Gaslight (1940)
Reviewed in January 2012 / Click Here to Comment
Written on the occasion of the late Diana Wynyard's 106th birthday.
Written on the occasion, too, of the lovely Tim Robey's 34th birthday.
Director: Thorold Dickinson. Cast: Diana Wynyard, Anton Walbrook, Frank Pettingell, Cathleen Cordell, Jimmy Hanley, Minnie Rayner, Robert Newton, Marie Wright, Mary Hinton, Angus Morrison. Screenplay: A.R. Rawlinson and Bridget Boland (based on the play Angel Street by Patrick Hamilton).
Twitter Capsule: Tenser execution than Hollywood remake, with sinister light and mise-en-scène, but flaws in the script still make me crazy

Photo © 1940 British National Films
As a university professor and advisor of undergraduates, I am often counseled that some big, pre-professional exams—the MCAT, for example, which gets you into medical school—are worth re-taking as many times as necessary in order to hit a benchmark score. Schools won't consider you if you don't pass a certain level, even if it requires a few attempts. The MCAT is also so information-based that you really can acquire extra knowledge you might not have mastered in time for a previous stab at the test. Other exams, like the LSAT for law school, and arguably some of the GREs, are good to take only once, because statistics show that people rarely improve over time, whereas they frequently do worse. Most often, repeat test-takers continue to land within the same score-range. If you don't love your score, you want review boards to assume you had an off-day, or to skirt past this moment on your application. Whereas, if you take the LSAT four times and yield the same good-but-not-great result, the problem seems less to do with circumstance and more to do with you.

Gaslight turns out to be an LSAT, not an MCAT. I've read the play, seen the famous Cukor-Bergman-Boyer version from 1944, and now taken in the first, British-produced adaptation for film. (MGM concertedly bought up and tried to lock up all the prints of this one, in order to pave an easier, less comparison-prone path to glory for their Oscar-winning, extremely profitable remake; this earlier version didn't play commercially in the U.S. until 1952.) Each time, my hopes go slightly up for this material, and each time the execution impresses me a little more—but not tremendously more. Thorold Dickinson's direction has its own miscalculations to answer for, so I hardly think I have seen a perfect rendering of Gaslight. Still, so much goes right in this film version, all without sparking a corresponding bump in my enthusiasm, that it's all the more obvious that I find some foundations of this text perennially problematic. Given that I screened it during the same weekend that I saw Roman Polanski's visually agile but inevitably stunted Carnage and, even more to the point, David Fincher's sleek and texture-obsessed gloss on the incorrigibly misshapen Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, this feeling is becoming very familiar.

Gaslight's liabilities are by no means limited to its periphery. The conceptions of all four major characters betray some problems, including one who shouldn't be here at all: the tangential bystander who eventually deduces just what's going on at 12 Pimlico Square. However he gets shoe-horned into the story, here as a livery coach-driver named Rough (Frank Pettingell), or in 1944 as suave Scotland Yard detective Brian Cameron (Joseph Cotten), he always feels uninteresting as a person and extraneous to a scenario that benefits from as much claustrophobia as possible. Imagine if the terrorized wife, possibly with the aid of the uncertain allies on her domestic staff, were to piece together the details of her own maltreatment—but proved, in a further twist, unable to separate the paranoia innate to detective work from the paranoia induced by sleeping, or probably not sleeping, with such a vicious enemy. Sounds promising, aye? Yet there's always this interloper poking around, spelling things out for her and then vacating from the big climax, which only further confirms how the Platonic ideal of Gaslight would jettison him. Something similar may be true of the saucy maid Nancy (Cathleen Cordell in 1940, Oscar-nominated Angela Lansbury in 1944), who never quite capitalizes on her narrative potential as her mistress's rival in all ways.

Meanwhile, the audience of Gaslight in all three incarnations can hardly doubt the malefic character of Paul Mallen (Anton Walbrook), rechristened Gregory Anton by MGM (and played by Charles Boyer). Having him rendered on film by two such obvious heavies, though, exposes how the script might have profited better from either leaving us certain of his guilt but giving his wife has no reason to guess it, or else by having her writhe in agony over his imagined abuses while we are lured into thinking that she might be making this all up. If the casting of the husband has twice exacerbated a troubling lack of tension in Patrick Hamilton's play, neither version can shake the corresponding sense that Gaslight is unsure what to do with the wife when she isn't trembling with fear or with self-recriminations. Not always, but too often, she registers less as a character than as a pure vessel of fright-production. This analogy becomes literal in the 1940 version, when Dickinson visually superimposes an upside-down reflection of Bella Mallen (Diana Wynyard) on the glassed-off surface of a music box she has cranked up to maximum volume, in a desperate attempt to drown out the crazy-making bumps and scrapes that she hears coming from the attic. It is she, not the music box, who swiftly and mechanistically emits the loudest sound, as Wynyard shrieks in overwhelming terror and falls down on her bed—an Acoustic Mirror moment, if ever there was one.

