Gaslight (1940)

*. I’d never had much interest in Gaslight, either this film or the better known 1944 version, until I started hearing so many references to “gaslighting” as a way of characterizing the messaging of the Trump administration. Before Trump I don’t think I’d ever even heard the word used before, at least that I can remember. Since Trump it has become common parlance. So I decided to go back to the source.
*. The original source is a 1938 play by the British playwright Patrick Hamilton titled Gas Light (two words), which premiered on Broadway as Angel Street in 1941 (with Vincent Price playing the wicked husband). This film is closer to the play than MGM’s 1944 production, but it almost disappeared because when MGM bought the rights they wanted all of the prints and even the negative destroyed. This is something studios did, back in the day.
*. Cinephiles like to debate the respective merits of the two films. I’ll say up front that I prefer this version. For starters, it’s 30 minutes shorter. I don’t think less is always better, but the 1944 film feels awkwardly padded while this one is much tighter and has some real snap to it. Just look at that opening scene as the thief tosses the house: the frantic cuts, wipes, and dissolves, the odd angles and shadow play, the violent stabbing of the furniture and rifling of drawers, all to a score vibrating with tense strings. There’s nothing like that in the MGM production. Hell, Boyer even wears gloves when he tears the attic apart. The jewel thief here has no time for gloves.
*. Then there is the cast. In 1944 MGM managed to get a bunch of stars in alignment (and it wasn’t easy), but I prefer Anton Walbrook to Charles Boyer. Walbrook is a more believable and altogether nastier piece of work. His creepy voice has an unnerving way of making his lines sound a bit like perverted baby-talk. And while it will be accounted heresy by some, I think Diana Wynyard is more convincing in the role of the bride coming unglued than the always composed Ingrid Bergman. Wynyard has the haunted, neurotic look of Véra Clouzot in Les Diaboliques, or Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby. Finally, the amateur sleuth/hostler Frank Pettingell is a lot more fun than Joseph Cotten (“Saucy shirt, isn’t it?”), and Cathleen Cordell is a more erotic housemaid than Angela Lansbury, without having to try so hard. There’s some real heat generated between her and her louche master.
*. Apparently it’s a play that’s long been popular on stage, even up to the present day, but does the story make any sense? Could Paul have come up with a more complicated plan as subterfuge for continuing his search for the rubies? What good does it do to drive his wife insane? In later examples of “gaslighting” like Hush . . . Hush, Sweet Charlotte and the Hammer psychothriller Nightmare (both 1964) there was a practical point to what the villains were doing. Here, not so much.
*. Thorold Dickinson doesn’t take a back seat to George Cukor in the directing department either. There’s nothing in the later version that matches the pan here that follows the discovery of the jewels. In a single shot we see the triggering of Paul’s own madness, culminating in his tossing the chair.
*. Well, if you’re curious about the origin of the expression “gaslight,” or if you just want to enjoy an atmospheric thriller from the golden age then I would recommend this film ahead of Cukor’s. If you just want to do some star-watching though, fast forward to 1944.

7 thoughts on “Gaslight (1940)

  1. Tom Moody

    “Gaslighting” is a much-used term in the US political blogosphere, increasingly coming to prominence in the Bush years. Bryan Welch’s book State of Confusion (2008) has a chapter titled “Gaslighting,” regarding Bush, Rove, Lee Atwater, et al — for example, the fearmongering by Roger Ailes and Atwater over furloughed murderer Willie Horton in the 1988 presidential election. More recently, it seems to have been adopted by the therapy community (see articles with titles such as “12 signs you are being gaslighted by a narcissist”). Obnoxious as he is, Trump shouldn’t get too much credit as the inspiration for this coinage.

    1. Alex Good Post author

      Thanks Tom! I did some digging around and I guess it has been around for a while as a political term. According to Wikipedia Maureen Dowd applied it to Bill Clinton. I found a good discussion of its use here:

      I can only excuse myself by saying that it had pretty much flown under my radar before Trump. I’m not as hip as I used to be (and, to be honest, I was never very hip).

  2. Tom Moody

    It’s not a term you particularly *need* to know or be aware of, when the concept has devolved from “employing elaborate ruses to make a person think he or she is crazy” to merely “scaring people or psych-ing them out.”

  3. Tom Moody

    I watched a streaming version of this and you’re right, it’s better (at least better than I remember the Boyer version being). Walbrook shines as Paul here — such a villain!
    As for the plot making sense, I think it does if you accept that this is the “long con.” Paul needs access to a house he can’t afford, believing it contains treasure. He finds a frail-minded heiress, marries her, uses “their” money to buy the house, and then (the least believable part), stokes her frailty into full-blown insanity, such that he can have her committed to an asylum. If the “con” succeeds, he gains the house, the heiress’ fortune, the pretty servant, and leisure time to search for the treasure.
    Unlike the 1944 version, this one handles the “con” with only a few scant mentions in dialogue of the earlier courtship and first months of the “happy” couple in the house. There is some confusion in this backstory. Bella at one point says their marital troubles began “when we moved to this house”; at another point she says they began “when I discovered that letter.”
    I could imagine a modern, horror version of the tale where the theft and murder at the beginning are omitted and Paul is convincingly charming as he proceeds to work his “con,” with his motivations gradually revealed to the audience.
    It’s interesting that “gaslighting” is now considered a technique employed by narcissists in a relationship, since most spouse abuse is not predicated on the unwinding of an elaborate plot for simple, material gain.

    1. Alex Good Post author

      I think my main problem with Paul’s plot is that it’s so much more elaborate and complicated than it needs to be. So he marries his wife under false pretences and they buy the house he knows the jewels are hidden in. Why doesn’t he just say to her, “Seeing as we bought the place, I’m going to do an inventory of all that junk in the attic. Shouldn’t take me more than a week or so.” She says “Sure! Do you need any help?” And he says “No, I don’t want to bother you, I’ll do it myself.” I mean, that’s not even suspicious.

      I suppose it helps if he can get his wife declared crazy and have her institutionalized later, but is that even necessary? He could just get his hands on her money some other way and then disappear (something I think he’s done before). Instead he comes up with this complicated scheme that just makes everything more difficult. Am I missing something? I think in the other versions of the story, like Nightmare and Hush . . . Hush, Sweet Charlotte the “drive her crazy and get her money” scheme, though far-fetched, made more sense.

  4. Tom Moody

    In favor of the “institutionalizing the wife” scenario, this way he gets to keep the fortune, the house, the respectability, can-can dancers, the rubies, and whatever else he desires, and doesn’t have to keep “lamming.” He clearly likes the world of the salons. Where it breaks down for me is the gamble that his heiress wife won’t suddenly develop a spine and throw him out of the house. His tricks seem too obvious to be believed. I did enjoy the scene with the pianist stopping in mid-performance, in a cringe-y sort of way.

    1. Alex Good Post author

      Good point. I think something David Thomson had to say about this film might be relevant here. Or at least worth quoting because it’s interesting:

      “To see the Dickinson film nowadays is to get the idea that Gaslight would work without the jewelry; in other words, it is just for sport, to pass the time and vent his malice, that the husband is trying to drive his wife mad.”


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