Just out from the BFI we’ve got the dual-format edition of the movie ‘Gaslight’. This is the British black and white version made in 1940 and not the more commonly known American version by MGM from 1944. There was also a stage play written by Patrick Hamilton in 1938 on which the movies were based and it’s probably true that the British ‘Gaslight’ is a more accurate representation of the original script. Directed by Thorold Dickinson and starring Anton Walbrook and Diana Wynyard, it is a creepy tale of murder and psychological terror all taking place in mist enshrouded Edwardian London. In fact, the term ‘gaslighting’ is now synonymous as a form of mental abuse where the victim is driven to insanity by the deliverance of erroneous information.
The beginning could not be more violent. An old lady, Alice Barlow, is horribly murdered as she sits in her drawing room. We do not see the perpetrator but we see his manic actions as he takes the house apart looking for valuable rubies. We then switch to the future when Paul and Bella Mallen enter the house, happy newlyweds it seems but not for long. She soon begins to misplace smaller items around the house, such as a picture, and Paul gets very angry about her memory problems. At first, we think Bella is at fault but we soon realise that Paul is rather devious and is orchestrating the events in order to make her insane. The worst incident takes place at a social event where he accuses her of stealing his watch, leaving Bella to make a traumatised exit in front of the social elite of the area.
Anton Walbrook is particularly effective at playing the devious husband, Paul. He is psychopathic in nature, totally without feeling for his wife and quite content to play it up with one of the maids. While Bella is resting on her bed upstairs, she notices the flames of the gaslight flicker and then dim accompanied by strange banging noises from upstairs. Little does she know that on these occasions Paul Mallen is rummaging around in the upstairs rooms, now shut off, apparently searching for something. No one is able to help Bella and she sinks further and further into madness, her eyes glazing over as if in a trance. It’s an excellent performance by Diana Wynyard.
Help is at hand, however, in the form of BG Rough, an ex-policeman with an inquisitive nature that will not be put off. He thinks there’s something funny going on in the house. Seeing Bella’s plight, he tries to lend assistance and investigates Paul who he thinks has a dodgy past. He is played by an actor called Frank Pettingell, unfamiliar to many today but viewers of old black and white movies will definitely have seen him many times as he had a long and distinguished acting career. Also of note is the actor Robert Newton, who plays Bella’s cousin. He also had many acting roles over the years, including Long John Silver in a production of ‘Treasure Island’.
Without wishing to say much more, in case there are people out there who do not know the plot, it sufficient to say that there is a very dramatic ending. The most compelling feature about the movie is the atmosphere. Set in London with its industrial fog, it could almost be a Jack the Ripper film except that it takes place in an upper-class Georgian square. It is traditional British acting, quaint in many respects but quite professional in its delivery. There is a very dark side of human nature creeping through to assault the virtuous Bella which is counteracted by commonsense goodness from the side that represents justice. Yes, it is a tale of good versus evil.
This is an absolutely brilliant film to watch during the winter on a rainy night in January. I would say it is better than the American version made in 1944 which, despite sticking to the story, is a bit too glitzy. British is best in this case! Actually, it is said that when the MGM version was being made, people at the studio tried their best to destroy the film stock of the original so that it wouldn’t come into conflict with their own production. If true, that’s almost as bad as the devious Paul Mallen. The BFI has resurrected this movie so that we can enjoy it for some time to come.
There is also quite a lot of extra material on the discs, mainly Spanish Government black and white information films. Ostensibly propaganda, they were made in the 1930s before Franco took over. They show the effects of the bombing campaign assisted by Adolf Hitler’s Germany. Interesting to watch, they do not really fit in with the movie itself and provide a stark contrast. Many will like one or the other but perhaps not both. Maybe the Spanish material should have been released on a separate DVD? Of course, the contrast is that at the time of filming ‘Gaslight’, the events in Spain had just finished and it was London’s turn to be bombed by the Luftwaffe.
All things said, this is a very good package and one to recommend. Once again the BFI has made a good choice and come up with a really professional presentation, one to enjoy and save for the future.
(region 2 DVD: British Film Institute. 1 DVDs 85 minute black and white film plus extras. ISBN: B00E65SHXW. Price: £13.99 (UK))
cast: Anton Walbrook, Diana Wynyard, Frank Pettingell and Robert Newton
check out website: http://filmstore.bfi.org.uk/acatalog/info_27230.html