GASLIGHT (MGM 1944/British National 1940) Warner Archive

Few movies enter the public consciousness as enduring fond memories; fewer still, as bona fide works of art. But how many are lucky enough to become a part of the common vernacular? To ‘gaslight’ someone is to systematically drive them to the brink of mental collapse; an insidious means of twisting the truth to suggestively force the victim to question his/her most basic perceptions and, in the final stages, their very sanity.  If not for Patrick Hamilton’s London play, Gas Light (known as Angel Street in the U.S.), and the subsequent 1940 British film, Gaslight, directed by Thorold Dickinson, made a scant two years after the play’s debut, with only 3½ years separating it from George Cukor’s exquisite reinvention for MGM in 1944, we might never have known this term. Cukor’s remake is one of those rare occasions where both the passage of time and the very fact his movie came to this mantel of quality thrice removed have not only enriched its purpose and style, but systematically eclipsed its source material as well as the earlier movie. Indeed, part of MGM’s decision to remake the picture was predicated on the wholesale purchase of the rights: a contract with British National Films stipulating the producers of the 1944 film agree to destroy all prints and the original camera negative of the 1940 version. Mercifully, this never happened. Even so, comparing the two movies today, one can clearly recognize the technical superiority of Cukor’s remake, rightfully considered one of the most imaginative and spooky melodramas ever conceived.
In reworking the play’s premise, conspiring screenwriters, John Van Druten, Walter Reisch and John L. Balderston did much to augment the suspense and thrill-soaked paranoia pervading the original tale; introducing a back story, only briefly touched upon in the play and virtually ignored in the 1940 movie; also, revamping all the main characters to add glamor and an air of intercontinental sophistication to the proceedings.  Hence, the play’s Bella Manningham, having become shrinking violet, Alice Barlow (played by Diana Wynyard) – the unsuspecting wife, moved into an upstairs flat once occupied by a wealthy dowager, brutally murdered within the first thirty-seconds of our story in the 1940 screen adaptation, in 1944 has morphed into Paula (embodied by the statuesque and formidable Swede, Ingrid Bergman); niece of a famed opera star, Alice Alquist (only depicted in portraits in the movie). Initially, Cukor had endeavored to evolve an even more detailed prologue; the actual murder taking place in silhouette, foiled by the sudden appearance of Paula (played as a child by Terry Moore), discovered by the killer, standing in the doorway; the murderer fleeing into the night before he could unearth the whereabouts of Alquist’s jewels.
Alas, it did not make much narrative sense that a killer would flee (when he might just as easily murder the young Paula too), or, for that matter, wait out a period of some years for the girl to mature into adulthood so he could marry her, and thus return to the scene of the crime to continue his search, while simultaneously driving his new bride insane. Some concision was required. Thus, Cukor opens Gaslight on a highly ambiguous note; a crowd gathered along the fog-laden corridors of Thornton Square (Pimlico Square in the 1940 film); their curiosity peaked by the emergence of a teenage Paula from the Alquist home (Bergman redressed in a little sailor’s hat and travelling cape to suggest the presupposition of youth, escorted by her kindly benefactor, Mr. Mufflin (Halliwell Hobbs). From this inauspicious beginning, our story immediately jumps ahead to Italy where Paula is studying music under Maestro Guardi (Emil Rameau); the noted impresario who once guided Alice into becoming a great star. Regrettably, Paula has not her aunt’s gift for song. She has, however, fallen madly in love with Guardi’s piano accompanist, Gregory Anton (the supremely suave, Charles Boyer). The lovers have kept their two-week affair de coeur a secret.  Gregory urges Paula to marry. And although she is undeniably head over heels in love, Paula first professes a need to go away on a mini-holiday alone to reconsider his proposal. Anton reluctantly complies with this simple request, but later, surprises Paula by arriving at her destination first. The two are married off camera and spend a few blissful honeymoon hours at the Hotel Del Lago. Prior to this subsequent rendezvous and marriage, Paula is introduced to the nosy, but otherwise kindly dowager, Miss Bessie Thwaites (Dame May Whitty) aboard a train. In revealing the plot to a novel she is presently reading Thwaites confides she lives in London, at No.11 Thornton Square, just two houses away from Paula’s late aunt.
