton's 1941 novel of the same name, and was a star vehicle for former character actor Laird Cregar as the killer. Hangover Square was also a prime vehicle for composer Bernard Herrmann, who wrote one of his most celebrated film works, the "Concerto Macabre," for the movie. Alfred Hitchcock produced and directed a screen adaptation of Rope as his first independent production. That movie became something of a cinematic classic as an experiment in suspense. The director made it using a method usually referred to as the "ten-minute take," in which the action and interactions run continuously onscreen, with no discernible cuts. It was also Hitchcock's first film in color, and although it is not as well known as some the director's other films or considered totally successful by most critics, Rope has a special place in most fans' perceptions of his work. In the early '50s, Hamilton began a series of very disturbing novels built around a sociopathic protagonist, Ernest Ralph Gorse, that challenged the reader with the presence of a venal, sadistic personality at its center. The Gorse novels, as they are called, weren't considered fit fare for adaptation until decades later. In the meantime, Hamilton was in the news again in the early '50s when he and Loew's Incorporated sued Jack Benny after he did a parody of Gaslight called "Autolight," alleging copyright infringement. The case went as far as the United States Supreme Court, which deadlocked 4-4 and left standing a lower court ruling against Benny, who was forced to pay a fee for the rights. (In the revised copyright law passed later, provisions were made to protect parodies from such lawsuits.) Hamilton was inactive during the second half of the 1950s as his health failed. He died in 1962, at the age of 58, of complications from cirrhosis of the liver and other alcohol-related ailments. In the years since, his two most famous plays have been revived, and the classic film versions -- including the British version of Gaslight -- have been reissued on special edition DVDs, as well as remade for television. In 1987, nearly 40 years after it was written, his novel Mr. Stimpson and Mr. Gorse was finally judged "ready for prime time" and adapted into the television series The Charmer, starring Nigel Havers. Hamilton was a man uniquely attuned to the dark side of human relations as a motivating force and, in many ways, was far out in front of the popular sensibilities and perceptions of his era, a fact reflected in the continued popularity of his work more than 40 years after his death. ~ Bruce Eder, Rovi



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