Don’t be confused. This is not the more famous version with Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer. George Cukor’s moody atmospheric 1944 version of Patrick Hamilton’s play Gaslight overshadows the original British film from 1940 and in many ways I prefer the less stylish British adaptation directed by Thorold Dickinson. As much as I love Ingrid Bergman’s performance and enjoy Charles Boyer’s job, Diana Wynyard and Anton Walbrook created, for me, the definitive characterizations of Bella and Paul Maven, the ultimate nightmare marriage. Wynyard is heartbreakingly convincing as the timid wife Bella holding onto her sanity by a thread. And Walbrook is much more menacing, more devious, icier as a man trying to drive his wife insane than what Boyer would contribute four years later.
We open on an elderly woman being murdered followed by an exhaustive ransacking of her home by the unseen killer. He eventually leaves, apparently unable to find the object of his desire. The London home sits empty for several years until our fateful couple movie in. Retired detective Rough who lives just a few doors down is immediately suspicious, recognizing Paul as someone other than he claims to be. Rough discreetly makes inquires and, recapturing some of the glory days of his police work, sets up an informal surveillance of the house.
Meanwhile, a twisted drama plays out inside. Paul is cold and accusatory toward mousy Bella and is playing vicious mind games with her – hiding things and accusing her of putting them there while in some kind of unconscious state – but we don’t know why he is tormenting her. Is he just a resourceful sadist or does he have some other end in mind? Nor do we know what he has to do with the murder we saw in the opening scene and if his plans for his wife are related to that. All we know is distraught Bella retires to her room night after night of arguments with Paul to see her gaslight dim (a common occurrence when someone in the house turns on another light) and hear footsteps in a closed off room above her. When she relates these incidents to Paul he tells her no one could have been up there and no one turned on a light. Clearly, his eyes say, she’s bonkers.
The mysteries of the murder and the gaslight are overshadowed by Paul’s cruel manipulation of his good natured, but insecure wife. His ploys to humiliate her – both before himself and the servants (one of whom he flirts with shamelessly) – make us crackle with indignation. We feel the sting of his insults and heartless barbs almost as acutely as Bella, never more so than when he takes her to a recital. She had been looking forward to the event, the first time she had left the house in weeks, but Paul hid his pocket watch and, as a normal man bored by the music would do, casually slips out the chain from his pocket to see how many more minutes he has to sit there, revealing the timepiece to be missing. In a harsh whisper Paul accuses her of taking it but she denies it, desperately hoping he will drop the matter until the music ends. But he mercilessly prods her despite the disapproving glares and inpatient shushes from the stuffy music-lovers nearby. Bella breaks down into uncontrollable sobs and Paul triumphs: he wants everyone to think his wife has lost her mind and this incident seeds the minds of everyone in society that she is so.
Wynyard’s natural fragility and decency prick up our indignation at her humiliation. She is vulnerable and cannot see that Paul is unabashedly manipulating her. We, however, can see what she cannot; we do know Paul is purposefully driving her to insanity, but there is nothing we can do but share in her humiliation. We often want to look away as she desperately pleads her case to save her the added disgrace of more eyes on her. We know the case is stacked against her, why magnify her humiliation?
Dickinson’s version feels more like a play than Cukor’s but that doesn’t take away from its strength; if anything it adds to Bella’s claustrophobic confinement in the house. And Dickinson utilizes the close confines to heighten the impact of each interaction or confrontation. His camera lingers on each character as though their argument, for example, over how a picture ended up behind the desk was a matter of life and death (and by the end it might be). Dickinson skillfully shoots each scene to heighten the impact of Paul’s treachery, knowing who the camera should be shooting and how long to linger to make us cringe with discomfort and menace.
Gaslight is a masterful picture both as a breathless thriller and as an angry deconstruction of Victorian patriarchy. (After all, could a man have gotten away with any of this if everyone didn’t assume women were hysterical kids in grown-up bodies?) It’s a shame this movie has been eclipsed and almost destroyed (literally: MGM tried to have all the negatives burned to squelch competition) by Hollywood’s adaptation. Luckily the movie survived and is available to be seen in its own right today.