1940 The Thorold Dickinson original version of Gaslight
is a period melodrama with an interesting take on psychological disturbances made before the '40s
Freudian fad hit Hollywood. Aristocratic Paul Mallen (Anton Walbrook) browbeats and tricks his wife
until she believes she must be going insane, a process that's more than credible considering the
view of marriage in Victorian times. Bella Mallen (Diana Wynyard) has brought the money into the
marriage but is completely at the mercy of male authority. Paul imposes humiliating punishments
as if she had no rights whatsoever, imposing his views onto every situation and making her into a
virtual prisoner. In short, the Victorian husband has the right to decide what's real and what's
not, giving him the ability to inflict extreme mental abuse.
This English version of Gaslight must have received positive notices as one of the heirs to
the Alfred Hitchcock throne of thrillerdom. Hitchcock had recently been enticed to America by David
O' Selznick and was laboring at making a different kind of Gothic romance/ghost story, Rebecca.
In his absence Carol Reed thrilled the Brits with his exciting Night Train to Munich, which
had a strong resemblance to The 39 Steps and The Lady Vanishes. This Gaslight
begins with an old lady strangled in brutal close-up, and parallels the story inside the Mallen
household with the improvised investigation of a retired detective, now a stablemaster (Frank
Pettingell). Poor Mrs. Mallen goes nuts, or at least thinks she is, while haunted by eerie phenomena
like strange noises and the dimming of the gaslight in her bedroom. She's a damsel in distress
trapped in her own household, a situation any wife can identify with. Dickinson's Gaslight
is a good example of an always-popular subgenre of thriller that Hitchcock himself returned to
on occasion, as in
Under Capricorn, also with Bergman.
This early version probably hews close to the original play, taking place almost exclusively
around a London square of upper-class homes. There's the fancy piano recital scene interrupted by
Bella's breakdown when she's accused of stealing her husband's watch. A trip to a music hall with
a lively Can-Can dance is nice break from the Gothic claustrophobia.
Diana Wynyard (Rasputin and the Empress, Cavalcade)'s Bella just wants to be a happy
housewife and is shown being kind to some neighborhood kids (who are barred from the park; why not
from this tony borough altogether?). She's the pawn in a sick game that causes her enough believable
anxiety to provoke a real nervous breakdown, and she handles it very well. Bella is written straight
to the one issue - male dominance - and is never overplayed.
(The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp,
The Red Shoes) is superb as the manipulative psychopath Paul Mallen. He's more a straight
Dr. Crippen-Bluebeard type than a romantic ideal, carefully working out an unlikely but somehow
credible scheme. His corruption is complete and we're not asked to have much sympathy for him.
Suave and sinister, Walbrook's playing is much smoother than Charles Boyer's in the remake.
tries to carry on an affair with his own parlor maid Nancy (Cathleen Cordell, much later of
The Return of the Living Dead),
a subplot that
shows how easy it is for a Victorian householder to have his cake and eat it too, by making sure the
servants don't talk to his wife. Nancy is proud of her many gentleman friends and all too eager to
'meet' with her employer, and again there's no softening of the implications. We see three abuses of
male authority here: A wife driven mad, adulterous exploitation, and outright murder for profit.
Hitchcock watched his competitors like a hawk and may have been influenced by Dickinson's film.
When Bella steps out onto her balcony at the end, 'cured' but disillusioned, she's an isolated soul
facing an uncertain future. Visually, the moment is very similar to the end of Vertigo, a
tale where romance is used to manipulate a man into a nervous breakdown.
The English original has been almost forgotten in the years since the success of the
Cukor/Boyer/Bergman version. This 1944 Hollywood rethinking does a superficial rewrite that makes
telling changes in the story and the characters. Accomodating two of the most romantic actors of
the time can account for much of this, but the rest seems to stem from a desire to soften and 'ritz
up' the original. Although he only provided the services of two of the actors, talent raider David
O. Selznick may have influenced the direction of the story as well; his credit is jammed into
the cast list right behind the stars.
The changes for this 1944 remake are a mixed bag. Some fit and others don't. The glamour and culture
quotient is raised to glamorize the swooningly attractive Ingrid Bergman. The heroine is now related
to the murder victim, and the victim changed into a grande dame of the musical theater. Thus Bergman
(now renamed Paula Alquist) returns to her own home after a childhood spent in Italy. She doesn't
suspect her new husband Gregory (Charles Boyer) because Scotland Yard covered up the motive.