It seems the past will not remain buried. Despite the inability of Scotland Yard to nail down either a motive or even suggest possible suspects in the homicide, Paula’s desire to put this sordid past behind her is thwarted when her new husband professes his dream to reside in a fashionable townhouse on a cozy square. Paula reveals to Gregory she holds the deed to Alice’s home. To please her husband, though perhaps equally to face her own demons, Paula agrees to return to No. 9 Thornton Square. In London, Paula is briefly reacquainted with Miss Thwaite before being ushered into the brooding and moodily lit inner sanctum of her not so distant past. George Cukor illustrates his masterful sense of pacing in this early sequence; the sets congested with all manner of Victoriana and cobweb-laden bric-a-brac. Characters in Cukor’s movies always move with a purposeful poise and yet, avoiding the obviousness of ‘hitting their marks’; the action, while meticulously plotted down to the subtlest nuance and camera angle, never giving the audience pause to think on it as either deliberate or unnaturally staged for the cameras.
Of course, neither Paula nor the audience is as yet aware Anton has been at the townhouse before; haunted by his own reminiscences of a botched jealous love affair with Alice Alquist; a letter written in his hand, but signed in his alias - Sergis Bauer, slipping from under a few choice pieces of sheet music nestled against the piano music stand.  Paula’s naïve reading of the love letter aloud causes Anton to go into a momentary – and seemingly inexplicable rage. Can Paula really be this green not to see Bauer and Anton are one in the same?  In retrospect, Ingrid Bergman’s casting is one of Gaslight’s great coups; her transitioning from love-struck child, to fragile woman, half-driven mad by her outwardly adoring – though categorically cruel and very wicked husband, only to rise like a phoenix from the brink and turn the tables on her deceiver, is the irrefutable acting highpoint of the picture. This is saying a great deal, considering the array of superb talents on display in Gaslight. At its core, Cukor’s Gaslight owes a great deal of its heritage to Hollywood’s then fascination with dark and menacing thrillers – mainly set in a perpetually foggy England: Fox’s remake of The Lodger (1944), and, Hangover Square (1945), MGM’s own remake of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941) and The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945); the latter, released a full year after Gaslight but actually completed before it. The other casting achievement yet to be discussed is 18 yr. old Angela Lansbury who, in the pivotal role as the saucy tart, Nancy, fairly steals the show from under Boyer, Bergman and co-star, Joseph Cotten; the three established stars of the picture. Indeed, Lansbury, who celebrated her eighteenth birthday on the set of Gaslight, was Oscar-nominated; her appearance herein and as Sybil Vane in The Picture of Dorian Gray leading directly to a long-term contract with MGM.
“This is a Cinderella story,” Cukor would later muse. Indeed, exactly how Angela Lansbury came to the attention of MGM is the stuff dreams are made of: one of many refugees belonging to the exodus from war-torn London, her Belfast-born actress/mother, Moyna Macgill (arguably sacrificed her own stardom so her daughter’s might flourish – though with some lingering professional jealousy thereafter), Lansbury was not only ‘fresh off the boat’ but relatively inexperienced to boot when Metro elected to cast her in Gaslight at Cukor’s behest; as much Lansbury’s ‘big break’ as it proved utterly daunting. “I was in very big company,” Lansbury would later muse, “But they treated me as though I was one of them. That gave me confidence.” Perhaps it was the Irish strain in Lansbury adding gumption from the sidelines to play the part, or likely, the reality she had known her share of hardships in youth: her beloved father, dead of stomach cancer when Angela was only nine – an event Lansbury would later describe as “the defining moment in my life. Nothing before or since has affected me so deeply”. Afterward, the young girl retreated into a land of her own make believe while Moyna pursued a career on the stage and in British cinema. Lansbury, a self-professed ‘complete movie maniac’; would continue to lap up the magic of the screen while briefly studying music and dance.