Having rehearsed these defecits, however, which only appear more glaring the more trips you take to Angel Street, aka Pimlico Square, aka Gaslight, the popular wisdom that the 1940 version bests its successor holds up in all four of these character-oriented respects. Making the savviest person on the scene not a privileged outsider but a working-class local betrays a welcome understanding of who is likely to know what about neighborhood goings-on. Rough's social invisibility becomes a rich promontory for lucid observation, and he is therefore best prepared to see right through Paul Mallen's mirage. Nancy, meanwhile, benefits from a script that admits more licentious overtures than the Hollywood version: "You are inexperienced, aren't you?" her employer asks, to which Nancy replies, "Depends on how you mean, Sir." In her zeal for social advance—the dark, serving-class obverse of Rough's sharp eye for social power—Nancy thinks she is acquiring a hold over Paul by acting as his co-conspirator, rather than the other way around. "You're mine now, aren't you?" she asks of her suddenly responsive master, failing to appreciate how reversed the scenario actually is.

Indeed, if Walbrook is a bit too obviously the taloned and circling osprey, he presents a more specific form of misogyny than Charles Boyer would, four years later. Just the sequence where Paul takes Nancy to a can-can performance at a nearby music-hall—abandoning his wife to her desperate solitude, but also nursing a new contempt for Nancy, precisely because she's so available to him—Walbrook lays out the conversion process by which attraction turns into chauvinist loathing. Gaslight, like Dragon Tattoo, could have born up under the title Men Who Hate Women; even Rough's first gesture in coming to Paula's aid is to literally and deliberately trip her up, and then to approach her under false pretenses. This is not at all the same thing as what her husband does or feels, but it conveys a flavorful suggestion that all men, even the "nice" ones, think that women need to be tricked, even when it's allegedly for their own good. It's perhaps an ungainly aspect of both Gaslight and Dragon Tattoo that having popped the cork on both vicious and mundane strains of sexism, they keep amassing decoys and overlays to carry so much of the load for that perfectly autonomous theme. To cite the most obvious McGuffin in Gaslight, Paul might well covet the rubies he's been hunting for every night, but his craving for jewels surely pales in comparison to his acrid stew of erotic possessiveness. This feels especially true in Walbrook's take on the character, which is all the more reason that the priceless stones should become less important to Gaslight as it reaches its finale, rather than more so, as Dickinson awkwardly allows.

This leaves the Bella/Paula character in the two Gaslights, and how do you solve a problem like her? Diana Wynyard takes a wholly different approach from Ingrid Bergman's subsequent and more famous reading. These strike me as two wobbly executions of solid yet nearly opposed ideas, suiting their directors but sitting uneasily on these performers. Bergman plays Paula as an advanced hysteric, prone to tearful and impassioned crises of confidence. With her character re-cast as an opera singer—thus presaging the final sequence, a coloratura aria of fury and revenge—Bergman plays all her emotions at top volume, even embarrassment and uncertainty. Given how relatively new she was to the screen, and to acting in English especially, the emotionalism of her Paula exposes some very ragged edges in her close-range technique, though the peaks in her performance offer tasty recompense.

Wynyard, by contrast, uses her highly acclaimed, stage-trained technique to render Bella as a more recessive site of ruin: a pale zombie, undermined by her husband for long enough that she isn't infuriated so much as eviscerated. She looks like Judith Anderson, if Miss Danvers had been nourished to adulthood entirely on skim milk, rather than her apparent diet of rat poison and Rebecca's perfume. When supernumerary characters whisper that Wynyard's Bella is "queer" and that "she's odd in her mind, she does strange things," you understand how sincerely they must mean this. The disadvantage is that Wynyard renders Bella's fragility and her stifling insecurities in such a way that she seems, paradoxically, both stagy and undemonstrative. The actress doesn't seem able to just "be" in front of a camera, which makes sense for her background and her era, but this results in a slightly energetic performance of a wife who is meant to feel sapped of energy. Whether Bella's blankness is internally cultivated as a Victorian ideal or externally coerced by her particular partner, Wynyard's own affect reads alternately as imprecise and overdone, and a bit old-fashioned on both counts. Compare how fully Bergman nails her scene of Paula acting like a sleepwalker or a marionette as she slowly, unblinkingly pulls a painting out from a concealed location she shouldn't know anything about. Her intensity, cast in arresting friction with this sense of operating soporifically under some alien agency, makes for a very disquieting moment. Wynyard brings a similar conception to the same scene, but the effect just comes across as meek and rather vague. Her later speech to her older maid, Elizabeth, about a girl she once knew who got sent to a mental asylum, feels wide-eyed and stately, more like Victorian theater than like a performance built for a camera.

