Gaslight (1940, Thorold Dickinson / 1944, George Cukor)

RECOMMENDED [1940 version] / HIGHLY RECOMMENDED [1944 version]

By virtue of its entrance into the popular psychological lexicon alone, George Cukor’s superb Gaslight is now one of the most famous films of the 1940s; thanks to its genesis — from stage play to British film to Hollywood remake — it can also be viewed, like The Maltese Falcon, as a crash course on how a text travels from its origins to a definitive, in this case quite freewheeling, interpretation. Of course, some may disagree with the premise that the MGM picture Gaslight is intrinsically an improvement upon Thorold Dickinson’s scrappier 1940 thriller and in turn on Patrick Hamilton’s play, just as some will understandably claim that John Huston’s Falcon is a sanitized dilution of rougher-edged material, but I don’t believe it can be feasibly argued that the changes Cukor and his three credited screenwriters make to Hamilton’s work do not reflect considerable ingenuity and thoughtfulness, and in the paragraphs to follow I’ll do my best to make my case.

Hamilton was a celebrated novelist most famous for his 1941 book Hangover Square, which became a film noir at Fox four years later, but his largest cinematic legacy comes from two plays he wrote, 1929’s Rope, based on the Leopold and Loeb murder case and eventually destined to become one of Alfred Hitchcock’s most provocative thrillers, and Gas Light, first produced in 1938. The broad conceit in every version of the story, and the source of the popularity of the term “gaslight” as a shorthand for a certain variety of abuse (especially spousal abuse), is that of a husband attempting to drive his wife insane, or at least to convince her that she is, essentially by confusing her, causing events and then denying them, and unleashing a barrage of verbal accusations and belittling remarks. The specific methodology and motivation varies in each version, though a commonality in all of them is the act of making objects disappear and accusing her of having been responsible; and the main criminal act being covered up, rummaging through the floor above the couple’s home for coveted jewelry, which causes mysterious sounds and leads to the lights visibly dimming, which is taken by the wife as the key symbol of her impending madness.

Conveniently for our purposes, the key characters’ names in these three versions vary, with one exception: the character of the wife is named Bella in both the play and the 1940 film. Otherwise, she becomes Paula in 1944; and the three husbands all have different identities, which is only appropriate given how duplicitous they all turn out to be, hiding their histories and secret families — he is Jack in the play, Paul in 1940, Gregory in 1944. On the whole, it’s in the characterizations of these three cruel men that the three versions most significantly differ. Paul is perhaps the nastiest of the lot in his manner, if not in his sinister motives, the most vicious sociopath and coldest abuser; but Gregory is the most fearsome villain, and the most frighteningly easy to view as person who could exist, quite outside the confines of chilly movie-London and these ornate haunted-house sets.

That said, Dickinson’s film is more conventionally “scary” than the American variant, enhanced perhaps by the relative confinement and no-nonsense brevity foisted upon it by the limitations and modesty of the British film industry. It makes resourceful use of cinematographer Bernard Knowles, who shot most of the later thrillers Alfred Hitchcock made in the UK, and does relatively little to “open up” the play, relying on the sense of claustrophobia as one of its main sources of emotional terror. And Dickinson, not much of a “name” apart from this film, is a much wilder and less restrained visual stylist than Cukor, which extends even to the graphically impressive opening titles, and certainly to a wavering, unmoored camera obsessed more with defining the limits of physical space than the relationships of people.

From the first moment, Dickinson pulls no punches, to an extent that probably wouldn’t even be possible four years later at MGM: we open by seeing the strangulation of the elderly Alice Barlow and gazing over the horrific aftermath, strewn with mangled furniture, during a desperate search for the all-important jewelry. Yet the most violent moment of this first film is in one of the arguments between the stoic psychopath and the fallen, suppressed Bella, when during a completely banal exchange about a dog, he yells to the woman he’s deliberately driving out of her mind: “Sometimes I wonder if you even want to be like other people.” In this narrative, his sadism — delivered chillingly well by Anton Walbrook, a dead ringer for an emotionless robot not just appropriating its interpretation of human behavior but mocking it mercilessly — has a tangible root, that long-ago murder he’s trying to hide, and this rationalization (along with the all-knowing detective who uncovers it all) is somewhat disappointing since putting it aside, this is an extremely persuasive portrait of a master manipulator and the abusive home he creates by manipulating everything in his power to persuade Bella that she is losing herself.

The film has a terse and harsh quality about it, not unusual for UK titles of this era (think Ealing Studios), delivering a feeling of creeping terror and tension more than once, but it’s hard not to look at its traditional mystery element as being a bit of a copout, when in moments (also taken from the play) like the night out at a charity concert that ends in tears after Paul makes a scene over a missing watch or the thinly veiled contempt when he says things like “what a very lovely person!”, it’s indicated that it could be a harrowing thriller about a very different kind of violence. You could argue that the use of a somewhat conventional dime-novel plot as impetus for exploring the nature of marital violence is common to every version of the story, and of course that it has a rich history; what else, after all, is du Maurier’s (and Hitchcock’s) Rebecca? But this is specifically what makes Gregory more dangerous than Paul. Both Paul and Jack toy with their wives’ senses of groundedness and sanity as a matter of practicality to cover up their own crimes; they bring their new(est) brides into this creepy old house in the town square in order to see to unfinished business, a botched robbery they never completed — their spouses’ states of mind are purely incidental, and their future purpose to them is still essentially unclear. So the “gaslighting,” so to speak, serves as a relatively simple masking device for these men’s greed. Its purpose in Cukor’s film is more sinister, which makes it a more successful film.

