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Gaslight

Review by: 
Black Gloves
Release Date: 
1940
Studio: 
BFI
Genre: 
Thriller
Format: 
Dual Format BD/DVD
Region: 
0 NTSC
Aspect Ratio: 
1.33:1
Directed by: 
Thorold Dickenson
Cast: 
Anton Walbrook
Diana Wynyard
Frank Pettingell
Cathleen Cordell
Robert Newton
Movie: 
5
Extras: 
3
Bottom Line: 
4
Video: 
Click to Play
When in 1944 MGM released their lavish adaptation of Patrick Hamilton’s hugely successful 1938 period drama originally written for the stage “Gas Light” (performed under the title “Angel Street” on Broadway, where the lead role was taken by one Vincent Price), they were effectively offering the world a pimped up remake of a much smaller British-made picture with the same title from 1940, which had been ably directed in its day for British National Films by Thorold Dickenson: a former editor at Ealing Studios, who also became a union activist for the Association of Cine Technicians, and whose left wing leanings subsequently often hampered his ability to find work in the post-war period. Its availability was supressed in the United States for many years after the 1944 film came out, with MGM even going so far as to attempt to destroy the source negative, along with all the prints, in order to ensure it would not pose any retrospective competition to their own glossy remount. Fortunately, Dickenson and his editor Sidney Cole managed to save one of the prints of the 1940 original, and this deliciously ripe, Victorian pastiche mystery/murder melodrama, which adheres much more closely to the Hamilton play than its Hollywoodized successor (a film essentially made as a star vehicle for Ingrid Bergman and Joseph Cotton, although fluidly enough directed by George Cukor), now stands as a fine example of home-grown British melodrama at its most polished, amply filling the Hitchcock-shaped hole left by David O Selznick’s recent poaching and honed to period perfection by some of the key names then still working in the British Film Industry of the 1930s & early‘40s. It includes some fine editing by Cole, the Ealing Studios genius who later became a respected producer himself and was a leading figure in British television of the 1950s and ‘60s’ when he oversaw the making of ITC series such as “Robin of Sherwood” and “Danger Man”; and marvellous cinematography by Bernard Knowles, Hitchcock’s go-to man for a large part of the 1930s, and whose work graces “The 39 Steps”, “Young and Innocent” and “Jamaica Inn”.
 
Their skills are nicely demonstrated during the very first moments of the film, when a confident opening sequence establishes immediately the splendidly murky, Sherlockian atmosphere of London Victoriana circa the early eighteen-eighties in which Hamilton originally set his drama, neatly recapturing the London Gothic of Hitchcock’s “The Lodger, with diaphanous fogs circulating through the shadows of a night-time residential street scene. A fast-paced tracking shot ferries us quickly across a row of elegantly poised, white stucco porticoed façades lining a railinged off public park in the centre, and we are transported at once past Thomas Cubitt design-style colonnades and  into the upper rooms of the interior of a certain number 12 Pimlico Square: a typical, well-to-do mews residence (the elaborate set was based on the family home of novelist Bridget Boland, one of the play’s co-adaptors) and knick knack-cluttered home to an unsuspecting, frilly-bonneted mid Victorian-looking Granny (Marie Wright) with whom our acquaintance is to be rudely truncated, before it’s even properly established, at the unsparing hands of a neatly manicured garrotter -- who promptly throttles the poor spinster to death at her embroidery, felling her mid-stitch!
 
Next, a series of showy diagonal screen wipes form a rapid-fire montage that exhibits the cosy order of a Victorian domestic idyll being gleefully violated, as the murderer diligently sets about completely ransacking the room and the rest of the house -- tearing out furnishings, scattering the contents of drawers, slitting the stuffing from cushions and upending desks and cabinets – a sequence that culminates with a slow pan across the resulting wreckage, with the elderly crumpled body of its former resident stilled forever at its  centre. Rolling hot off the press, news-sheets tell of foul murder and theft – the missing rubies of the victim, named as Alice Barlow, revealing the rapacious motive behind this luridly described slaying. Then … a passage of time implied by the shunned, street soot-besmirched frontage of a once immaculate residence now turned empty murder house. But eventually we discern that workmen have the place under repair again -- freshly furnished and readying itself to welcome new owners as the discoloured FOR SALE sign is taken down …
 