The unaccounted-for jewels that motivated the murder were hushed up because a royal personage was
involved (shades of various Jack the Ripper theories).
So the movie skips the gruesome murder and instead treats us to a drawn-out romantic opening
in Italy. The situation in London is given a glamour makeover as well. The ordinary-Joe
neighborhood snoop detective is jettisoned, and his function divided between two new characters.
The detective is now a handsome fellow played by Joseph Cotten who casually re-opens the
case and conveniently becomes the likely romantic savior of our heroine (not to mention another
contractee paycheck for David O.). Cotten disobeys his stuffy superiors and proceeds on his own.
In keeping with the MGM gloss treatment, he's carefully established as a gentleman aristocrat
himself, one of those detectives who has a valet and gets invited to swanky recitals. As it turns
out, Cotten's detective was also related to the original case, as he was a boyhood fan of the
murdered aunt. So he comes on like Prince Charming and Sherlock Holmes tied up
in a handsome package.
The second half of the detective character is provided by Dame May Whitty as a spirited neighborhood
snoop. Whitty reinforces the notion that this is supposed to be England, but is mostly there for
lighthearted punctuation. She's so obviously a borrowing from Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes
that we can't help but think that Alfred had a hand in the stew - perhaps Selznick was at some point
pushing for Hitch as the director, so as to collect yet another paycheck. The cute Whitty is
certainly not unwelcome, but she musses up the clean lines of the story.
As personified by the saucy, insolent Angela Lansbury (in her first role at age 16) the maid
Nancy patronizes Paula and flirts with Gregory, but nothing ever comes of it. There's no excursion
to the music hall, saving Louis B. Mayer an expensive scene. The adultery aspect of the story doesn't
seem as important this time around, even though Lansbury makes a solid impression.
The remake plays as a good mystery that spotlights isolated star turns. Lansbury, Boyer
and Bergman each get big solo moments, either by themselves or with the other actors merely
looking on. Gregory's villainy is so obvious we have to think that Paula is a much more male-dependent
simp than Wynyard's Bella; he's so cruel that the screenwriters wisely make the cook (Barbara Everest)
change loyalties before the conclusion. Boyer undergoes a sudden lapse into mania while talking
about the real of love his life, fine gems. It doesn't mesh with the character's previous complete
control, and comes off as just too thick.
Interestingly, both versions emphasize that the murderous husband is already married to a woman far
away, handily absolving wife number two from any guilt for dropping a dime on Hubby. Just the same,
I think she'd wind up in precarious social straits. Stiff Victorians would still consider Bella/Paula
a 'used woman.' The fact that she is a completely innocent victim would be beside the point.
Both films are good, but the English show gets my vote. It's less predictable and stresses the
thriller aspects, allowing the two lead performances to shine from within (and I saw the remake first,
several times over the years). The Cukor version is a star vehicle first and foremost and reeks of
commercial calculation. With those added scenes up front, it's also overlong - it was common for
local TV stations in the 1960s to just lop the first reel off this show, starting broadcasts
in London. The first version is a nice rumination on the Victorian thriller, and its heroine
makes a journey to truth and freedom. In the Cukor version, a shook-up Bergman hops predictably
from bad husband Boyer to the waiting arms of dreamboat admirer Cotten. When placed next to
the English show, it seems more contrived and has less to say. But Bergman is a magnificent compensation.
Hidden in the cast somewhere is Gibson Gowland, of 1925 Greed fame. Young Terry Moore,
billed as Judy Ford, plays the young Paula for one brief shot in an opening flashback.
Warners' Gaslight DVD double bill looks very good indeed. Both shows are in excellent shape,
with a few hairline scratches here and there. Grain is minimized in both. The English version appears
to be an American source with a Leo logo spliced on.
The movies occupy opposite sides of a flipper disc. The 1940 version is over half an hour shorter and
for that reason is given the extras. The trailer for the 1944 remake is welcome, and a short docu
gives us some remembrances by Angela Lansbury. She has a fine time telling us about
her big break, the generosity of her co-stars and her own lack of experience. The featurette doesn't
mention anything about the original version, but is satisfying just the same.
A brief newsreel features a staged shot of a very awkward Jennifer Jones presenting Ingrid Bergman
with an award.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Gaslight 1940 and
Gaslight 1944 rate:
Movies: both Excellent
Video: both Very Good
Sound: Both Very Good
Supplements: Reflections on Gaslight new documentary, archival newsreel,
Packaging: Snapper case
Reviewed: January 26, 2004