Gaslight, adapted from Patrick Hamilton’s 1938 stage success, is a jewel of British cinema, one which was nearly lost when MGM attempted to erase it from history in case it competed with their 1944 American remake. Luckily, it survived and remains the most faithful and satisfying screen adaptation of Hamilton’s work – the author hated John Brahm’s Hangover Square and had severe doubts about Hitchcock’s Rope. It's a dark, brutal tale of abuse and cruelty which paints a startling picture of Victorian double standards.
In 1865, an elderly lady is murdered in her house in Pimlico Square. Several years later, the house is bought by an émigré Paul Mallen and his fragile wife Bella. They are outwardly a loving and reputable couple but Bella seems to be going insane, a process expedited by the cruel manipulations of her husband. Her attempts to leave the house are thwarted by Paul who prefers to dally with the serving maid, and her delusions seem to be connected to something strange which is going on with the gas lighting which has been newly fitted in the house. Her only friend is an ex-copper, Inspector Rough (Pettingell) who takes pity on her.
Anton Walbrook is the perfect Paul Mallen and while I’ve seen numerous productions during the years, his icy menace has never quite been equalled. Certainly, in the Hollywood remake, Charles Boyer was much too romantically inclined to bring out the full evil of the man. Walbrook was one of the finest screen actors of the twentieth century with a wide range which embraced light comedy, sentimental melodrama and ironic tragedy – his turn as the wry master of ceremonies in La Ronde is perhaps his best. But his steely threat in Gaslight is entirely convincing, all the more so for being carefully developed. It’s revealed very early on that he’s a nasty piece of work, manipulating poor Bella into madness, but his venality has depth and a malevolent life of his own. His scenes with Cathleen Cordell’s flirty housemaid are full of the kind of sexual innuendo which was usually frowned upon by the British censor but was presumably considered acceptable because it came from a villain – and a foreign villain at that.
Indeed, sex is a constant undercurrent in Gaslight right from the opening black joke where Alice Barlow’s death throes are confused by a passing sophisticate for orgasmic pleasure. But it remains an undercurrent, the thing that nice Victorian people didn’t acknowledge, and it stands very nicely for the main theme of the film; the dark underbelly of the respectable classes in the late 19th century. Paul Mallen is a perfect gentleman, although as a foreigner he is treated with suspicion and his household habits are not quite the thing in London society – “Only two servants!” sneers a neighbour. His hypocrisy is emphasised by his reading from the Bible and his ostentatious praying. It’s a vision of the Victorians which is so far removed from the patriotic sentiment of Herbert Wilcox’s Victoria the Great, released in 1937, that one is tempted to imagine that the casting of Walbrook, who played Prince Albert in that film, was a deliberate reference – though it almost certainly wasn’t.
It is in contrast to this darkness that Diana Wynyard’s performance is best appreciated. It’s not a subtle characterisation but then it’s not a subtle character and Bella could be quite exasperating in the wrong hands. But Wynyard is quite heartbreakingly believable as the wronged woman and it was a wise decision to make it clear from the start that she is deliberately being driven insane and not actually mad. She’s also meltingly beautiful, especially when dressed up for the abortive concert visit, and she arouses intensely protective feelings. Ingrid Bergman won an Oscar for playing the same character in the 1944 remake but, for my money, Diana Wynyard is better.
The director, Thorold Dickinson, was a prolific maker of short films and a founding member of the London Film Society which first presented the works of Eisenstein and Vertov to British audiences. He only made eight features but his films are characterised by a fierce intelligence and an unobtrusive but confident style which is strongly visual. His camera in Gaslight is constantly in motion, tracking slowly in to the characters faces and prowling around the tightly contained setting of Pimlico Square.
There are numerous pleasures to be had from Gaslight. Frank Pettingell, a popular character player, is delightfully avuncular as the former policeman, although it’s quite alarming to find out that he was only 48 when the film was shot, and Cathleen Cordell is devilishly sexy as the naïve maid Nancy. There’s also a welcome appearance from a young and handsome Robert Newton. Not least among the delights the film offers is the satisfyingly clockwork precision of Patrick Hamilton’s story. Influenced by the 19th century sensation novel, in which a vicious manipulative husband and the beautifully suffering heroine were common feature, it seems to lay the template for so much that comes afterwards from Les Diaboliques to Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny to Alexander via numerous Hammer psycho-thrillers. But Dickinson’s version of the play, filmed in glistening monochrome, is a masterpiece all of its own and gripping right from the opening murder sequence, shot in alarming close-up, to the richly gratifying climax where Bella finally turns the tables on her tormentor.
The original negative of Gaslight no longer exists so the BFI’s new Blu-Ray release is taken from a fine grain positive held in the National Film Archive. It’s a quite superb transfer which is pristine, faithful to the original film grain and quite gorgeously rich in shadings of dark and light. The detail is staggeringly good – I’d never noticed the pattern on Rough’s waistcoat before and you can even make out the individual planks on the music hall stage. This is, given the circumstances, a hugely impressive achievement and a pleasure to watch. The LPCM soundtrack is also very strong and a long way from the crackly mess of the VHS copy that I own which was recorded from TV in 1983. There are optional English subtitles.
The extra features are all short films directed or written by Thorold Dickinson. There is perhaps a case for a retrospective documentary about Dickinson’s work, a topic worthy of investigation, but this is nicely dealt with in the accompanying booklet and it’s quite a privilege to see the shorts which have only rarely been seen. The image quality of these is surprisingly good. Spanish ABC and Behind the Spanish Lines both run around 20 minutes and are concerned with the Spanish Civil War, one of the defining topics of the British Left during the late 1930s. The first concerns the efforts of the Republican Government to educate Spanish children while the second concerns the lives of citizens caught up in the war. Both of these were financed by the Communist Progressive Film Institute and are fascinating documents of life in wartime which were shot under insanely dangerous conditions. Westward Ho! 1940 is a Ministry of Information film about evacuees, intended to allay fears about the process. It was made for only £450 and is full of vivid images of children on the move. Miss Grant Goes to the Door, directed by Brian Desmond Hurst and written by Dickinson, is a mini spy story which anticipates Went the Day Well and features the great actress Martita Hunt. Finally, Yesterday is Over Your Shoulder is a propaganda exercise designed to encourage people to join government training schemes. All of the films demonstrate great storytelling skill and are valuable additions to what we have previously seen of Dickinson's work.
A pleasing addition to the BFI's Gothic collection, Gaslight is a hugely enjoyable thriller which plays just as well now as it must have done seventy years ago. The Blu-Ray presentation is excellent. Highly recommended.