Gaslight DVD/Blu Ray Review

The British version of Gaslight (1940), directed by Thorold Dickinson (most noted for The Queen of  Spades (1949) and short documentary films included as extras on this BFI release) was very nearly lost.

Due to the executives at MGM wanting Dickinson’s version destroyed upon securing the rights to make their more famous 1944 version. But Dickinson luckily made a ‘secret’ print which was donated to the BFI and digitally remastered by the BFI National Archive for this dual format release.

In comparison with the American version with Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer this British version adapted from the play by Patrick Hamilton, derives its superiority chiefly from the scene-stealing performance by Austrian actor Anton Walbrook as the villainous and psychotic Mr. Mallen (best known nowadays for his part in the Powell and Pressburger films The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) and The Red Shoes (1948)).  Walbrook is a manipulative husband to Diana Wynyard’s vulnerable Bella, who tries to drive her mad and keep her submissive in order to keep his criminal past secret. His casting was also quite controversial due to the fact that, as Henry K. Miller points out in the informative liner notes to this edition, he was playing against type after playing the ‘sainted Albert’ in the nostalgic Victoria the Great (1937) and Sixty Glorious Years (1938) (according to Miller also many of the film crew went on strike as his villainous character reads the bible.)f Spades (1949) andshort documentary films included as extras on this BFI release) was very nearly lost. Due to the executives at MGM wanting Dickinson’s version destroyed upon securing the rights to make their more famous 1944 version. But Dickinson luckily made a ‘secret’ print which was donated to the BFI and digitally remastered by the BFI National Archive for this dual format release.

In comparison with the American version with Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer this British version adapted from the play by Patrick Hamilton, derives its superiority chiefly from the scene-stealing performance by Austrian actor Anton Walbrook as the villainous and psychotic Mr. Mallen (best known nowadays for his part in the Powell and Pressburger films The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) and The Red Shoes (1948)).  Walbrook is a manipulative husband to Diana Wynyard’s vulnerable Bella, who tries to drive her mad and keep her submissive in order to keep his criminal past secret. His casting was also quite controversial due to the fact that, as Henry K. Miller points out in the informative liner notes to this edition, he was playing against type after playing the ‘sainted Albert’ in the nostalgic Victoria the Great (1937) and Sixty Glorious Years (1938) (according to Miller also many of the film crew went on strike as his villainous character reads the bible.)f Spades (1949) andshort documentary films included as extras on this BFI release) was very nearly lost. Due to the executives at MGM wanting Dickinson’s version destroyed upon securing the rights to make their more famous 1944 version. But Dickinson luckily made a ‘secret’ print which was donated to the BFI and digitally remastered by the BFI National Archive for this dual format release.

While Charles Boyer’s criminal is much more softly spoken, charming and genteel, and even tries to explain his criminality at the end. Walbrook as Mr. Paul Mallen is unabashedly cruel and cold, only briefly showing charm to make the tricks he plays on his wife to make her seem mad all the more hurtful. Walbrook spits out words like ‘half-witted creature’ and ‘I depise you’ with a relish that is a tangible. He also has one of the most withering and deadly stares ever captured on film, while the coldness he displays every-time Bella pleads with him after being accused of stealing or losing something he has hid is potent. A case in point is when they are on the carriage home after Bella breaks down at a musical reception, having been deliberately accused of misplacing a brooch which Mallen placed in her bag. We see Bella her face strained with anxiety, clutching at his arm trying desperately to convince Mallen of her innocence, while Walbrook as Mallen sits there rigidly unheeding with a steely stare looking straight ahead. Walbrook thus makes a far more convincing and engaging villain then Boyer, encapsulating the play’s extreme rejection of Victorian nostalgia by amplifying the Victorian male’s dismissive attitude to women as weak and hysterical in all its undiluted ugliness.

Dickinson also does a good job of heightening the tension of the story and propelling the film forward. As Miller points out he was influenced by the European cinema of directors such as Marcel Carné, and his shooting style shows that influence. His camerawork   is sometimes fluid and dream-like like another character (such as the slow pan at the start to the Mallen house), while his extreme close ups of Walbrook’s angered and sweat speckled face at climatic moments towards the end are highly effective and also reminiscent of Hitchcock (the story itself being rather Hitchcockian in its darkness). Certain shots also stick in the memory such as a shot showing the reflection in Bella’s bedroom of a prostrate Bella bent over her bed sobbing, while Paul walks slowly and deliberately towards the door hardly giving her a glance whilst also pocketing the brooch that he will later claim she misplaced in her madness. It’s a shot that sums up the power dynamics of their relationship effectively and economically. While the scene in which Paul goes to the music hall with their disrespectful and knowing maid Nancy (played with vivacity by Cathleen Cordell) captures the excitement of the music hall with quickly cut shots and dissolves of energetic can-can dancers doing some extraordinary somersaulting and splits.

Where it doesn’t d so well compared to the American version is in the portrayal of the wife, while Wynward puts in an earnest performance as an emotionally vulnerable and harassed wife. It does also start to grate when she clings onto this idea of being dutiful to her husband even when it is clear he is a criminal, at which I point I was actively annoyed with her. Where Bergman (aside from her more obvious screen charisma and entrancing good looks)  in the 1944 version seems rather more defiant despite the oppression, insisting in for instance going to the musical reception (where in the British version she is brought to the reception by Mallen) and reveling more in her freedom from him at the end.

There is also more dark humour in the American version which seems more Hitchcockian as a result, where the British version is much more intentionally oppressive and tension-building and more European arthouse, both tonal renderings have their own merits and faults. The American version is also more neatly and safely tied up to its detriment I feel.

Overall it is good that Dickinson had the resourcefulness to save his film, it serves as an interesting companion to its more famous American cousin. It is also a fine testimony to early twentieth century British filmmaking which is often overlooked in comparison to Hollywood films, and aside from that it really does deserve to be seen on the basis of Walbrook’s rivetingly intense portrayal of sadist misogyny Victorian-style. The extras included such as Spanish ABC also show Dickinson’s aptitude at making convincing and engaging propaganda films, offering  good (and haunting in hindsight) insights into things like Spanish Republican party policy, the devastating effects of the Spanish Civil War and the reasons behind the child evacuation policy during World War Two.

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