Some critics over the years have called "Gaslight" the ultimate psychological thriller. If so, then one of the versions on this disc has to be the penultimate psychological thriller, since Warner Bros. offer us not only the 1944 Hollywood classic but the 1940 British adaptation of Patrick Hamilton's stage play, "Angel Street," that preceded it. Both films make for creepy good fun.
Since both film adaptations are based on the same play, they both follow the same basic plot outline, but as you'll see below, the differences are in the details. In the two versions, the setting is Victorian England, where a man newly wed attempts to drive his wife mad in order to have her committed and out of the way, the better to enable him to ransack the house they have just moved into, which he knows somewhere contains a cache of hidden gems. The husband connives to get his wife to believe she's losing her mind by shutting her up, making her think she's forgotten where she put things, and propelling her into physical illness and mental dread. The poor, unsuspecting wife doesn't know she's being manipulated.
The British got to the play first, and theirs is the leaner, tauter script, if not the better movie. The location is No. 12, Pimlico Square, London, where Mr. Paul Mallen and his new wife, Bella, have just taken up residence. In a preface that takes place some years earlier, we see that the murder of an old lady, Alice Barlow, occurred on the premises and that the lady's valuable jewels were never found.
The husband is played by Anton Walbrook, who is far more sinister and emotionless than Charles Boyer would be in the later version. In fact, a cooler fish you couldn't imagine, and you have to wonder what the new wife saw in him that attracted her. The wife is played by Diana Wynyard, a lovely lady who is stiffer in the role than Ingrid Bergman would be a few years later. The script, however, moves along with greater urgency than does the American version, even though the character of Rough (Frank Pettingell), a former police officer who becomes suspicious of what's going on in the Mallen household, is no better fleshed out here than he is later; and the characters of Nancy (Cathleen Cordell), the tarty maid, and Elizabeth (Minne Rayner), the cook, are less developed than they would be in 1944. Still, it was nice seeing Robert Newton, famous as Long John Silver in Disney's 1950 "Treasure Island," as Ullswater, a relative of the wife.
This is the one most everyone is familiar with, and that's the way the studio wanted to keep it. It was to be a lavish MGM creation with a top director (George Cukor) and top stars, and studio heads didn't want audiences confusing it with the British version of only a few years before. In their haste to protect their new property, MGM was even said to have tried to buy up and destroy the negatives of the earlier film. In any case, what Cukor fashioned was not quite so suspenseful as the British interpretation but one filled with smoother production values, more atmospheric sets, and a more affecting performance from the leading lady. As a thriller, it may not work quite as well as the earlier version, but as a psychological drama, it works wonderfully.
Boyer demanded top billing, and Bergman acquiesced just to be in the same film as the suave, cultivated French actor with the most distinctive French accent since Maurice Chevalier. Boyer is more convincing as a husband for Bergman, but he isn't so cold or calculating as Walbrook had been and not quite as much fun as a villain. Bergman, though, is as stunningly beautiful and vulnerable as ever, and her Oscar for Best Actress of 1944 was well deserved. While her character is never totally helpless, she makes the woman's paranoia believable. Oddly, the couple's names are changed to Gregory and Paula Anton, and the name of the first victim in the house is changed to Alice Alquist. Furthermore, the victim is now made out to be the wife's aunt, the wife was in the house when the murder occurred, and the address is No. 9 Thornton Square. Why these minor changes were made, I'm sure I don't know, unless it had something to do with copyright laws or simply for the sake of being different. For all I can tell, they may have been in the stage script.
The supporting cast members are stronger in this Hollywood version, certainly. The snoopy investigator, now called Brian Cameron, is played to distinction by Joseph Cotten; Nancy, the saucy parlor maid, is played by newcomer Angela Lansbury; and Elizabeth, the cook, is played by Barbara Everest. A nosy neighbor, Miss Thwaites (Dame May Whitty), also puts in several appearances, often to eccentric comic effect.
Interestingly, this Hollywood version is less explicit and less graphic about its sex and violence than its British counterpart, possibly an example of differing censorship values in the two countries. Although the 1940 edition rushes to tell its story, the 1944 rendition is content to linger over details of Victorian atmosphere, plush set designs, and spooky footsteps and noises. It's the better for it. The 1944 "Gaslight" is the more expensive and the more elegant production, with an even creepier tone than the British version.
Both films come to a climax much too soon, spoiling some of the story's mystery, but this is undoubtedly a condition of the original play. The two films provide fascinating comparisons and contrasts, and the storytelling in both versions holds up well.
The 1940 edition was cobbled together from existing copies of the print, and as a result some of the film is very good and some of it is more worn and ragged. The opening credits, for instance, contain a multitude of age specks and spots; then, as the film gets underway, the disturbances of age come and go, the black-and-white image varying from crisp and clear to fuzzy and light.
The 1944 classic, however, appears to have been transferred from an exceptionally clean print, as it shows few or no signs of wear, age, abuse, or neglect. The overall black-and-white picture quality is only slightly soft and faded, but not to any detrimental degree. A very fine grain is apparent, probably a condition of the original film stock. No complaints here, and my rating below is for this 1944 version.
The audio in both movies is reproduced via Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural, but it's again the 1944 version that surpasses its earlier counterpart technically, particularly for its quietness. Its second important asset, however, is its realistic tonal balance, neither too bright nor too dull. The mono sound is understandably limited in frequency and dynamic range, but it does an outstanding job replicating human voices. The 1940 sound, on the other hand, is somewhat pinched and hard and accompanied by a clearly audible and sometimes distracting background noise.
Besides having two versions of the same movie on one disc, the most important bonus item that's afforded is a thirteen-minute reminiscence by Pia Lindstrom about her mother, Ingrid Bergman. Titled "Reflections on Gaslight," it also contains comments on the 1944 film by Angela Lansbury, who made her screen debut as Nancy, the maid. In addition, the extras include about a minute and a half of the 1944 Academy Award ceremonies, with Ms. Bergman receiving her Oscar for Best Actress, and a theatrical trailer for the 1944 film. Twenty-five scene selections are provided for the 1940 movie and thirty-three scenes for the 1944 edition. English is the only spoken language on the 1940 version, but English and French are offered for the 1944 movie. English, French, and Spanish subtitles are available for both versions.
I suppose most people would be buying this disc for the 1944 classic account of "Gaslight," but having the 1940 version for comparison is an advantage not to be overlooked. The two films are different enough from one another to offer their own unique pleasures. But from my personal standpoint, it's Ms. Bergman who stands out, without whom I'm sure I would not have been half as interested in seeing either film again.