What's helpful about Wynyard's performance, though, is that she roots her whole characterization of Bella within a basic stuntedness, a divorcement from her own body, which seems to exceed and maybe even to pre-exist Gregory's influence. Bergman's fifth-act eruptions offer very satisfying dramatic blowback, but Wynyard, despite the staging of the absolute final shot, more bravely undermines our convenient assumption that Bella would stand capably on her own two feet if only her maniacal husband would quit antagonizing her. From her increasing resemblance to sad, committed Lil Dagover in Caligari to the malfunctioning way she sputters out a chain of vain, slurry protests when Rough starts poking into her affairs ("Getawayleavethishouse" she says, panicked and undone, as one low-volume word), Wynyard may not be the subtlest or most satisfying relay-point for audience investment, but she's laudable, at least, in the way she wants Gaslight to have higher and broader stakes than one couple-bound melodrama of somewhat overheated proportions. She gets this point across better through her eerie quiet, even when that quiet feels stilted or statuesque, than she would by enflaming the screen, Bergman-style.

Even if its heroine isn't perfectly tailored to the camera, Dickinson's Gaslight has sharper visuals than Cukor's, although the later version does a very capable job of marshaling MGM's rep for opulent production design toward encasing Paula in a gleaming, crowded vitrine of dangerously fragile objects. The U.K. Gaslight captures some sense of that icy visual elegance, but it's always more exciting when Dickinson, editor Sidney Cole, and photographer Bernard Knowles (a Hitchcock vet from Sabotage and The 39 Steps) shake or crack the glass walls of Bella's cage. Unnerving shots like the close-up on a knifeblade slid between two doors to undo a lock reprise, to queasy effect, Knowles's obvious contributions to the so-called "Hitchcockian" style. Gaslight encompasses even more breath-catching moments when its sinister tranquility is suddenly violated—as when a character hurls a chair across a room with startling muscularity, and casually obliterates a shelf-full of valued bric-a-brac in the process. The opening murder, set many years before the main action of Gaslight, is so creepily and confidently filmed, including the final, unnerving pan over a carnivorously ransacked parlor, that Gaslight doesn't even require dialogue for what feels like eight or ten minutes. Some shots, granted, are more awkward than others, like a flat and weirdly weighted two-shot in which Bella and Paul get stuck in a quarrel with her at the bottom of a staircase and him a few steps up. At the same time, visual devices that should look awkward or overemphatic, like the Dutch angles that intrude into Paul and Bella's final encounter, amplify some of the interesting questions about just how confident we can allow ourselves to feel about her general wherewithal.

Stylistically, in performance, by comparison to other versions, and in relation to a premise that both giveth and taketh away, Gaslight is a film full of such trade-offs. For every awkward sequence that involves taking a horde of kids for a snacking spree in a baker's shop, with blunt overtones of maternal longing, there is a high-tension triumph like the long scene at a concert recital, where Paul undermines his wife with some of his cruelest strategies, playing her craving for self-confidence against her desire for social decorum. (The quick cuts to the exasperated pianist are great accents, and further evidence of chromosomal overlap with Hitchcock.) Maybe Dickinson ought to have considered holding some shots of domestic suspense for a longer period, trapping his characters under the stalwart eye of the camera rather than cutting so often to heightened close-ups. Conversely, I like the way the overall lighting sometimes tilts into fuzzy-edged over-exposure—the opposite of Cukor's slicing visual clarity—such that Bella sometimes wafts through a vaguely cloudy existence, even when her husband isn't at her, and when we thus expect to feel appeased with regard to her mental faculties. Certainly the fact that Dickinson's film runs a mere 84 minutes, a full half-hour shorter than Cukor's , reveals that concision is a friend to this piece, particularly since its irresistible narrative hook (a man systematically tricks his wife into thinking herself insane) is a sturdier platform for sharp, finessed maneuvers of style than as the seed for a bulbous story that, in every iteration, strays too far from that gold-plated proposition.

The IMDb lists four subsequent remakes of Gaslight even after the Oscar-winning version—whose presentation on Warner Bros.' R1 DVD includes, incidentally, the entire Dickinson-Wynyard-Walbrook version as one hell of a special feature. I am sure another creative team will take a further crack at this story before too long, despite my sense that repeated trips keep resulting in vaguely diminished returns. If they cast it today, it'd be a cinch to star Nicole Kidman, Christoph Waltz, and probably Andrea Riseborough as the maid, and it would run 130 minutes, bloated by needless dawdles over period sets and concert-hall finery. We'd get a lot more cross-cutting between the man in the attic (for once!) and the madwoman in the bedroom, scrupulously clocked by the actors' respective agents, wielding their respective stopwatches. Someone will get the idea that Bella/Paula ought to be more "feminist" and figure out the root of her plight on her own. I'm pitching that rewrite in this review as a step in the right direction, though as executed, it may feel like yet another way to pull in a wrong direction a piece that should be so easy to do right. You can drive yourself crazy, trying to mentally correct whichever Gaslight you're watching, or trying to orchestrate the hypothetical version that would sail smoothly past all of the text's barely-concealed shoals. Best, then, to appreciate what's already very strong in Dickinson's version and to invest in the maddest notion of all: that Hollywood, if ever snagged by the impulse to remake Gaslight yet again, will opt instead for originality (!), solving this movie's vestigial problems by starting somewhere closer to scratch. Grade: B

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