*. 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.