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by Bamber Gascoigne

(Anthony Walter) Patrick Hamilton (1904-1962)


English novelist and playwright, whose best-known works include Rope (1929) and Gas Light (1938); both have been filmed many times for the cinema and for television. Patrick Hamilton died of cirrhosis of the liver and kidney failure.

"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 respitory 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. (from The Slaves of Solitude, 1947)

Born in Hassocks, Patrick Hamilton was the youngest of three children born to parents, Bernard and Ellen Hamilton, who were both divorced. Bernard was a failed barrister, and a family tyrant, who spent his £ 100,000 inheritance on drink and women. His first wife had been a prostitute who threw herself under a train. Ellen, the daughter of a London dentist, was briefly married to an incorrigible womanizer. Both Ellen and Bernard were published authors – Bernhard had written historical books, including The Giant (1926), a fictionalized life of Danton which he sent to Mussolini. Ellen published two romantic novels. Hamilton's older brother was the detective novelist Bruce Hamilton.

Hamilton grew up in a big house in Hove, which was sold during the postwar slump when the family began to run out of money. He was educated at Holland House School in Hove, Sussex, Colet Court in London, and Westminster School (1918-19), from where he was taken away. Hamilton continued his education at a commercial college in Holbron. At the age of seventeen he began to work as an actor and assistant stage manager for Andrew Melville. He performed small roles in A Case of Diamonds and The Squaw Man, toured in The Count of Monte Cristo, The Monster, and On His Majesty's Service, and learned the elements of Melodrama genre. However, he then changed his career and worked as a stenographer, having learned the typing and shorthand via correspondence course.

As a novelist Hamilton made his debut with the Dickensian Monday Morning (1925). It was followed by Craven House (1926), a story of the inmates of a boarding-house, which established his reputation on both sides of Atlantic. In 1927 Hamilton fell in love with Lily Connolly, a prostitute. Later he portrayed her in The Midnight Bell (1929), the first part of the semi-autobiographical trilogy Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky. The bleak love triangle revolved around the Midnight Bell pub – "a small, but bright and cleanly establishment, lying in the vicinity of the Euston Road and Warren Street." Hamilton himself had frequented pubs there. The second volume was The Siege of Pleasure (1932), in which Jenny, the prostitute, was the central character. In the third volume, The Plains of Cement (1934), the barmaid Ella is offered an opportunity to change the course of her life. Together the novels were published in 1935.

A celebrated "bright young" novelist of the Twenties and Thirties, Hamilton's work was in tune with the times, but he never glorified the life of the upper class like Evelyn Waugh. Despite his success and royalties from his plays, Hamilton was frequently broke. In London Hamilton lived in the fashionable Albany bachelor apartments off Piccadilly Circus, the fictional home of E.W. Hornung's gentleman thief Arthur J. Raffles. Hamilton had another home in Henley, which he named Thames Lockdon in The Slaves of Solitude (1947).

"The good Americans usually die young on the battlefield, don't they? Well, the Davids of the world merely occupy space, which is why he was the perfect victim for the perfect crime." (Brandon in Alfred Hitchcock's film Rope, 1948)

Hamilton's first theatrical success was Rope (1929), produced in the United States as Rope's End. The story depicts two Oxford undergraduates who attempt the "perfect murder" to prove that they are above ordinary people. The story had similarities with the notorious Richard Leopold and Nathan Loeb "Killing for Kicks" murder case – they killed 14-year-old Bobbie Franks in 1924 purely for academic interest. Hamilton denied any connections.

Alfred Hitchcock had been toying with Hamilton's play since the mid-1930s, and finally adapted it into screen in 1948. The result did not satisfy the author. Hitchcock shot the film in a series of eight-minute continuous takes and this technical experiment dominated too much the whole result. James Steward, playing the boys' former headmaster Rupert Cadell, guesses the boys' secret, and realizes that if he gives the two enough rope they will hang themselves. Farley Granger's performance as Philip Morgan, the other college student, was considered a disappointment. Although the homosexual aspect was not prominent, the film was banned in Chicago and well as in other towns like Seattle and Memphis.

