Gaslight (1940)

  • Title:  Gaslight
  • Director:  Thorold Dickinson
  • Date:  1940
  • Studio:  British National Films, MGM
  • Genre:  Drama, Suspense
  • Cast:  Anton Walbrook, Diana Wyngood
  • Format:  Standard, Black and White
  • Format:  R1, NTSC

“You can’t possibly tell if you’re hurt until you’ve had time to think about it.” –Ex-cop to Bella

This film is on the reverse side of the 1944 version DVD I own.  The original film is based on an 1938 play.  This version of the film begins with a bang, showing an old woman getting strangled at Number 12, and the murderer tearing up the house looking for something.  We then see several people who live in the square talking about the horrible crime that happened there, and we’re made aware the house has stood empty for several years.  Next, Paul and Bella Mellon arrive (the characters known as Gregory and Paula Anton in the 1944 version).  We also see an ex-cop talking to a groom as they care for their horses about the strange happenings at Number 12.

There is considerably more exposition and more discussion by minor characters of the murder, and the new residents of Number 12, almost so much that the movie at first seems to be about the house rather than the people living there.  The 1944 version, is much more grounded in the characters living in the house, and told mostly from Paula’s point of view.  This older version switches points of view several times, showing us exactly what Paul is doing, showing the ex-cop’s investigation (without ever giving his name either), showing us various residents of the same square and their impressions, etc.

Paul’s flirting with Nancy, the parlourmaid, is much more pronounced.  In one scene he kisses her, in another he actually takes her on a date to a music hall (and we’re subjected to watching it, as awful as it is, though the Can-Can dancers are interesting).  Nancy, however, isn’t nearly as sinister as she is in the 1944 versions.  She’s almost a harmless flirt.  Paul’s playing around with the maid is contemptible but Bella seems to intentionally turn a blind eye to it.

The scene in the parlour with Paul torturing Bella about the missing picture, making her call in the servants, and questioning the servants is almost word-for-word the same in both films, as is the scene of Bella at the concert where he tortures her about taking his watch.  However, in this film we actually see Paul put the watch in Bella’s purse.

Besides having a lot more exposition up front; there’s also less suspense than the 1944 version because we see a lot of what Paul is doing straight out.  In the 1944 version, especially if you’ve never seen the film before, you don’t know what’s going on – is Paula actually going mad?  In this version, we know Paul is torturing Bella, and although the actress does, in some scenes, do a good job of portraying someone who thinks she’s going out of her mind — her belief that she’s for some reason taking things, becomes weak and wimpy when we see Bella begging Paul to keep her anyway.

Like the 1944 version, Paul has a roll top desk which hides some of his secrets – including a brooch he’s taken from Bella and told her she lost.  However, there’s no letter from an admirer to Paula’s aunt — because in this story, Bella isn’t related to the murdered woman, but rather her husband is.  However, Bella does find an envelope address to “Anton Boyer” which is Paul’s real name.  The search for rubies (£20,000 Pounds worth) is much more pronounced, but rather than being hidden in plain sight, sewn onto a theatrical costume among fakes; the rubies are actually hidden inside the brooch.  (One of the more unbelievable bits – Bella takes the rubies out of a vase, where she’d hidden them after finding them loose inside the brooch.  She asks the ex-cop helping her — Are they valuable?)

Less is made of Paul’s nocturnal visits out – and even Bella’s hearing footsteps and the gaslight going down then back-up don’t occur until over halfway through the film — making it considerably less spooky.  A minor character, Bella’s cousin, is more important – he tries to see Bella, but is refused by her husband.  He doesn’t exist in the 1944 version, and one of his visits is given to Joseph Cotten’s detective, as is some of his dialogue.  Another change is one of the cops who start investigating is in number 14 (the next door empty house) when Paul enters it.

There is a nice shot of  Bella’s reflection in a music box, as she hears footsteps and finally starts to scream for Elizabeth, the cook, who pooh-poohs her.  However, like Nancy, the cook seems harmless.  She’s also not deaf as she is in the 1944 version.

There is a scene with Paul telling Bella she’s mad and she will die in a lunatic asylum and he hates her, in which he is quite, quite sinister.  And, of course, we’ve seen all along exactly what he’s doing to drive his wife mad.  And since we’ve also seen the old woman’s murder and the ransacking of the house rather than hearing about it later, one can make the connection between that crime and Paul’s behavior towards Bella, even though we don’t see his face.

Overall, a competent film.  Competent direction, not overly flat, with some nice touches.  Competent acting, too.  Diana Wyngood isn’t bad as Bella — but she does seem wimpy at times, simply from the rearrangement of scenes, and the lack of focus on her.  There is the scene between Bella and Paul at the end, where Paul’s been caught, but it lack the raw power of Bergman’s performance, despite almost identical dialogue, simply because we’re not so caught up in Bella’s story.

Recommendation:  Wouldn’t hurt to see it, but the 1944 version is much better.
Rating:  3
Next film:  The Gay Divorcee