The work of the author and playwright Patrick Hamilton in the main resounds with vividly drawn semi-autobiographical Dickensian portraits of a defeated lower class life spent wasting away in the pub-haunted districts of an urban London dredged up from between the wars; but cynical, resolutely amoral male figures such as the murderous protagonists of his Hitchcock adapted 1929 play “Rope” or the suave conman and woman killer Ernest Ralph Gorse (the central character of the author’s Gorse Trilogy of novels, later played by Nigel Havers in the TV series “The Charmer”) were also a constant of the writer’s fictional world – often drawn from real-life cases of vulpine criminality practiced amid the rigidly class-based cloisters of 1920s and ‘30s metropolitan bourgeois English society. The prissily urbane suspect operating at the heart of the “Gaslight” narrative is another of these sly, upwardly mobile sociopaths -- acutely aware of the foibles of gender and class which have afforded him the privilege of moving freely amongst the great and the good, thanks to a social standing only acquired at all with the aid of his neurotic wife’s wealth. This privilege is to be dextrously wielded by him as a weapon -- all the better to lie, manipulate, dominate and deceive his way towards his ultimate goal of undermining her very sanity.
 
 The 1940 British film delights in the gothic textures brought along by an associative imagery that allows it to forge links between the play’s depiction of middle-class maleficence and the plot’s polite Victorian trappings. This milieu as a setting facilitated the original stage play’s function as a Bloomsbury Group-style critique of the Victorian epoch’s supposed social and moral pretensions, exposing them as the deceptive hypocrisies of privilege which led inexorably to the slaughter of the First World War. In this case, its codes, manners and conceptions of good taste and breeding allow a so-called perfect gentleman of the age to be assisted by the conventions of genteel society in a cruel plot to drive his fragile wife insane. The term for this -- ‘gaslighting’ -- has even subsequently passed into parlance as a result of both the play and its two screen adaptations, and refers to a psychological method of torture in which an abuser contrives to make his victim doubt the veracity of their own senses and perceptions. But Thorold Dickenson’s screen version of “Gaslight” also highlights how Hamilton’s portrait of male evil appropriates and thrives on the conventions of popular nineteenth century ‘sensation fiction’ (that being the pejorative term of choice used by conservative commentators of the period with which to damn these popular works); the film’s foggy miasmas, shadowed street corners and the dark and mysteriously derelict upper rooms of the Mallen couple’s mews home make for a perfect Gothic-tinged mise-en-scène in which to cloak the criminal goings on that lurk behind the appearance of class respectability insistently maintained by the story’s central wrong-doer -- suggesting dark secrets, repressions and hysterias percolating below a perfectly maintained outer surface of social conformity.
 
Much like the key works written by the genre’s best known literary practitioners -- Willkie Collins, Mary Elizabeth Braddon and Ellen Wood -- the film’s  plot is constructed around a lurid cache of tropes developed from the familiar concerns of the sensation genre: hidden identities, missing/stolen rubies, violent murder and the taint of bigamy are the ingredients in this torrid concoction  … but overarching all other themes is the portrait the work paints of a middle-class home being turned slowly into a gilded prison, the ever present possibility of the asylum waiting in the background to enforce ultimate patriarchal control over female identity. This is a scenario that the Victorian sensation writers were successful in displacing from its gothic, Raddcliffian roots in the Bluebeard-inspired romances of far off Italian castles -- where mad foreign aristocrats imprisoned helpless heroines in haunted dungeons -- and brought back home to be contained within the much more culturally acceptable parameters of the familiar and everyday Victorian domicile. The same kind of material one could expect to find inside the suspense-stuffed pages of a copy of “The Moonstone”, or “Lady Audley’s Secret” or “East Lynn”, also makes up the content of Hamilton’s arraignment of a former age’s suffocating social hypocrites, helping to determine contemporary notions about what the Victorian era supposedly stood for which have had much influence ever since. And yet, surely it’s ironic that Hamilton's chosen material was so totally immersed in the period’s most popular commercial fiction, where the cornerstones of Victorian rectitude – the marriage and the family home – were routinely questioned and exposed to similarly subversive scrutiny during an era when reforms in divorce laws were making the place and role of women in society a subject that germinated increasing paranoia in the middle class audiences who consumed such material.
 
