[box cover]

Gaslight

Seemingly no film comes to the screen without a complicated, compromising history, and Gaslight is no exception. It began life as Angel Street, a play by Patrick Hamilton — a very interesting minor British novelist and playwright (disfigured in a freak accident, he became an alcoholic) who also wrote Rope and Hanover Square. The play came to America and proved successful. Britain did a movie adaptation starring Anton Walbrook, then Columbia bought the rights to that for an American remake with Irene Dunne, but soon the project passed on to MGM, where studio head Louis B. Mayer ordered that all prints of the first film be sought and destroyed, so as not to distract from his own version, directed by George Cukor and starring Ingrid Bergman (borrowed from Selznick). Fortunately, some prints survived Mayer's directive, and this Warner Home Video disc offers both versions of the movie,. The disc is of historical interest and convenience to film scholars with a specialty in Cukor and pre-noir titles, but frankly Gaslight isn't that hot a movie in any incarnation. The story, with some variations, is the same in both the 1940 and 1944 versions: A disturbed young woman has married an older man who insists that they move back to the London neighborhood that is the source of her mental state. Years earlier, her aunt was murdered in the same house (or the house next door, in the first version). The murder was never solved. Now, the woman feels as if she is going mad; the gas flickers, there are weird noises, and she keeps losing and/or imagining things. But soon enough the viewer and the woman learn that in fact her husband is behind this climate of madness, primarily in order to distract her from his real mission. Hence the verb "gaslight" entered the language as a synonym for driving someone mad. Thorold Dickinson's 1940 version is classy but a tad too calm. He excels in the scene in which Diana Wynyard, as the wife has a breakdown in front of Walbrook, as the husband, at a private concert. The oppressive force of social scorn is achingly presented. But overall the film is rather flat and feels somewhat censored. The detective (Frank Pettingell) who intervenes and investigates the case on his own is obviously meant to be charming and reassuring, but he comes across as dully comic (Joseph Cotton plays the equivalent role in the newer movie). Cukor's Gaslight is a little better. One of the most overrated directors in Hollywood, Cukor had very little individual cinematic style. Instead, he relied on his production teams for practically everything so he could concentrate on the female performances. He was the caretaker of some good performances, but though Ingrid Bergman won an Oscar for this turn, she shows here Cukor's tendency to encourage his charges to overact in a sometimes theatrical style that was in fact about to go out of date thanks to new kinds of performers coming out of the Actor's Studio and other laboratories of realistic acting. Cukor's Gaslight is the superior of the two movies because it looks slightly better, thanks to the moodier lighting provided by cinematographer Joseph Ruttenberg. But neither version overcomes the ultimately ridiculous and convoluted scheme of the evil husband, where so much depends on chance and willful ignorance. Still, having the two films together on one disc is convenient and educational. The transfers of the two black-and-white full-frame movies are fine. Supplements (found on the B side) lead off with "Reflections of Gaslight" (13 min.), with Bergman's daughter Pia Lindstrom talking about such things as lead Charles Boyer having to stand on a box in order to kiss his leading lady. Angela Lansbury (this was her first film) pops in to discuss Cukor. There's also, a newsreel clip of Bergman receiving her Oscar from Jennifer Jones (and Bing Crosby getting one from a tongue-tied Gary Cooper), and the trailer for the 1944 version. Snap-case.
—D.K. Holm



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