At the peak of his career in 1932, Hamilton was struck by a drunk driver, and sustained multiple fractures, which required plastic surgery. The accident left him permanently disfigured and with a withered arm, and there were scars on his face. This blow of fate  perhaps contributed to his succumb to alcoholism. Gas Light (1938), presented on Broadway as Angel Street,  gained a huge success and ran in the United States for almost three years (1942-44). It was a story of a Victorian villain, Jack Manningham who tries to drive his wife Bella insane. Manningham's actions are linked to a jewel robbery that occured 20 years earlier in the same house. Rough, a retired police inspector, rescues Mrs Manningham and helps her to regaing confidence in herself.

In the British screen version from 1940 Anton Walbrook played the villain, outwardly suave but eyes shining with cruelty. At the end, utterly defeated, he cradles his rubies with childish passion and the ex-detective, who has caught him, lets him be for the moment. George Cukor's film adaptation (1944), entitled with a single word Gaslight, was a study of psychological dominance and abuse through manipulative words and actions. In the play the woman was a long-time spinster, but in the film Ingrid Bergman is much younger; Charles Boyer played the role of her husband. Bergman won the Best Actress Award for her performance as a victimized woman. "Bergman wasn't normally a timid woman; she was healthy," Cukor said later. "To reduce someone like that to a scared, jittering creature in interesting and dramatic." An earlier film adaptation of the story was made in England in 1939-40, but MGM kept it out of circulation to benefit its own production.

More than Hamilton's play, it was the 1944 film that inspired to coin in the United States the term "gaslighting," which refers to "a manipulative psychological tactic employed to make someone doubt their sanity. A manipulator tries to get someone to question their reality and perceptions." (Gaslighting: The Narcissist's favorite tool of Manipulation by Theresa J. Covert, 2019, p. 5) According to Miami News (Sept. 16, 1948), reporting on divorce petitons, in one suit the complainant claimed that the husband "gave her the Gaslight treatment."

Hamilton's Hangover Square from 1941 was a grim study of a schizophrenic named George Harvey Bone, who lives in the lower depths of Earl's Court, London. His mental detorioration is worsened by his love for a freckless whore, Netta Longdon, who is unfaithful to him with his best friends.  Bone's agony drives him to a desperate act, but the narrative makes it clear that his desire for revenge is justified. The novel was written during the Battle of Britain and to illustrate Netta's wicked nature, Hamilton portrays her as a Nazi fetishist: "She liked the uniforms, the guns, the breeches, the boots, the swastikas, the shirts." After finishing the book, Hamilton said that it is perhaps the best thing he has ever written. Along with Malcolm Lowry's Under the Volcano (1947) Hangover Square is among the most penetrating studies of drinking. Behind the story was Hamilton's unrequited passion for the actress Geraldine Fitzgerald in the mid-1930s. Lowry and Hamilton never met.

The film adaptation by the director John Brahm was shot between late August and mid-November 1944. Darryl F. Zanuck insisted that substantial changes were made in adapting the novel for the screen. Thus Bone, played by Laird Gregar who died before the release of the film, was made a composer and concert pianist instead of an alcoholic outcast. Hamilton himself was aghast at the changes made in the novel by the studio. George Sanders, who was cast in the role of Dr. Allan Middleton, a criminal psychologist, refused to learn his lines. "I can't possibly say this crap!" he complained. In the grand finale Bone pounds the piano, with the house in flames around him. Bernard Herrmann wrote the 'Concerto macabre' mainly in the mode of one of the most famous works by Franz Liszt, Dance of the Dead  (Totentanz). On the soundtrack, Ignace Hilsberg plays the piano. 

