Gaslight is the sort of film that Alfred Hitchcock probably constantly dreamed of making. That the British 1940 original version of the film cribs plentifully from Hitchcock’s style up to that point is no surprise – the opening sequence, with its long establishing tracking shot craning into a spacious London home followed by a murder and frantic scurrying in an attempt to find precious jewels, is exquisitely Hitchcockian in its economy and ‘show-don’t-tell’ approach – yet the structure and the thematic richness of Gaslight has more than a few shades of Hitchcock’s later more psychologically-complex work. Gaslight functions as some kind of proto-Vertigo; at the heart of both films lie lovers manipulating one another’s perception of reality. More immediately, one senses it came from the same vein as Hitchcock’s Rebecca, released that same year, with ghosts of the past and old identities resurfacing to tear apart the present.
Gaslight would be re-made four years later in Hollywood by MGM (the Hollywood tradition of remaking any half-successful film from overseas was already in full force even back then). That film, directed by George Cukor and starring Joseph Cotten and Ingrid Bergman, holds the greater reputation today, though it is aided by the fact that MGM attempted to have all copies of the original Gaslight destroyed. Yet the earlier version persists, and though I’ve yet to see the Hollywood remake, the UK original remains a great experience purely because it is above all still a really well-made film; the strange, ethereal performances; stylish, noir-esque cinematography; and the intelligent economical script all assure that. Despite its age, Gasilight still holds an eccentric, beguiling power.
The plot is simple, but director Thorold Dickinson deploys some clever tricks in its telling to propel it forward. A couple, Paul and Bella Mallen (Anton Walbrook and Diana Wynyard), move into a once-abandoned London house, empty since a murder took place several years ago. Bella has apparently suffered a nervous breakdown; still recovering, we find her to be an easily frightened, meek figure. Yet, we quickly find out that this is not the case; her husband instead is manipulating her, convincing her she is some sort of amnesiac kleptomaniac by hiding his own possessions and questioning Bella over them. Meanwhile, a local ex-policeman who had worked on the murder all those years ago seemingly recognises Paul and begins to snoop around whilst trying to get in contact with Bella. It soon appears Paul has bought the house purely as an attempt to find the priceless rubies supposedly hidden by the long-deceased lady. As Bella begins to suspect her husband, he starts to manipulate her even further, chipping away at her confidence and her freedom, making her believe she is going insane, even reducing her to tears in public gatherings, all the while tirelessly hunting for the jewels.
Crucially, what keeps this plot interesting and engaging is Dickinson’s deployment of a very Hitchcockian tactic: we are informed from the first possible moment that Paul is not entirely a loving husband, and we learn very quickly exactly what he is doing to Bella. This very knowledge instantly creates empathy for Bella, as the viewer wants to reach out to her to help her, but the fact that we can’t is what keeps us watching. A worse film would keep such information a mystery until the final moments as a way of generating tension, but in such a film the twist would become superfluous after its reveal, and the film would lose the drive that keeps us engaged – such techniques are the ruin of otherwise good films like The Usual Suspects and the scourge of all decent people who have sat through an M. Night Shyamalan film. Once the mystery is gone, what reason is there to keep watching or to revisit the film? Here the mystery is up front – we want to see how it resolves itself.
However, such a simple yet effective technique does not necessarily a good film make. Gaslight‘s real strength lies in how the relationship between Bella and her husband unravels over the course of the film, and this is in large part due to the performances. Both leads give slightly offbeat turns; Anton Walbrook’s Austrian accent never sounds quite sure of itself, whilst his gaze remains straight and icy, his posture and overall appearance giving the sense of a Bela Lugosi-type vampire, appropriate considering his manipulation and exploitation of others. Diana Wynyard is stranger still, constantly in a daze, wide-eyed yet in a constant struggle to work up the courage to make eye contact, devoid of warmth or strength. They both give physical performances, or rather, very un-physical performances, their stagey, stiff body language a superb expression of their icy, loveless feelings. The chemistry between the two leads is almost non-existent, providing an atmosphere that contributes to the film’s ghoulish manipulation, a battle of the sexes in which cruelty and cynicism threaten victory over honesty and compassion.
Stylistically, Thorold Dickinson doesn’t attempt much that is particularly extravagant in the vein of some later noir films, a trend which was just beginning to find its feet at the dawn of the 1940s. However, Gaslight does make fine use of expressionistic lighting and intelligent art design to convey subtle moments of character and story; in particular, the house in which most of the film is set appears to be an appropriately stuffy and dead upper-middle-class household, full of ugly tat and pointless ornaments, a facade of show to cover up the lack of love between the inhabitants. Details like this flourish throughout the original UK version of Gaslight, meaning it remains something of a forgotten gem, well-worth seeking out for its strange, ethereal atmosphere and tale of cynical, sociopathic manipulation. Hitchcock would be proud indeed.