But the family’s move to North America was neither fortuitous nor immediately profitable; Macgill quickly realizes she had traded down her daydreams of becoming famous abroad for a nomadic life of hard work; Lansbury attending Feagin’s School of Drama and Radio as a latchkey kid, then lying about her age to land a job at the Samovar Club in Montreal to help support her two younger twin brothers, Bruce and Edgar. Returning to New York, Lansbury was to learn her mother had since gone ahead to Hollywood with even bigger dreams to fulfill. However, once ensconced in their modest bungalow in Laurel Canyon, things began to move quickly for Lansbury instead; a chance meeting at a party with screenwriter, John van Druten, leading to a casual suggestion made by Druten to Cukor he might have inadvertently met the ideal candidate to play the impertinent cockney housemaid, Nancy Oliver, in Gaslight; a part yet to be cast.
In the meantime, Louis B. Mayer was orchestrating the loan out of both Bergman and Joseph Cotten; their contracts held by producer, David O. Selznick. Throughout the 1940’s, Selznick found it more lucrative to ‘loan out’ his stars than produce homegrown projects; his undisclosed fee for Bergman’s services alone, rumored to have sent a grumbling Mayer back to Cukor to inquire whether any of Metro’s resident young female talent might equally do justice to the part. But Bergman was the star Cukor emphatically wanted, and, in hindsight, the one necessary to secure the picture’s everlasting reputation and success. In just a few short years, Bergman had blazed a trail from virtual unknown, cast as the ingénue in Selznick’s 1939 North American remake of her most popular European movie, Intermezzo: A Love Story, to become a much sought after A-list star of the first magnitude; thanks to high profile exposure as Ivy, the sexually humiliated and emotionally tortured bar maid in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941) and her even more enigmatic turn as Ilsa Lund, the mysteriously beautiful woman torn between two passions in Casablanca (1942). And Bergman, apart from her peerless and translucent allure, is riveting in Gaslight; arguably the first part that requires the very utmost of her acting talents; her wild-eyed depiction of this woman systematically questioning her own sanity, cementing Bergman’s presence as an actress of equal talents as good looks.
Paula’s harrowing descent into madness begins innocuously with the gift of a broach from her husband, rumored to be a treasured family heirloom. As the clasp is defective, Anton urges his wife to slip it into her purse shortly before they endeavor to go out on the town. A tour of the Tower of London and the Royal Crown Jewels results in an inauspicious chance encounter with Scotland Yard Inspector, Brian Cameron (Joseph Cotten) who momentarily mistakes Paula for the spitting image of her late aunt. Later, Cameron confides to his superior, Gen. Huddleston (Edmund Breon) and curiosity about Alquist’s unsolved murder. Huddleston reluctantly divulges the particulars never made a part of the ‘official’ investigation; that Alquist was in possession of some famous foreign jewels, given to her but an admirer – an undisclosed ‘high-ranking’ personage. After Alquist’s murder, the disappearance of these jewels was marked as ‘classified’ and left quietly buried with the past. Alas, Cameron’s nagging interest with the new tenants at No. 9 Thornton Square remains unabated. Questioning Miss Thwaite, Cameron learns of a few oddities; Thwaite’s inability to glean any information about the couple from Nancy, who is as close-lipped as ever; though equally as flirtatious with the master of the house and fairly insolent toward Paula in tandem. The household’s cook, Elizabeth (Barbara Everest) is hard of hearing, though likely in possession of some slight observations about what has been going on behind these locked doors.
Cameron decides to appoint a bobby, Williams (Tom Stevenson) to patrol the neighborhood; also, to sidle up to Nancy in the hopes of coaxing more information from her. Meanwhile, Anton pursues his insidious campaign to drive Paula mad. He accuses her of being forgetful; of losing things, misplacing her thoughts and occasionally stealing and hiding pictures off the wall. Paula is unable to renounce his allegations outright; and yet, queerly, as ambiguous to explain who else in the household might have even the inclination to commit these perversions of trust. Each night, Anton leaves No. 9, presumably to work at his rented offices in town. In actuality, he has skulked around the neighborhood, discovering a back way into their townhouse, leading directly to the attic where all of Alice Alquist’s possessions are presently stored. Hearing the sound of footsteps on her bedroom ceiling, the dimming of gaslight brought on by Anton lighting jets in the attic while he conducts his meticulous search for the jewels, Paula cannot fathom anyone lurking about upstairs, much less her husband, since Anton has had the attic boarded up from the inside, presumably to prevent Paula’s bad memories about the murder from further plaguing her mind.
