Posted by Greg Ferrara on July 28, 2013
Today is the 100th birthday of Laird Cregar, a great actor that left this world far too early, at the age of only 31, in 1944, just two months before the release of his greatest acting triumph, Hangover Square. I came to Cregar late in my lifelong film education when I finally saw him in This Gun for Hire one day, years after I should have seen it, and was immediately intrigued. Cregar played major roles in only fourteen films in four years, from 1941 through 1944, with two bit parts in 1940, but left behind a formidable legacy nonetheless.
I suppose I could give you a list of his performances with a small blurb about each one but that’s what IMDB is for. I’d rather talk about what Cregar means to me as an actor and highlight the work he did that placed him in a position not occupied by many other actors in the cinema. And it all starts with This Gun for Hire.
Cregar became famous early on for playing the heavy and since his physical frame was imposing, it seemed an obvious and easy signpost for audiences to identify him as the bad guy. Indeed, he had become an instant hit as the ruthless detective in I Wake Up Screaming shortly before being cast as the villain in This Gun for Hire.
The movie is famous for making Alan Ladd a star and rightfully so. He does a great job as the cold blooded assassin (the gun for hire referred to in the title), Philip Raven, and Veronica Lake is charming, in her second big part after her breakout role in Sullivan’s Travels the year before. But for me, Cregar stands out and here’s why. Cregar, in his short career, had a way, evidenced here, of taking a despicable character and making him sympathetic that had nothing to do with the script or the character as written and everything to do with Cregar. His character, Willard Gates, a high level executive at a chemical plant and a night club owner, double-crosses the assassin, Raven, who was hired to kill an employee of Gates’ who stole a top-secret formula. When Raven kills the thief and delivers the formula, Gates pays him in marked bills and tips off the cops because, well, because he’s a cold, ruthless son of a you know what. And he seems unworried about any of it coming back to him. In fact, he reports the money missing so that he can collect it back from insurance and Raven can go to jail. Presumably, he’s prepared to say that Raven’s story is a bunch of malarkey but that seems an awful lot of trouble and unnecessary risk when he could just pay Raven properly and let it go. But that’s the point. He’s so greedy he’ll double-cross an assassin, putting himself at risk, just to get his money back.
Later, he auditions acts for his night club and meets up with Ellen Graham (Lake), auditioning with a delightful magic act/song number that immediately captivates Gates. He’s smitten and decides she’s going to go by train with him to Los Angeles to begin rehearsing. It’s here that the plot complications set in with Raven following Gates to get his revenge, Ellen being recruited to spy on Gates and her cop boyfriend hot on the trail of Raven. What follows is the slow downfall of Gates as he’s forced to give orders to a henchman to kill Ellen because he thinks she’s in cahoots with Raven. And that’s where Cregar comes through. In the audition scene, he seems so delighted with Ellen and her routine that there’s almost a boyish junior high crush element to it. When he knows she has to be killed you can tell the decision kills him. And that’s where Cregar makes the difference. He had a quality in his eyes that gave him a sympathetic tone many actors lack. It’s who he was and it shone through. For contrast, put someone else in the role. Someone like Rex Harrison (even though I realize Harrison didn’t play the heavy too often). I just wrote him up recently for TCM’s website for the movie The Rake’s Progress and noted how well Harrison played self-absorbed and cruel (and he did). Put him in the Gates role and without changing a line of dialogue or a single camera angle, he would be, in my mind, completely unsympathetic. His decisions would seem ruthless where Cregar’s seem pained, his reaction to unanticipated outcomes would seem cold where Cregar’s seem desperate and panicky. It’s not because of the script, it’s because of Cregar.
When I watched Cregar in movie after movie, once I discovered him, I saw the same thing again and again. In The Lodger he once again performs the hat trick of making the creepy, sullen Jack the Ripper character, Mr. Slade, seem sympathetic. At the climax, when cornered, his face betrays such desperation that, despite the fact that he is a brutal murderer, and that just minutes before he tried to kill the leading lady, he seems a pitiable figure. The audience feels sorry for him to the degree anyone can feel sorry for a brutal killer, which is to say, mainly, the audience can see him as a mentally unbalanced man, lonely and afraid, without actually liking him. Just understanding him. And maybe that’s the other difference. With Cregar, his eyes and face let the audience understand the character far better than any words of dialogue ever could.
Hangover Square was his last film and the greatest performance of his career. It contains exactly the qualities described in the previous paragraphs with the added qualifier that when he kills, he is not in his right mind and unaware of his actions. It makes it even easier to have sympathy for him but the fact that it’s Cregar means that would have happened anyway.
Despite these obvious and rare gifts as an actor, Cregar was discouraged by his weight and towering size, feeling it kept him from the big, romantic leading man roles. In an effort to correct this, he went on a crash diet that included prescribed amphetamines, lost over 100 pounds quickly and died of a heart attack two months before the release of Hangover Square. He didn’t want to always be the bad guy and felt a different look might make the difference. Sadly, what Cregar never realized is that he wasn’t the bad guy and never would be. He was a great actor that made every character he played human, real and identifiable. It’s a great shame that he left us so early for we never got to see how much more he could do. And do well.
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