Blu-ray Review: GASLIGHT (1940)

PrintE-mail Written by John Knott

Review: Gaslight / Cert: PG / Director: Thorold Dickinson / Screenplay: Patrick Hamilton, A. R. Rawlinson, Bridget Boland / Starring: Anton Walbrook, Diana Wynyard, Frank Pettingell, Cathleen Cordell, Robert Newton, Jimmy Hanley / Released: November 18th

You know what “gaslighting” is, don’t you? It’s driving someone mad by making them doubt their own memories and perception. Telling them things they remember never actually happened; moving things from where they left them, and so on. This writer’s family does it to him all the time. Anyway, the origin of the phrase “gaslighting” comes from Patrick Hamilton’s 1938 Victorian-set play Gas Light and was more prominently put into the public conscience by its subsequent film adaptations: Gaslight (1940) and, well, Gaslight (1944). So with that in mind, we’re not going to worry about spoilers too much. If you’re wondering why there should be two movies of the same story made so soon after each other, it’s because the British version was such a success that Hollywood felt the need to knock out their own version. But MGM didn’t want any comparisons so they had all the prints of the Brit version destroyed. Fortunately, original director Thorold Dickinson kept a print and gave it to the BFI, so the Americans didn’t entirely get their wicked way. Nevertheless, it’s the remake that usually gets shown on the box and the original hasn’t been available on DVD until now.

Needless to say, it’s a bona fide fog-bound classic; any story that’s managed to become part of the English language is going to be a strong one, so you’ll be pleased to hear that this version’s telling of a rotter trying to drive his wife insane to prevent her giving his identity away is closer to the original play than the remake was. But whether or not it’s actually any better (as some will attest) then the more commonly seen Yank version is rather down to a matter of taste. Diana Wynyard gives a terribly, terribly British performance as a woman losing her marbles while Anton Walbrook is in full pantomime villain mode as her murdering bigamist husband; you’re left in no doubt from the outset that he’s up to no good. Frank Pettingell’s retired policeman investigating a long cold case is also a very British, steadfast sort of chap, and while all this is part of the charm, it might put some off. George Cukor’s 1944 version is far more cinematic and the performances more subtle; this version is a bit stiffer; maybe even a bit more '30s. But the odd thing is, this just makes it all a bit more fun. Gaslight isn’t really thought of as a fun story, but well done claustrophobic British melodrama is so thoroughly entertaining that it ought to be seen with a smile on your face. There are times when you feel the need to boo Walbrook for messing with his lovely wife’s head while cheering Pettingell’s dogged copper. But don’t. Trust us, it was really embarrassing.

While this version is probably more enjoyable, the American one is more dramatically effective. Sadly, this British version doesn’t feature Angela Lansbury either. She got an Oscar nod in 1944 for her role as Nancy the maid in her debut film. She’s a very bad girl indeed in it and it makes it essential viewing for the Lansbury fan. Which is all of us. Slightly over the top British fun or American cinematic drama with added Angela Lansbury? The Americans never play fair, do they? In the end, you’re just going to have to watch both versions because they’re rather good.

Extras: Five (count’em!) Thorold Dickinson short documentaries from the ’30s and ‘40s / Promotional material / Booklet

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0 #1 TMW 2013-11-14 16:54
"Nevertheless, it’s the remake that usually gets shown on the box and the original hasn’t been available on DVD until now."

Actually the US DVD edition released in 2004 does contain both versions.

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