After some weeks of enfeebling her confidence, Anton decides to take Paula to a music recital hosted by Lady (Heather Thatcher) and Lord Dalroy (Lawrence Grossmith). The plush conservatory is full of polite society. Also in attendance is Inspector Cameron. Paula has been looking forward to this outing all week. But Anton has ensured his wife will suffer a very public nervous breakdown, having earlier hidden his pocket watch in her handbag, then implanting the idea Paula has taken it to satisfy her bizarre kleptomania. Unable to deny the discovery of the watch in her handbag, yet equally incapable of reasoning how it might have arrived in her possession, Paula tearfully loses control; her muffled whimpers interrupting the concert.  Anton apologizes for his wife’s outburst, quietly removing her from the salon. But once at home, he admonishes Paula as a malicious and vial mad woman, even suggesting her mother died in an asylum, likely from the same affliction presently torturing her mind. Meanwhile, Cameron learns from Williams of Anton’s nightly disappearances in the neighborhood. Having already decided Anton is guilty of something, Cameron pays a call on the household after Anton has already left for the evening, presenting Paula with the gift of a missing glove, one of her aunt’s most cherished possessions. It seems the glove was made a present to Cameron by the great lady when he was only a boyish admirer.
Cameron tenderly questions Paula. She gradually comes to trust his judgment, especially after he infers “you’re not going mad…you’re systematically being driven mad.” As to the dimming gaslight, the strange sounds emanating from upstairs, the incontrovertible evidence someone is in the house and playing tricks upon her mind, Cameron readily encourages Paula to reconsider Anton is responsible for all of these things – and quite possibly, a lot more.  Together, Cameron and Paula pry open the lock on Anton’s roll-top desk; discovering the hidden letter from Sergis Bauer. Cameron begins to piece together the clues; Bauer, Alquist’s piano accompanist from Prague, already married with a wife and child still living there.  Hurrying away before Anton’s return, Cameron takes Elizabeth into his confidence. In the meantime, Anton comes home; more frustrated than ever at not being able to locate the jewels. He goads Paula, drilling harder than ever into her still highly fragile psyche. Only now, Paula begins to question not only herself but her husband’s motives. Cameron returns, demanding justice and a confession from Anton. The two have a scuffle in the attic, Elizabeth calling for Williams to assist. Eventually, Anton is subdued and bound to a chair in the attic; Cameron hurrying to get help. Paula confronts her husband. He begs for her to free him. But instead she produces a knife, playing a startling game of cat and mouse as she repeatedly threatens his life. Is she serious, or has he truly driven her mad enough to kill?
In the end, Paula reveals to Anton she has not lost her mind despite his best efforts; that she has no intention of freeing him now; the discovery of the jewels sewn into Alquist’s costume a moot point, as Anton is going to prison for a very long time for Alice’s murder. An unrepentant Gregory Anton is led away without even a smidgen of remorse. Her nightmare at an end, Paula is comforted by Cameron; the pair standing together on a balcony in the attic. She poetically declares, “This night will be long” to which he quickly reframes her unhappy thoughts to suggest the fog – both figuratively and literally – is already lifting from her life; the night too shall pass, and, above all else, things will look very differently in the morning. Cameron vows to be of comfort to Paula. As they approach one another for an embrace, Paula and Cameron are spied by Miss Thwaite, who readily approves of this match from a distance as we fade into the end credits.
