I think we all know what happens in Gaslight, but just in case...
In the days before Lifetime, Television for Women, a controlling, murderous jewel thief marries and manipulates a woman so he can have free reign to ransack their marital home in search for jewels he knows to be hidden there. The story is based on the 1938 British play, Gas Light, which, after a successful London run, was adapted for film in 1940 and starred my boyfriend, Anton Walbrook, as Paul Mallen, the abusive husband, and the great Diana Wynyard (once married to director Carol Reed), as Bella Mallen, the unfortunate, victimized wife.
The play, meanwhile, opened on Broadway in December 1941 under the title Angel Street, was an immediate hit, and ran through December 1944 for a total of 1295 performances, making it one of the longest-running non-musicals in Broadway history (ask Wikipedia). At this point, the controlling, murderous jewel thieves at MGM sought to capitalize on the success of the film and play, purchased the remake rights for the film — which it remade as, um, Gaslight, in 1944 — and went about having all existing prints and negatives of the Walbrook version destroyed. According to movie legend, director of the original film, Thorold Dickinson, made a print for himself and secreted it away, which is the only reason we're able to watch it streaming on Amazon today.
And watch it you should, because wow, can Anton Walbrook, Austrian dreamboat, play an abusive, heartless, sociopath of a husband. No sleepy-faced Charles Boyer, he! Behind every deceitful gambit — a brooch hidden, a painting removed, a light dimmed — for every feigned lecture of concern and exasperation there is a glint of pleasure and satisfaction in his eyes at a job well done.
Here's the gist: Newlyweds Paul and Bella Mallen move in to Number 12, Pimlico Square, a long-vacant row house in London, a house that has been empty since the murder of its previous inhabitant. The murderer ransacked the place and was never caught. A local, former police constable, B.G. Rough (Frank Pettingell), has never forgotten the case and is instantly curious about this new couple. He quickly sizes up that Mr. Mallen is not who he claims to be and, indeed, catches him sneaking into the row house next door for unknown reasons. Rough is also keeping an eye on Mrs. Mallen from a cautious distance. Meanwhile, Bella keeps hearing things (like someone walking around in the attic), seeing things (like the gaslight dimming), misplacing things (like paintings), and "inventing" stories (like "I hear someone walking around upstairs") — all according to her husband, who keeps telling her she's mad, MAD.
One night, while Mr. Mallen is at a music hall with their pretty housemaid, Nancy, Mr. Rough pays a call on Mrs. Mallen to confirm his suspicions that Paul is, in fact, Louis Bower, the murderous nephew of the woman who lived in their home previously and is trying — by climbing into the attic from the flat next door -- to discover the hiding place of the rubies that eluded him years before. Bella had unwittingly discovered Mallen's true identity, so he has been trying to drive her crazy to confuse and discredit her. Also, he's still married to some other lady, so...
For my money, I prefer this horrible relationship to the one portrayed by Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer in the remake. Walbrook is eerily good at cruel and Diana Wynyard conveys her wracked nerves as you would expect of a regular person: perplexed, angry, confused, heart-broken. There is very little of the drooping, beaten-down (but nonetheless excellent) passivity portrayed by Bergman.
My problem with all gaslighting as a plot device is that when one person tries to drive another one crazy, the means are often too elaborate and labor-intensive to make the ends worthwhile. And, sure, wackadoo types who come up with these schemes are not necessarily rational, but what about the otherwise rational people being worked over? I mean, really, if you can't find the music box you hear playing somewhere in the house, chances are your twin sister or awful husband hid it in a drawer someplace and you're not really hallucinating. And if s/he tries to convince you some morning that you woke up screaming in the middle of the night confessing guilt for murdering someone, or that the gas keeps dimming, they're probably just messing with you. Seriously — Occam's Razor.*
But sure, I'll go along with it in Gaslight. The only thing that would make this version perfect is if we could splice in Angela Lansbury's luscious, surly parlor maid in the remake over Cathleen Cordell's original. Nothing against Ms. Cordell, of course, but Lansbury sets the newer film on fire.
*More or less a direct quote from "Who Doesn't Love an Evil Twin?" (Mildred's Fatburgers, January 26, 2011)
I'll do just about anything a movie tells me to do. Unless it tells me wrong...
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