As a playwright, Hamilton never repeated the success of Rope and Gas Light. The Duke of Darkness (1942), directed by Michael Redgrave and staged at the St. James's Theatre, London, lasted seventy-six performances. The play was set in a jail in the sixteenth-century France. "Patrick Hamilton, like every other playwright," said the critic Lewis Nichols, "can stub his toe, and this he had done most throughly in The Duke of Darkness." Hamilton's final series of novels remained unfinished. In The West Pier, Mr Stimpson and Mr Gorse  and Unknown Assailant, he traced the career of another psychopath, Ralph Ernest Gorse. The character was an early example in thrillers of the cold-blooded and amoral charmer, a forefather of Psycho and Hannibal Lecter. 

Graham Greene described The West Pier as "the best book written about Brighton." (Greene was generous in his praise, but later he thought that his own first major novel, Brighton Rock from 1938, was "one of the best I ever wrote." ) Later the series was made into a television drama, The Charmer (1987), starring Nigel Havers, Bernard Hepton, Rosemary Leach, and Fiona Fullerton. Hamilton's novel was set along the seafront and pier in Brighton in the early 1920s. There are no murders and no violence, but Hamilton creates a dark, malevolent atmosphere, which perhaps is also a social statement in itself. Hamilton's Marxist views and private admiration of Stalin reflected only marginally from his works – he never joined the Communist Party. He did not depict the heroic working class, but rootless people, petty criminals, prostitutes, and barmaids, whose illusions are broken.

In 1938 Hamilton left London and settled in Henley-on-Thames, a small town which inspired The Slaves of Solitude. Most of the action of the story takes place in a boarding-house, Rosamund Tea Rooms at Thames Lockdon. The story is told mostly from the viewpoint of Enid Roach, a thirty-nine-year-old spinster. After being bombed out of her London flat, she moves into Rosamund Tea Rooms, where she encounters a gallery of characters. Mr. Prest, "the black sheep of the boarding-house", who observes alone in his corner, is Hamilton's ironic alter ego. Enid Roach and Prest are the only residents, who escape the purgatory of Thames Lockdon. At the time of writing the book, Hamilton drank three bottles of whisky a day. The Slaves of Solitude was reissued by Oxford University Press in 1982 as a "Twentieth Century Classic." Richard Kane adapted the novel to the stage in 1988 under the title Miss Roach's War.

During the war, Hamilton held for a short time the "unofficial post of play-reader to the Soviet embassy, advising the Russians on what British works would be ideologically suitable for translation and distribution in the USSR." (Reconstruction Fiction: Housing and Realist Literature in Postwar Britain by Paula Derdiger, 2020, p. 69) He was married twice – first to Lois Martin, a cultured older woman, in 1930, and then in 1953 to Ursula Stewart, born Lady Ursula Chetwynd-Talbot; he began an extramarital affair with her about 1947-1948. Hamilton's wives looked after him without becoming friends. He lived with Ursula during the week and then returned to his wife. Ursula Stewart was an author who published under the name Laura Talbot.

According to Hamilton's older brother Bruce, his whisky intake rarely fell below the equivalent of three bottles a day. He was interested in cricket. With his friends he spent time in the pubs of Fitzrovia. Patrick Hamilton died on September 23, 1962. The writer J.B. Priestley praised his gift in describing "a kind of No-Man's-Land of shabby hotels, dingy boarding-houses and all those saloon bars where the homeless can meet." 