This first screen version of the play benefits enormously from its well-chosen cast, headed by the enigmatic Vienna-born but London based actor Anton Walbrook, who plays the sinister husband, Paul Mallen. Later in the Forties this handsome, debonair performer (who studied under his revered countryman, the famous actor-director of stage and screen Max Reinhardt) would grace some of the very best works of the producer-director partnership Powell and Pressburger, playing their dashing German officer Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff in “The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp” in 1943, and the jealously obsessive ballet impresario Lermontov in “The Red Shoes” in 1948. There would be a further collaboration with Thorold Dickenson towards the end of the decade, in the once-neglected English Gothic gem (based on a short story by Alexander Pushkin) “The Queen of Spades” (1949), in which he starred opposite Edith Evans. This, like “Gaslight”, was also to be a film for which Dickenson was brought in as the director at very short notice, during the latter stages of its preparation and at the request of its leading man. In the original play version, known under the two  word title "Gas Light”, this English gent with the odd accent and a suspiciously continental-sounding surname, had indeed been created and intended -- for all his murderous dastardliness – as an authentic Englishman who went by the name of Jack Manningham. But the decision to cast Walbrook immediately plugs the film into thematic associations that were absent from the play but shared by Victorian works of Gothic such as Bram Stoker's "Dracula", portraying a foreign invader subverting society’s civilised conventions from the inside. This was also a theme that could be found in some of the novels of the sensation writers of the 1860s (the villainous Italian Count Fosco in Collins’ “The Woman in White” being probably the best known example), but it alienated Hamilton from the production, and he refused to have anything to do with the film on that account.
 
Walbrook does a fine job, though, given this change in emphasis -- and there is never any doubt in the viewer’s mind of Mallen’s clandestinely nefarious intentions from the moment he first appears on screen, despite his fortunate possession of the good looks of a young Prince Albert. These looks allow him to stand out from the crowd while also blending perfectly in amongst the top hats and starched collars of the passing pedestrians, and the array of well-to-do passengers shown dismounting a colourful packed Omnibus in the crowded street scene that establishes the impeccably respectable class credentials of the area the Mallens are about to make their home, as they alight the horse-drawn cab bringing them to the front step of 12 Pimlico Square in their introductory scene. Walbrook exudes icy class superiority and a fussy, pernickety sort of vanity here -- with his sweptback grey-streaked hair and his slight, neatly groomed moustache; his wife’s dainty King Charles Spaniel is tucked absurdly under one arm of his expensive astrakhan-lined overcoat, and his bowler is perched at a slightly rakish sort of an angle, as if some time had been spent by him beforehand arranging it to sit just so atop his immaculately slicked bouffant.
 
His new wife, the fragile Bella Mallen, is played by Diana Wynyard. In 1933, she’d been the first British born actress to be nominated for an Academy Award after her role in the acclaimed Fox Film Corporation adaptation of Noel Coward’s “Cavalcade”. Her time in Hollywood was relatively brief, though, and she soon returned to Britain, where most of the rest of her career was devoted to the stage. Her role as the delicate showpiece wife Bella in “Gaslight” remains the part for which she is best known. Bella becomes the victim of sustained psychological and mental bullying on the part of a husband who sets out to make her think she’s going insane and has been stealing, moving and hiding household items without memory of having done so -- thus upsetting the composed balance of this meticulously maintained domicile, and revealing incipient madness as a result. Paul isolates the vulnerable woman and cuts her off completely from her family by intercepting any correspondence arriving at the house from her concerned cousin (Robert Newton); he controls her movements and decides who she’s allowed to talk to; and he deliberately engineers embarrassing social situations to try to make her break down and thus make her look unbalanced in public. At one point he accuses her of stealing his pocket-watch in the middle of a hushed piano recital at a high-class soiree; later he forces the servants of the house to swear on the Bible, in front of their mortified mistress, that they’ve not taken a valuable cameo broach (which he has in fact purloined himself) from Bella’s jewellery box. Bella’s brittle sense of self-worth is compromised even more by her constant dread of the shame of being humiliated in public like this – and of the rest of the world discovering what her husband has made her believe about herself: ‘your mind is diseased,’ he chides her at one point; ‘you’re as witless as an animal!’
 
