Gaslight (1940)

In 1944, MGM released a movie about a thief who slowly tries to drive his wife insane in order to find out the location of some jewels. The movie was called Gaslight, and it starred Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman. But the movie wasn’t an MGM original by any means; its antecedent was a much-lesser-known 1940 British film by the same name. (Apparently, when MGM bought the rights to the story, based on a play by Patrick Hamilton, the studio attempted to destroy all existing prints of the earlier version, but they weren’t successful.)

In the opening scene, an old woman is strangled to death, and her killer ransacks her apartment in search of… well, something. His search is apparently fruitless. Years later, Paul Mallen (Anton Walbrook), a debonair society lord in London, moves with his wife Bella (Diana Wynyard) to the posh Pimlico Square, directly below the apartment of the murdered. Mrs. Mallen is quickly the talk of the neighborhood – she’s a little off, they say. Something’s not quite right with her. And those wags are right; Bella is constantly accused by her husband of stealing things from him, although she has no recollection of the events.

Mallen uses trick after psychological trick against his wife, although it’s unclear to the audience what his motives are. Is he just playing with her? Does he merely delight in her anguish? He even deliberately keeps her from her cousin, a man who’d stood against their marriage at the wedding ceremony. What’s Mallen’s angle?

Unlike its remake, this earlier version is delightfully understated – and bereft of stars whose names would be recognizable in the United States. It’s remarkably well lit, too, typical for movies of the period. But where it draws most of its strength is from the two leads. Walbrook, who by that time had been in motion pictures for 25 years, is perfect as the sly, debonair, and viciously evil Mallen; Wynyard exudes vulnerability and panic; her Bella is terrified that she might be quite sincerely insane, vascillating from dignified serrenity to sheer panic.

This movie is highly recommended to fans of noir film, particularly those who’ve seen the more-famous 1944 Hollywood version.

***1/2

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One Response to “Gaslight (1940)”

  1. moviesmusic Says:

    I LOVE this movie! GREAT acting!

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