Monthly Archives: June 2015

  • Gaslight (1940)

    Thorold Dickinson (1940)

    This British adaptation of Patrick Hamilton’s play (the screenplay is by A R Rawlinson and Bridget Boland) preceded the better-known Hollywood version by four years.  It’s very different, and not just in the names of the principal characters and because it’s a full half-hour shorter than the later movie.  In George Cukor’s film there are scenes which show Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer as newlyweds, and her as happy with him before their move to London and his campaign to drive her out of her mind.   After a bit of geographical scene-setting, involving minor characters and preparations for the couple’s arrival at 12 Pimlico Square, Thorold Dickinson pitches the audience straight into what’s happening inside the marital home.  While it’s soon clear in the Cukor that Boyer is the villain of the piece, his mania is masked by a velvet suavity.  Anton Walbrook’s Paul Mallen seems too impatient to dissimulate and switches the charm on and off abruptly.  He’s a transparently nasty piece of work; his mittel-European accent confirms his sinisterness, and that Paul Mallen isn’t his real name.  As Bella Mallen, Diana Wynyard has a stunned, neurasthenic quality from the start: she’s very skilful in the role but she’s remote from the viewer.  She also lacks the core of sanity which makes Ingrid Bergman’s predicament in the Cukor film poignant.   (The timbre of Wynyard’s voice is somewhat reminiscent, if that’s the word, of Harriet Walter’s.)  Thorold Dickinson’s decision to expose at an early stage what lies beneath is bold:  it means, in effect, that he jettisons the machinery of mystery which a more conventional approach would hold on to for longer.  The decision fails to the extent that – because the script is fairly conventional – Dickinson gradually has to resort to a more usual telling of a psychological thriller story.    But he succeeds in creating a striking and discomfiting piece of work.

    This Gaslight is visually (and aurally) inventive in ways that I don’t remember the highly accomplished Hollywood version being.  The swooping camera movements and eccentric angles give a resonance to Paul Mallen’s attempts to disorient his wife; the more static camerawork in the Mallens’ drawing room doesn’t merely contrast with this dynamism – it combines with the decor of the room to create a real sense of claustrophobia.  (The DoP was Bernard Knowles.)  Dickinson’s cross-cutting between a visit to the music hall by Mallen and the parlour maid Nancy and what’s going on back at Pimlico Square is suspenseful and imparts a sense of danger – the speed and abandon of the brilliant cancan routine on the stage of the music hall contributes to this.  Anton Walbrook’s uncompromising portrait of Paul Mallen makes for a shift in audience focus which, if you’ve seen the Bergman-Boyer Gaslight anyway, takes you by surprise.   Walbrook is so charismatic that the husband’s personality, rather than the wife’s plight, comes to dominate proceedings.  Walbrook’s scenes with Cathleen Cordell’s Nancy have a peculiarly powerful sexual undertow (he’s very good at expressing desire then withdrawing once Nancy has taken the bait).  Cordell, although she doesn’t compare with Angela Lansbury in the Cukor, is lively and enjoyable.  The cast also includes Frank Pettingell as the ex-detective who sorts things out, Jimmy Hanley as his assistant and Nancy’s would-be beau, Robert Newton, who’s bad (as usual) in the admittedly thankless role of Bella’s cousin.  Katie Johnson (best known as the landlady in The Ladykillers) plays an old retainer, lady’s maid to Bella and to Alice Barlow, the previous tenant of the house – and the murderee whose rubies her killer Louis Bauer (aka Paul Mallen) never found and is still desperate to find.  The early sequence of the murder of this old lady (Marie Wright) and the unseen killer’s frantic search at the scene of the crime is shockingly vivid.

    12 April 2013

  • Gaslight (1944)

    George Cukor (1944)

    George Cukor’s version of the Patrick Hamilton stage play – with a screenplay by John van Druten (with John L Balderston and Walter Reisch) – is highly effective.  We’re in no doubt from an early stage that Gregory Anton is the villain; and that the immediate threat he poses is to his wife Paula’s mental health – he makes her think she’s going mad – rather than her physical survival (although the point comes when we fear for that too).   This makes Gaslight a genuinely psychological suspense story; and the visualisation of the Antons’ London house (the cinematographer was Joseph Ruttenberg) puts the film firmly in Victorian noir territory.   Cukor’s storytelling is very assured but his concentration on the characters – and the performances – gives the plot much more emotional substance than it might otherwise have had.  He draws out the insidious potential and the realistic substrate of Hamilton’s melodrama:  the ability of one half of a relationship to exert authority, then abuse their power, over the other half – to destructive effect.

    Ingrid Bergman is marvellous as Paula: looking breathtakingly young in the first glimpse of her, she convinces you in the early scenes of her courtship with Gregory that she’s physically attracted to him in a way that blinds her to what we in the audience can spot and beware.  Bergman handles superbly the transitions between the young wife’s repeated losses of self-possession and her efforts to regain a semblance of normal life;   her breakdown at a musical soirée, when Gregory makes her think she’s stolen his watch, is perhaps the highlight of highlights.   Charles Boyer, as Gregory, understands – and achieves – the frightening power of not raising your voice;  his tone is so suavely authoritative and the violence inside him, for much of the time, so smoothly suppressed that you can believe that Paula keeps on believing him – and capitulates to his quietly relentless campaign of belittling and disorienting her.    Angela Lansbury, as the housemaid Nancy, has a wonderful, crafty sullenness; when she comes on to Gregory (these two really like the look of each other), she moves closer to him then holds back.  Cukor and Lansbury judge these distances perfectly.

    Joseph Cotten is the police inspector who discovers what’s going on in the house; he’s also – a rather clumsy element of the plotting – a fan from childhood of Paula’s murdered, opera-singer aunt – and so brings personal backstory as well as professional skills to bear on the case.  I don’t mean to be condescending in saying that Cotten is a breath of fresh New World air but his relaxed charm and intelligence are a reassuring contrast to the tensions and sensuality of the various Europeans in the major parts.  Dame May Whitty is in a fairly clichéd role as a nosy neighbour but there’s a palpable avidity in her curiosity, which is very likeable.   An actress I don’t remember having seen before, Heather Thatcher, has a nice cut-glass social professionalism as the hostess of the soirée.   I had no problem with the transatlantic cockney accents of Tom Stevenson (as a policeman who is Nancy’s latest beau) and one or two others in minor parts, because they’re all vividly in character in other respects.   Barbara Everest is the helpfully deaf housekeeper.  All give added zest to what is a richly entertaining film.

    15 January 2009

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