Gaslight is a formidable achievement. Indeed, Cukor could not have been more pleased with the final results; the picture winning Bergman her first Best Actress Oscar. Despite uneven critical reviews, Gaslight also was a financial success. For the most part, the production encountered no problems, marred only by one incident involving Angela Lansbury. Years later, in reflection, Cukor insisted, “On the first day of shooting, even though she (Lansbury) was only seventeen, and had no experience, she was immediately professional. Suddenly I was watching real movie acting. She became this rather disagreeable little housemaid – even her face seemed to change. I was delighted with her from the start.” But Lansbury recalls a slightly different scenario – one for which she has long since accepted full responsibility. It seems an assistant director came to Lansbury on set to inform her she could go to an early lunch as the sequence being filmed did not require her presence. Unaware she lacked the authority to do so, Lansbury promptly informed costar, Barbara Everest she too could leave so they might lunch together, when, in fact, Everest was needed for another take. After enjoying their lengthy luncheon, the pair was met on set by Cukor, who rarely fumed in public, but when he did, gave every indication of being a veritable Vesuvius. “Boy, did I get a dressing down that day!” Lansbury recalls, “But he was right and I was wrong.”
Interestingly, Gaslight is a film as sparsely populated in its underscore (a few choice cues and main title written by resident composer, Bronislau Kaper) as it remains cluttered from floor to ceiling in Cedric Gibbons’ art direction and Edwin B. Willis’s set decoration; an out-and-out pastiche of studio-bound Victoriana, with immaculate costuming supplied by designer, Irene. Its’ virtues – at least visually speaking – are readily the result of Metro’s formidable back catalog in props; a grand storehouse of virtually any and everything a film maker could desire to stage a movie; all of it meticulously cataloged in vast warehouses spread over the girth of the studio’s then extensive land holdings. More is the pity, then, virtually all of these gorgeous accoutrements became the subject of a snatch and grab sell-off in the mid-1970’s; the shortsightedness of Metro’s new management, quite unable to see how such a staggering array of artifacts – many of them undeniable museum pieces – could best be put to use, except to auction everything off, lock stock and barrel, to the highest bidder; and, in retrospect, for mere two-pence their innate value.
Gaslight endures on home video via the Warner Archive. Initially, Warner Home Video released a legitimately authored DVD version, including both the 1940 and ‘44 versions on a DVD-50 flipper disc, accompanied by a truncated ‘making of’ featurette hosted by Pia Lindstrom and featuring snippets and sound bites from Angela Lansbury. In either incarnation the results are slightly below par and it would behoove WAC to reconsider doing a complete remaster of this engrossing film for a new Blu-ray release in 2018. Aside: If Gaslight ever makes the leap to 1080p it, along with a good many other B&W MGM movies already transferred to home video on DVD needs its main titles stabilized. I am really tired of watching main titles with a barrage of edge effects (Criterion’s The Philadelphia Story still looks atrocious!). I don’t understand what is so gosh darn hard about eradicating edge enhancement (a digital anomaly) from a hi-def scan – especially one remastered from elements scanned in at 4K. Fix this, folks! Please, and a premature ‘thank you’! 

So, we will wait in the hope of better things. For now, the DVD of Gaslight is adequate – though, just – suffering from occasional and very distracting edge enhancement and some thicker than anticipated film grain, infrequently looking digitized instead of indigenous to its source. The B&W elements are in fairly solid shape, although certain scenes appear to suffer from less than perfectly balanced contrast; the image, a tad too dark, causing finer details to get lost in the mire. Overall, the quality won’t disappoint. But it doesn’t win any awards either, and singularly fails to impress; a shame, since Joseph Ruttenberg’s cinematography is another chief asset in this peerless production. The ’44 version fairs much better than its processor, which has low contrast and a host of age-related artifacts to contend with; beginning rather abruptly and suggesting some introductory screen credits have been unceremoniously lopped off. The audio for both versions is mono, as originally recorded and in fairly good standing; no hiss or pop and clear-sounding dialogue. Again, Gaslight on home video is hardly perfect. The movie is, however, and chiefly the reason this disc gets my wholehearted recommendation. Movies as finely crafted deserve far better on home video – and, if anyone at Warner Bros. is listening – on remastered Blu-ray…pretty please!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)