Director: Thorold Dickinson
Screenplay: A.R. Rawlinson, Bridget Boland
Based on a Play by: Patrick Hamilton
Starring: Anton Walbrook, Diana Wynyard, Frank Pettingell, Cathleen Cordell
Producer: John Corfield
Running Time: 80 min
BBFC Certificate: PG
For many, the title Gaslight brings to mind the well received George Cukor film from 1944 which earned Ingrid Bergman her first Oscar. However, the original story began as a stage play written by Patrick Hamilton (who also wrote the original plays of Rope and Hangover Square) and was turned into a British film four years prior to the Hollywood version. Thorold Dickinson directed this first adaptation which MGM tried to hide before theirs was released in a bid to boost the popularity of their star-studded take. They bought up the rights to the original film and destroyed all the prints they could get their hands on. Luckily Dickinson had made a ‘secret’ print and the 1940 version of Gaslight has remained available and was recently re-released by the BFI as part of their ‘Gothic: The Dark Heart of Film’ strand.
Gaslight opens with the murder of elderly Alice Barlow by a mysterious figure who subsequently searches her house for something before rushing out to escape capture. Flashing forward a number of years, a married couple are the first to move into the house after it has remained empty ever since the incident. Husband Paul Mallen (Anton Walbrook) is a bit of a closed book, a harsh and dominating figure, whilst wife Bella (Diana Wynyard) is a frail woman, teetering on the brink of a nervous breakdown. Paul accuses Bella of constantly moving and hiding objects around the house or seeing/hearing things that don’t exist. We soon discover that it’s actually Paul himself putting these thoughts in his wife’s mind and deceiving her through hiding things before making his accusations. Luckily a local (ex?) policeman (Frank Pettingell) thinks he recognises Paul and believes he is actually someone else, so takes it upon himself to find out the truth.
Gaslight is driven largely by the cruelty put upon Bella by Paul. It’s a very dark film for the time, with the cruel husband breaking down his wife’s sanity piece by piece. Although quite hammy, Walbrook creates a viscously cunning villain. He exudes the right amount of dominance to convince as this controlling figure whilst remaining just about charming enough to get away with it (but only just – he’s not the most likeable of characters). Wynyard convinces too as the helpless victim who, in the film’s final moments, still has the strength to exact revenge.
As effective as the performances can be, they, along with the direction, can feel a little too stagey though. The film hasn’t aged particularly well and is clearly a product of its time. This is quite typical of 40’s shot period pieces (the film is set in the late 1800’s), so wasn’t too much of a problem to me. What did set things back a bit though was the film’s pacing and narrative structure. The police officer pretty much tells you what to expect from the end of the film in the first few minutes, so any tension or mystery is gone before it has chance to build at all. There’s little plot development at all in fact. This means the whole film feels quite slow, even at a mere 80 minutes. Luckily the sense of dread as to how far Bella will be pushed is effective enough to keep the film engaging, but it’s hardly an enthralling watch.
Some tension is effectively built for the film’s finale which has a few dated elements (the ‘action’ showdown is a bit feeble) but on the whole does its job quite well with the tables getting turned as mentioned previously. It’s just a shame there isn’t enough excitement elsewhere as the film has a lot of potential in its cruel and devious premise. In its time it was probably quite powerful, but unfortunately subsequent psychological thrillers have since taken Gaslight’s ideas and crafted more satisfying whole packages.
Gaslight is out on now in the UK on Dual Format Blu-Ray & DVD, released by the BFI. I was sent the DVD disc to review. The picture and sound quality is very good, especially for a film which Hollywood had tried to hide a few years later.
For special features you get a number of short films from Dickinson. These are largely public service films and aren’t particularly riveting. Miss Grant Goes to the Door, which was written by Dickinson, but directed by Brian Desmond Hurst, is a little more exciting, being a dramatisation of a German invasion, but it’s quite dated and a bit clunky.
On the DVD you also get some original promotional materials and documents from the BFI for those interested in delving into the film’s history and as usual you get a booklet crammed with information too.