This, perversely, is thanks to what some may consider the MGM Gaslight‘s most significant narrative flaw — that is, its relatively lengthy buildup. The influence of Rebecca is particularly obvious here, with a long and florid and even mildly romantic introduction used as pretense to what’s set to become an eerie, oppressively dark psychological thriller. In his plays, Hamilton favored cutting, streamlined narratives, which MGM — to say the least — did not. The relatively long establishing of mood in the lengthier film’s first half hour is extremely important in how we end up viewing the story that follows. It’s also significant that we only have a vague sense, at the outset, of what has happened at the old house in the first place: we see no murder, no rooting around for valuables, we only see Ingrid Bergman as Paula being tearfully led away, and herein lies one of two major strokes of inspiration on the part of writers John Van Druten, Walter Reisch and John L. Balderston: Paula, unlike Bella, is directly connected with the scene-setting murder that her husband turns out to have committed, which in this case was the killing of her opera-singing aunt, who raised her.

This puts everything in the air, and compensates for any sense in which the jewel-thievery story may distract from the emotional essence: the marriage at the center of the story was always a front for a master manipulator, right down to the coy manner in which Gregory, in the throes of a whirlwind romance, convinces Paula to move back to the old house in London that she inherited after the murder. We will not deny here the Hollywood tendency to bulldoze over stories and source material, and the legendary story of MGM trying to buy up and destroy the negative and all prints of the 1940 film is certainly a solid and infuriating example of same, but what Cukor’s film does is flesh out Hamilton’s idea and make it truly sing; whatever the lavishness of the production and Cukor’s much less showy and wild visual decisionmaking — and his penchant for overstuffed, fussy production design — does to the mood of the film, its performances and script are unquestionably a more sophisticated and complete approach to a brilliant narrative construction.

The other key decision made here by the screenwriters is that we are always in Paula’s place, our identification with her fully secure and powerful. Dickinson’s film left no doubt of what was being done to wife Bella from the beginning; almost without exception, we actually saw things like Paul intentionally misplacing the controversial brooch that was supposed to be in his wife’s purse, or removing and altering things and then denying it, which left no doubt as to his villainy but also distanced us in some ways from the heroine. By being much more intensely in Paula’s seat, by seeing her invariably as the protagonist and allowing some ambiguity about her husband’s moral character, despite this denying us a bit of Hitchcockian suspense (he would call this “confirming a suspicion” in the manner of a whodunit rather than amping up suspense as in a straight thriller, because we’re being given less information), we are made to completely understand Paula’s own fears and self-torture. In a wonderful bit of irony, that violation of Hitchcock’s “rules” gives us something much more like a Hitchcock picture, centering as it does on his oft-favored theme of “the woman alone.” The film is more thoroughly subjective (less stagebound, in other words); less information is explicitly imparted through dialogue, and we often question ourselves as much as Paula — thanks in part to the elaborate, foggy, shadowy sets that make the night scenes genuinely spooky and unnerving. The more languid pace additionally provides more time for the film’s hidden subject matter of a husband’s manipulation and violence to all but take over in some scenes; one wonders how much disturbing familiarity and discomfort these exchanges of dialogue have caused in audience members, many of whom would undoubtedly have found them all too recognizable, over the years.

It is helpful as well that these more complex characterizations receive what are clearly better performances, even though Walbrook was excellent as Paul in Dickinson’s film. Charles Boyer isn’t much slimier than Walbrook — whose abuse, if anything, was more direct and spiteful — but because he’s more handsome and has a good bit of charm, the central relationship is more believable despite the stark age difference baked into the setup. We so fondly remember the French-accented Boyer as the chronic charmer of Love Affair and Cluny Brown and such, and this persona seamlessly takes a turn toward disquieting menace when it is recast as a killer’s methodology for placing others under his control; neatly, this gets much more at the crux of the abuse issue than does Walbrook’s unabashedly snarling and mean-spirited Paul.

As for Ingrid Bergman, she might initially seem to just be doing a fairly pedestrian if highly emotive imitation of Joan Fontaine in Rebecca, but at the climax, when Gregory is tied to a chair and still trying to top from the bottom, she earns her Oscar and delivers a searing moment of revenge that provides catharsis denied Diana Wynard and the audience watching her. This brings the film back into the realm of Hamilton’s play, wherein Bella similarly turns the “insanity” dictum back against her husband. The retired detective of the first film is replaced by Joseph Cotten as an inquisitive Scotland Yard assistant, his character fleshed out considerably (and made to be far less annoying, frankly) even if still strictly utilitarian. Among the unusually distinctive supporting cast, teenage Angela Lansbury is delightful as fun-loving, bratty housemaid Nancy, who provides the perfect bit of comic flavoring while serving as just as much of an alienating force in her own way as Mrs. Danvers. (Watch the way Cukor’s camera focuses squarely on the pain Paula feels as her husband flirts with Nancy in front of her.) May Whitty is initially strong as a nosy neighbor, who Paula initially runs into in a train car, though she ends up being wasted in service of a weak punchline in the final shot, probably the biggest annoyance in the entire film.

Yes, on the whole, weak closing moments and all, the 1940 film is nastier, brasher, more direct. But the subtler, beautified feeling of slowly permeating madness in the remake of Gaslight still works better as a narrative construction and certainly as an emotional experience. The play and 1940 film are prescient and forceful with fascinating elements, but there’s little doubt in my mind that MGM in 1944 is the reason that “gaslighting” is now a popular phrase we all understand, and not in any small way because the film’s leading man employs the technique in so much more destructive and personal a fashion, and all while outwardly appearing to be the most patient and sensitive and well-controlled sort of decent good-hearted soul, so kind to scoop up a troubled young woman and trying so hard to be patient as she works through long-ago traumas. Still, I suggest you see both versions — made nice and easy by Warner’s release of the two together — and find out what specific kind of emotional warfare and mistreatment gives you a more satisfying night at the movies!

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