Thursday, August 28, 2014

Gaslight (1940)

Motion pictures through the passage of time come and go, a rare few live forever, but some do well enough that they are remade leaving the original to be buried or forgotten. It was a commonly attempted practice of the Hollywood studios to watch the overseas markets for ideas of future productions in effort to remake as their own, and such is the case with the 1940 British picture Gaslight. A drama about mystery and manipulation, Gaslight was a film adaptation of a successful stage play that suited well for the screen so much so that American studio MGM would purchase the feature in order to remake.

Gaslight is a drama/mystery of married couple where the husband makes the wife believe she is losing her sanity so he may carry out suspicious activities on the side. Paul (Anton Walbrook) and his beautiful new wife Bella (Diana Wynyard) move into their new London home, the site of a mysterious murder and ransacking that occurred years prior. By way of psychological manipulation Paul convinces Bella of acting out within her subconscious through misplacing objects and accusing Bella that had done so under a state that she does not recall. Having Belle thoroughly confused and concerned about her own mental health Paul is able to carry on suspiciously through the house searching for an unknown reason.

B.G. Rough (Frank Pettingell) the former detective on the murder case that happened in their home years before by chance meets and befriends Belle, much to the distain of Paul wanting to isolate Belle from the outside world. Rough becomes intrigued by Belle’s curious experiences and observations of while with her husband since moving into the house. Rough suspects Paul might be the man her was searching for in the past and begins to follow his mysterious actions. One of Belle’s most concerning events she regularly experiences happens when she is left in bed alone and she begins to here noise from the upper parts of the house, which are closed off and cannot be entered, all the while  the gaslight in the room flickers and dims. These experiences had always been played as part of her madness, but Rough discovers Paul is entering the upper parts of the house by way of the adjoining house in search of missing jewels, the very jewels the murderer was looking for all those years ago. Rough surprises Paul and incriminates him as the suspect named Louis Bauer, the man he had been search for all these years now returning to find the rubies he could not locate before. Due to his false identity Belle is free of the shackles Paul has emotionally applied to her as a pawn in his master scheme.

The film is an enjoyable mystery, or slow moving thriller with little action that can be very intriguing even though all lines point to the ultimate conclusion one can see coming from a mile away. What makes this predicable picture enjoyable is its Hitchcock-like story of we, the audience, knowing  what the twist is before it comes, but our interest is in seeing how we arrive to the ultimate conclusion. It does not make for the most thrilling movie to watch for most audiences, but it is a stimulating tale nonetheless.

Gaslight was a product of adaption from the 1938 British play “Gas Light” written by Patrick Hamilton which played for six months in London. The low maintenance production keeps the story manageably in simple locations in and around the home of the main characters, making the plot more about the mental struggle of Belle and the mystery of Paul as opposed to various or grand locations. Director Thorold Dickinson does not hide the mystery of Paul’s suspicious behavior, but makes the presentation of the plot gripping as you are brought into the secrecy of his actions, wondering what he, his wife, or the detective will do next as we continually are drawn in more into the thick of it all.

What the film lacks is a splashy ending that makes the pinnacle of the story feel more satisfying, as the film actually concludes very quickly with little to no resolve. It is this swiftness of conclusion and perhaps the lack of larger named actors that may lend to why this original adaption is so little remembered in the long run compared to the American remake just four years later.

The film stars Anton Walbrook, an Austrian born actor from a family of performers who settled in England, and Diana Wynyard, a British actress with a short period of work in Hollywood  re-entering the world of film on British screens,  as they play the male-dominated newlyweds. Walbrook makes for a rather menacing and domineering husband that manipulates his wife into believing she is suffering for mental issues. Wynyard easily becomes the sympathetic wife that is troubled by the idea that she is having an unconscious breakdown coming to the surface. The real mystery is how this weak female character would ever get out of this male dominated relationship. Enter Frank Pettingell as Detective Rough.

Rough’s performance is very difficult to believe is as he plays an intelligent slooth, but at the same time a jolly retired gentleman. In these types of British dramas these similar forms of characters are not uncommon, but I find them difficult to suspend belief that these natured men can overcome cunning criminals and for a mastermind schemer and murder can be taken down so easily by these such men. However in this simple tale that primarily surrounds three characters it makes due with the three actors in the roles.

Gaslight was a moderate success for British audiences. C oupled with the successes of the play both in London and the subsequent Broadway run which premiered in 1941 and ran for three years, executives at MGM sought to remake the tale with their own stars. MGM would purchase the British film and while in production would, as common with Hollywood studios of the time, attempt to destroy all signs of the original this original 1940 picture while they remade the film starring Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman to be released in May of 1944. The American version would make slight alterations to the plot, but was a critical and financial success, earning Bergman an Academy Award.

Due to this American smothering of the British original adaptation the 1940 Gaslight would be far less remembered in the long run of the cinema history. Historians and movie lovers would still find copies of this British version and very much enjoy it, especially for sticking very closely to the source material, but in popular memory the Hollywood remake to strongly overpower the 1940 film. Looking back at this 1940 feature we get a sense of how future movies are inspired by works of the past.

With the help of this feature and the MGM remake the term “gaslighting” would begin to make its way into the English vernacular. The term refers to a form of physiological abuse by gradual manipulation of the person and their reality.

Looking back at Gaslight from a contemporary point of view leaves this feature as more of a footnote to its 1944 American cousin. By itself the picture remains a solid piece of cinema that is entertaining with a strong story. It is rather forgotten in the long run of cinema history, but continues to be discovered by new audiences of classic cinema.

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