Gaslight - 1940

Directed by Thorold Dickinson, released June 25, 1940 in London. Stars Anton Walbrook, Diana Wynyard, Frank Pettingell, Cathleen Cordell and Robert Newton

Two Versions

This original film version of the Patrick Hamilton play is a tighter psychological story than is the more famous, and more glossy, 1944 George Cukor directed M-G-M version. Charles Boyer, Joseph Cotton and Ingrid Bergman present good performances in Cukor's production, but the earlier British film created the template wth stronger performances.

Diana Wynyard is a more vulnerable version of the victimized wife who is systematically being driven insane by a scheming, psychopathic husband. Like the Ingrid Bergman version in the 1944 movie, the wife resists the pressure to believe herself crazy, but as the story moves like a corkscrew toward the end, her defenses are crumbling.

Anton Walbrook is a more menacing (crazed) husband, versus the smooth-talking Charles Boyer version. Walbrook's obsessive search for hidden jewels (of which the wife is just a means to an end) has a much more spectacular unraveling when all the forces in the tale come together in a confrontation in which suddenly the wife is holding all the cards.

The Anton Walbrook version

Wynyard and Walbrook produce a great deal of tension in their scenes together, and Walbrook's unpredictable husband is psychological monster of enormous size, dominating the movie with a sense of violence barely held back. Wynyard's portrayal of a woman on the precipice of going crazy (and being institutionalized) has a nice twist to it when she realizes the scope of the scam being pulled on her. The machinery of threat between the husband-and-wife then slowly shifts to Wynyard, because after all, she is actually the only sane person in the relationship.

Differences between the two film versions

A significant difference is that in the British version, a portly, retired police inspector (Frank Pettingel) and a concerned, inquisitive cousin (Robert Newton) play important, but mostly separate roles in the story, but in the American version these two characters are rolled up together into a single person, Joseph Cotton's handsome and efficient hero Brian Cameron. This gives the American version a more traditional (and stereotypical) love-triangle that doesn't exist in the 1940 original.

In the British film, Pettingel's retired inspector is simply a man with astute observation skills who realizes something is askew, and his head is full of old data on unsolved crimes that he puts to use, slowly piecing together who Walbrook's crazed husband really is.

A great deal of excellent art direction (as is in the George Cukor film, too) goes into this 1940 version, with excellent sets and costuming representing the bygone era when gaslight was a standard system of home illumination. In this tale, it is also a chief clue to what is really happening beyond the confines of Wynyard's dominated wife's tightly constricted world.

Original Page January 22, 2015

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