The maintenance of civilised standards of appearance and the observation of rituals of social decorum are crucial to Bella in her attempt to live up to the idealised image of the Victorian wife laid before her in this world of bourgeois niceties, but even in the privacy of her own home she’s made to feel inadequate, constantly suffering under the silently disapproving gaze of her two house servants, one of whom – Nancy, played by Cathleen Cordell -- nurses an inherent antipathy towards her mistress because of her own sexual attraction to Paul, whom she pursues with relish while Paul puts on an act of playing up to the part of the sensitive, cultured, wronged husband -- a refined gentleman who gives psalm readings from the Bible before daily prayers at the dinner table, but who eventually succumbs to the working-class maid’s sexual overtures … when in reality he’s in full control of these events. Such methods of psychological deception may seem somewhat crude or rather easily seen through, but, even though this campaign of psychological terror is later rationalised in the film as having been entirely prompted by Bella’s accidental discovery of a crucial piece of evidence that could’ve potentially incriminated Paul if it had gotten into the wrong hands, it’s also made abundantly clear to the viewer that she was suffering from a somewhat fragile sense of self-esteem and a precarious mental wellbeing even before the marriage, and that Paul had most likely simply battened on to her for that very reason, after seeing in her someone who could be easily manipulated. A sense that all the social classes of British Victorian society at large are crammed together into the same public and private spaces, yet live entirely separate lives, comes across both in the living arrangements inside number 12 Pimlico Square and in the production design for the studio recreation of the bustling streets outside its doors: Ladies in walking dresses with parasols exercise their dogs in the neatly ordered park while excluded street urchins cram their noses up against its iron railings,  barred from entering a recreational area reserved for the games of the children of the middle-classes. The gradual erosion of Bella’s identity is accentuated by a constantly re-enforced notion that despite her inheritance she is an impostor in such surroundings, which are demarcated for her by the fraudulently put on airs of her husband (who is in any case later revealed as a bigamist).
 
Yet Paul Mallen’s villainy (indeed his foreignness) is glaringly spot lit by his own willingness to secretly disregard these same social divisions prescribing the rigid order of English society, even while affecting an exaggerated respect for them as a means of controlling his wife’s actions and behaviour: he himself leads a Jekyll and Hyde existence, one moment attending swanky high society gatherings to which Bella struggles to adapt in the frigid atmosphere of cultivated elegance they foster, the next taking Nancy out on the town to lowbrow dive music halls where the French Can-Can is the erotically charged main attraction. The one man who is able eventually to see through Paul Mallen’s carefully crafted disguise of urbane sophistication is also the one man whose former job as a detective (as well as his current role as a groom in one of the stables that routinely abutted large urban mews houses during the Victorian age) enables him to move with relative impunity as an observer amongst the varied strata making up society. Frank Pettingell’s role in the story as investigator E.G. Rough is akin to those of Inspector Bucket in “Bleak House” or Sergeant Cuff in “The Moonstone”, but Rough has a Lieutenant Columbo-like talent for intuitively seeing the truth and seizing on the correct suspect – a quality which has its roots in the characterisation of detective Porfiry in Dostoyevsky’s “Crime and Punishment”. In this case Rough tags Mallen as someone whose face he recognises from his past in the Metropolitan Police as soon as the suspect arrives in Pimlico Square, and, for the rest of the film, he quietly observes the malefactor’s actions with a knowing gaze before launching his own private investigation with the help of his stables apprentice Cobb (Jimmy Hanley), whose also the knowingly cheated-upon boyfriend (‘I’m not the only pebble on the beach!’) of the Mallens’ devious maid, Nancy.
 
Rough is a mischievous character; his investigation is an impertinence that implicitly cocks a snook at social convention and the many crimes it conceals by default, while ultimately reasserting its standards. But one of the most interesting things about the story is how it shows Rough’s quest to bring Mallen to justice becoming just as dependent on his ability to manipulate the gullible Bella as was Mallen’s scheming, for his investigation challenges her sanity for real by forcing her to relinquish the illusions on which her entire world has previously been built. The difference is that while Mallen uses cruelty and psychological torment to control his wife, Rough uses charm and humour to wheedle his way into her confidence, initially engineering a meeting between them in the park and gradually getting her to see that her confinement and isolation, the strange dimming of the gaslight in her bedroom in the evenings,  the odd noises that accompany this phenomenon and that appear to come from the sealed off rooms directly above her bedchamber -- that all of this has a thoroughly rational explanation that has nothing to do with her being insane. One of the major ironies of the whole film is that, in the act of finally admitting the truth of her husband’s crazed greed, his bigamy and the concealed sociopathic tendencies that have governed his actions towards her, her mind arguably does at last finally become unbalanced for real.
 