For further reading: 'The Slaves of Solitude and Narratives of Inconsequence,' in Reconstruction Fiction: Housing and Realist Literature in Postwar Britain by Paula Derdiger (2020); Dark Psychology and Gaslighting Manipulation by Ryan Pace (2020); Gaslighting: The Narcissist's Favorite Tool of Manipulation by Theresa J. Covert (2019); Patrick Hamilton: His Life and Work: A Critical Study by John Harding (2007): 'On Patrick Hamilton's Impromptu in Moribundia' by N. Maycroft, in Historical Materialism: Research in Critical Marxist Theory, Vol. 10, Issu 4 (2002); 'Hamilton, (Anthony Walter) Patrick,' in World Authors 1900-1950, Vol. 2, edited by Martin Seymour-Smith and Andrew C. Kimmens (1996); '(Anthony Walter) Patrick Hamilton,' in The Reader's Companion to Twentieth Century Writers, edited by Peter Parker (1995); Patrick Hamilton by Sean French (1993); Through a Glass Darkly: The Life of Patrick Hamilton by Nigel Jones (1992);'Hamilton, Patrick,' by Charles Shibuk, in Twentieth Century Mystery and Crime Writers, ed. by J.M. Reilly (1985); The Light Went Out by B. Hamilton (1972)

Selected works:

  • Monday Morning, 1925
  • Craven House, 1926
    - TV film: Craven House (1950), prod. British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), adaptation by Diana Hamilton, dir. Ian Atkins
  • Twopence Coloured, 1928
  • The Midnight Bell: A Love Story, 1929
  • Rope, 1929 (play)
    - Köysi (suom. Aarne Tarkas, 1964)
    - films: Rope (1939, TV film), dir. by Dallas Bower, starring Ernest Milton, Oliver Burt and Basil Langton; Rope (1947, TV film), starring Dirk Bogarde, Elwyn Brook-Jones and George De Warfaz; Rope (1948), dir. by Alfred Hitchcock, adapted by Hume Cronyn, with Arthur Laurents and Ben Hecht (uncredited), starring James Stewart, John Dall, Farley Granger, Joan Chadler; Rope (1950, TV film), in BBC Sunday-Night Theatre, starring David Markham, Peter Wyngarde and Alan Wheatley;  Rope (1957, TV film), in ITV Play of the Week, starring Ian Holm, Margot Lister, Alec McCowen, Peter Meyers, Dennis Price, Llwellyn Rees; De strop (1965, TV film), starring Rik Hancké, Paul S'Jongers, Martin Van Zundert, Denise Zimmerman; Köysi (1967, TV film), dir. by Aarne Tarkas, starring Esko Salminen, Ville-Veikko Salminen, Rolf Labbart, Jarno Hiilloskorpi, Anita Sohlberg, Ossi Elstelä. Sylva Rossi, Jussi Jurkka; De strop (1968, TV film), dir. Lode Verstraete, starring Eddie Brugman, Charles Cornette, Rob Geraerds, Alex Van Rooyen, Ray Verhaeghe, Bernard Verheyden; La corde (1971, TV film), in Au théâtre ce soir, dir. by Pierre Sabbagh, starring Bruno Garcin, Dominique Tortel and Gilles Béhat
  • The Procuration Of Judea, 1930 (play, an adaptation of a work by Anatole France)
  • John Brown's Body, 1930 (play)
  • The Siege of Pleasure, 1932
  • The Plains of Cement, 1934
  • 20,000 Streets Under the Sky: A London Trilogy, 1935 (The Midnight Bell, The Siege of Pleasure, The Plains of Cement; with an introduction by J. B. Priestley)
    - films: Bitter Harvest (1963), dir. by Peter Graham Scott, starring Janet Munro, John Stride and Anne Cunningham;  Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky (2005, BBC TV series), teleplay Kevin Elyot, dir. by Simon Curtis, starring Bryan Dick, Zoe Tapper, Sally Hawkins, Phil Davis
  • Money with Menaces, 1937 (radioplay)
  • Gas Light:  A Victorian Thriller in Three Acts, 1938 (play)
    - Kaasuvalo (suom. Albert Saloranta, 1939; radiokuunnelma 1949, dramatisoinnut Leo Apo, ohjaus Markus Rautio, päähenkilöinä Tuire Orri ja Kauko Kokkonen)
    - films: Gas Light (1939, TV film); Gaslight (1940), dir. by Thorold Dickinson, starring Anton Walbrook and Diana Wynyard; Gaslight (1944), dir. by George Cukor, starring Ingrid Bergman, Charles Boyer and Joseph Cotten; Angel Street (1946, TV film), starring Judith Evelyn, Henry Daniell and Cecil Humphreys; Gaslight (1947, TV film), starring Jennifer Gray, Anthony Ireland and Catherine Lacey; Angel Street (1950, TV film), in The Ford Theatre Hour, dir. by Franklin J. Schaffner, starring Ernest Cossart, Judith Evelyn and Ferdi B. Hoffman; Angel Street (1952-1954, TV series), in Broadway Television Theatre, starring Sylvia Sidney, Melville Cooper and Edward Everett Horton; Gaslicht (1956, TV film), dir. by Rudolph Cartier, starring Marius Goring, Susanne Lyncker and Thomas Gallagher; Gaslight (1957, TV film), in BBC Sunday-Night Theatre, dir. by Stephen Harrison, starring Peter Cushing, Mervyn Johns, Mary Morris, Beatrice Varley; Gaslight (1959, TV film), dir. by Lazare Iglesis; Gaslicht (1960) TV film), dir. by Wilm ten Haaf, starring Margot Trooger, Dieter Borsche and Hans Zesch-Ballot; Gaslight (1960, TV film), in ITV Play of the Week, dir. by George More O'Ferrall, starring Louis Jordan and Margaret Leighton; Obsession (1966, TV film), dir. by Yvan Jouannet, starring Martine Sarcey, Jacques François and Guy Tréjan; Luz de gas (1970, TV film); in Theatro de misterio; Gaslicht (1977, TV film), dir. by Ludwig Cremer, starring Gustav Knuth, Josef Meinrad and Erika Pluhar
  • Money with Menaces To the Public Danger: Two Radio Plays, 1939 (plays)
  • Impromptu in Moribundia, 1939
  • To the Public Danger, 1939 (radioplay)
    - film: To the Public Danger (1948), dir. by Terence Fisher, starring Dermot Walsh, Susan Shaw, Barry Letts, Roy Plomley, Betty Ann Davies
  • Hangover Square; or, the Man with Two Minds: A Story of Darkest Earl's Court in the Year 1939, 1941
    - films: Hangover Square (1945), dir. by John Brahm, screenplay by Barre Lyndon, starring Laird Cregar, Linda Darnell, George Sanders; Hangover Square (2009), dir. by Ansel Faraj, starring Mihran Konanyan, Chloe Ginsburg and Ansel Faraj
  • This Is Impossible: A Play on One Act, 1941 (radioplay)
  • The Empire on Stamps, 1941
  • The Duke in Darkness: A Play in Three Acts, 1942 (play)
  • The Governess, 1946 (play)
  • The Slaves of Solitude, 1947 (introduction by David Lodge, 2007)
  • The West Pier, 1952
  • Caller Anonymous, 1952 (radioplay)
  • Mr Stimpson and Mr Gorse, 1953
    - TV mini-series: The Charmer (1987), prod. London Weekend Television (LWT), Yorkshire Television (YTV), teleplay Allan Prior, dir. by Alan Gibson, starring Nigel Havers, Bernard Hepton, Rosemary Leach 
  • The Man Upstairs, 1954 (play)
    - film: Der Herr im ersten Stock (1957, TV film), dir. by Wilm ten Haaf, starring Howard Vernon, Fritz Tillmann and Ernst Fritz Fürbringer
  • Unknown Assailant, 1955
    - film: Anatomie eines Unfalls (1965, TV film), prod. Zweites Deutsches Fernsehen (ZDF), dir. by Karl-Heinz Bieber, starring Vera Tschechowa, Horst Naumann and Horst Janson
  • Miss Roach, 1958 (radioplay from his novel The Slaves of Solitude)
  • Hangover Square, 1965 (radioplay)
  • The Gorse Trilogy, 1992 (Penguin Books)
  • The Gorse Trilogy, 2019 (with a new introduction by Matthew Beaumont)

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