Still Burns Bright
For those who consider remakes a modern blight on the world of cinema should look at Patrick Hamilton's play "Gaslight" which he wrote in 1938. In 1940 it was made in to a movie of the same name yet only 4 years later it was remade by Hollywood and that doesn't take into account the various TV versions which have also been made. Now you may think that if Hollywood made a version of "Gaslight" just 4 years after the 1940 version it must have had something wrong with it. The truth is there is nothing wrong with it, in fact it still remains one of the best movies which features a storyline about a person trying to manipulate a loved one in to thinking they are going crazy and well worth a watch despite being over 70 years old.
20 years after the murder of Alice Barlow (Marie Wright) left No. 12 Pimlico Square vacant it finally gets new residents Paul (Anton Walbrook) and Bella Mallen (Diana Wynyard). But there is something strange going on because for some reason Paul is hiding photos and jewellery then accusing Bella of doing it, slowly making her think she is going crazy. Not only that of a night time having mentally tortured Bella Paul slips next door to the vacant No. 14 where he disappears. All of which is noticed by B.G. Rough (Frank Pettingell) a former policeman who worked on the Barlow murder case and is convinced that Paul Mallen is in fact Barlow's nephew Louis Barre.
One of the nice things about "Gaslight" is the set up because it is clever. Following the mysterious murder of Alice Barlow we see her house go vacant, witnessing it being emptied from a park across the street where workmen are planting a young tree. This melts to a later date, the tree has grown big and the house remains vacant, dirty from years of neglect. That simple transition using a tree having grown nicely establishes a considerable gap in time which we come to learn a little later is 20 years.
Anyway this then gets into the main storyline which is the arrival of Paul and Bella Mallen the new residents of the now renovated house. And immediately we become aware of two things, Bella is of a fragile disposition, not so much physically but mentally and emotionally weak, and we also learn that Paul is tough on her, not the caring husband you would expect. What we also quickly learn is that B.G. Rough a former policeman who worked on the Barlow murder spots Paul and believes he is Louis Barre, the nephew of Mrs. Barlow and becomes intrigued by this man.
This then sets up two stories with the obvious one being B.G. Rough investigating Paul believing that he is Louis and if so his change of name may have something to do with some missing Rubies. This side is a little straight forward as Rough goes about his investigation in the background, speaking to Bella when he spots her in the street and observing Mr. Mallen. And that observation brings on the strange behaviour that at night Mr. Mallen leaves No. 12 and secretly sneaks to the vacant No. 14 next door.
The other story is that we quickly discover that Mr. Mallen is cruel a man who is purposely trying to make Bella think she is going crazy. He moves things and blames her for them, hides letter and controls her by telling her what to wear and what to do, almost to the point of keeping her locked up in the house. He also manufactures situations to humiliate her in public and causes strange noises and the gas lights to flicker to push her closer and closer to cracking up.
And it is this which makes the 1940 version of "Gaslight" so brilliant because Anton Walbrook's performance is scary with his blatant mental torture of Bella being unsettling. Having said that Diana Wynyard's performance as Bella is just as good because the level of fragility she displays is brilliant really feeling like Bella is one nudge away from cracking up and heading to the asylum. The one weakness comes from Frank Pettingell as B.G. Rough and it is little to do with the way he plays the character rather than the quick and forced way he suddenly solves the mystery of what is going on, it just feels too complete.
What this all boils down to is that this 1940 version of "Gaslight" is an excellent movie and one which whilst over 70 years old is still one of the best examples of the story of a man manipulating a woman into thinking they are going crazy.