by Allan Fish
(UK 1940 88m) DVD1
Aka. Angel Street
p John Corfield d Thorold Dickinson w A.R.Rawlinson, Bridget Boland play Patrick Hamilton ph Bernard Knowles ed Sidney Cole m Richard Addinsell art Duncan Sutherland
Diana Wynyard (Bella Mallen), Anton Walbrook (Paul Mallen/Louis Bauer), Frank Pettingell (Rough), Robert Newton (Vincent Ullswater), Cathleen Cordell (Nancy), Jimmy Hanley (Cobb), Minnie Rayner (Elizabeth), Marie Wright (Alice Barlow), Cathleen Nesbitt,
Looking for this classic British chiller on DVD, one has to go to the US Region 1 where it is included as an extra on that for the 1944 Hollywood version. Just as with the DVD of House of Wax – on which the better original The Mystery of the Wax Museum is found – one is essentially buying for the extras. MGM bought the rights to this film in the early forties, with Louis B.Mayer wishing to burn all copies so only his intended version with Ingrid Bergman could be seen. A typical act of that studio, they had tried something very similar with their Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – whose remake again featured Bergman – and thankfully in both cases the vastly superior original versions survive. Which is not to make the remake sound a bad film, because it isn’t; Charles Boyer and Bergman are very fine replacements for Anton Walbrook and Diana Wynyard, but that’s just what they remain – replacements, talented understudies. Also, the décor is far more artificial and removes the essential character of Rough to be replaced by a more romantic character, played by Joe Cotten. Of all big screen adaptations of the work of Patrick Hamilton, this original is the greatest by some considerable distance.
In the 1860s, an elderly woman is murdered and the murderer searches frantically for her priceless rubies. Many years later, her house, 12 Pimlico Square, is finally let to a married couple, Paul and Bella Mallen, the latter of whom has been suffering from a nervous problem. It transpires that her husband is deliberately trying to drive her insane, as she has uncovered evidence to his real identity, Louis Bauer, nephew to the murdered woman, who left years ago in a cloud of suspicion. However, he doesn’t reckon on a retired inspector who suspects him and begins to believe that Bella is in danger from her husband.
Director Thorold Dickinson is an unjustly forgotten helmsman these days. He made two other films of note – wartime fifth columnists drama The Next of Kin, which Churchill had tried to ban, and The Queen of Spades, which also starred Anton Walbrook and was a memorable adaptation of the Pushkin tale. Gaslight is clearly his masterpiece, richly atmospheric in its camera movement and décor, perfectly accompanied by Richard Addinsell’s finest film score, with each scene justifying Nigel Floyd in Time Out’s comments that “a lurking menace hangs in the air like a fog.” It relies a great deal on its lead performances, and they deliver in spades. Wynyard was truly never remotely as good again. Previously known as Hollywood’s personification of tall, stately, faintly haughty British nobility that ruled an empire in such films as Cavalcade and One More River, Wynyard is here turned into a thoroughly believable terrified woman, with exaggerated and imaginative camera angles adding to the sense of distortion. Just look at the feeling of terror that creeps over her face as the gaslight dims in her room, or better still the look of feigned madness on her face as she taunts Walbrook in the delicious final scene. If there had been a BAFTA in 1940, she’d have been a shoe in. As indeed would her co-star, who has rarely been so joyously nasty, lusting after those shiny red stones, when he finally catches sight of them, like Bela Lugosi’s Count eyeing blood. He’s deliciously sanctimonious in his hypocrisy in reading psalms at the dinner table, and truly evil in his humiliation of Bella at a music recital. Baseline called it a “lost black pearl“, but it’s far better than that, it’s rather a black diamond dipped in blood.