Richard Addinsell’s rousing score for the movie is the final ingredient in an intelligently crafted period thriller where every element comes together in aid of the commanding performance given by Walbrook at the heart of it. The climactic scene between Walbrook and Wynyard  is a tour de force of repressed derangement which is facilitated by one of the most elegantly crafted instances of plot irony ever cooked up for the screen. The digital restoration of “Gaslight” was authored from a fine grain positive held at the BFI National Archive, and the resultant HD transfer used for this dual format edition is superb, with a nice level of detail, accurate preservation of film grain and pleasing black and grey levels throughout. The disc extras further explore the screen collaborations between director Thorold Dickenson and his editor Sidney Cole. Their work began with two 20 minute documentary film shorts, both included here, shot simultaneously for the Progressive Film Unit in Republican Spain during the Spanish Civil War: “Spanish A B C” -- about child and adult education programmes newly put in place by the Republican Government; and “Behind Spanish Lines” -- which documents conditions for civilians living under bombardment from fascist forces in 1938. Conceived as propaganda films which aimed to counter pro Franco reports then dominating public perception in the UK, these are fascinating documents made under extreme life-risking circumstances, with shells dropping on many of the sites Cole and Dickenson set out to capture on film while they worked.
 
In the early years of the war in 1940 the duo were employed by the Ministry of Information where they produced a nine minute Government sponsored piece whose purpose was to reassure parents of the necessity of the evacuation of children from the major cities during a time when this was not, in fact, a particularly popular policy. “Westward Ho!” portrays the mass mobilisation as an exciting adventure, tracking the journey of one group of children as they set out from Woolwich for the seaside haven of Torquay. This film was edited by Sidney Cole while Dickenson drafted the narration. Dickenson was also responsible for the story outline used for the MOI produced seven minute wartime propaganda short “Miss Grant Goes to the Door” (1940), which was directed by Brian Desmond Hurst. This was a complete narrative short film with dialogue by “The Queen of Spades” screenwriter Rodney Acland. A precursor to Dickenson’s own “The Next of Kin” (1942) and Alberto Cavalcanti’s “Went the Day Well” (1942), the narrative deals with the threat posed by a mainland invasion of the British Isles by Nazi spies and the fifth column. The plot features two middle-aged female friends who appear to live together in a leafy country cottage (the titular Miss Grant is still in her exotic dressing gown at the commencement of the film, while her well-spoken ‘friend’ is resplendent in tweed) and team up to counter the threat posed to Queen and Country by vigilantly unmasking a German paratrooper, who pretends to be a passer-by but who in fact gives his true identity away by mispronouncing a local place name in the way a German might.
 
Finally, the charming nine minute short “Yesterday is Over Your Shoulder” is another MOI backed film from 1940, intended to encourage the office working middle classes to retrain for re-employment in munitions factories where skilled manual work was urgently required. It portrays a bespectacled clerk called Mr Anyman, who works for a firm called ‘Toogood, Goodenough and Notsohot’ deciding to put himself through a Government instigated engineering course  in order to aid the war effort. Combining documentary footage with Ealing-like comedy narrative, Mr Anyman’s wilful downward mobility, swapping his suit and a bowler hat for a pair of overalls, is portrayed as noble and dignified. His wife’s reservations concerning what their neighbours might think of such a situation are dismissed at the end with a curt ‘bugger the neighbours. I’m a British worker now!’ and Mr Anygood is given a pat on the back by a cameo-ing Ernest Bevin! Dickenson later noted that he became the first person to introduce the world ‘bugger’ into the vocabulary of the British cinema, and that despite this the film was given a U certificate!
 
Both Blu-ray and DVD copies are largely the same but the DVD disc also features PDF promotional materials for “Gaslight” which can be accessed from a computer, and the 2-disc package comes with an excellent booklet of essays and profile pieces from writers Henry K Miller, Iain Sinclair, Peter Swaab, Philip Horne and Michael Brooke. “Gaslight” is an excellent piece of melodrama that perfectly captures the early Twentieth Century’s iconoclastic re-evaluation of the Victorian age while delighting in its Gothic trappings, providing in the process a showcase for one of Anton Walbrook’s finest screen performances. A must-buy release.
 
Read more from Black Gloves at his blog, Nothing but the Night! 
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