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