Registering the Registry 2019: Gaslight (1944)

Welcome back to Registering the Registry, where we consider and review the films inducted into the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry by merit of their cultural, historical, and aesthetic qualities! Continuing on with the class of 2019, we turn our attention towards George Cukor’s 1944 adaptation of Gaslight, complete with Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman!

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You know the main reason we need robustly-funded film preservation projects? Might think it’s down to how film is an incredibly fragile medium, dependent on chemical, magnetic, and digital processes to exist in the first place, each fraught with their own potential for degradation if left neglected – not to mention the way time makes fools of us all and eventually reveals seemingly unimportant works as massive influences on the modern landscape or valuable windows into a world long gone by. It is actually, however, down to how the people responsible for tending the archives in a private capacity are impossibly irresponsible idiots. Such was and remains the case across any and all mediums popular in the 20th century – just look to the Universal vault fire or the BBC’s old practice of wiping tapes for a taste of folly from the music and television spheres – but popular views on film as an easily disposable, lesser medium existent only as a commercial venture led to a great deal of what I can only term Fuckery. We could easily sit here for hours spinning yarns about improper storage leading to massive vault fires, or rushes towards cheaper technologies resulting in prints that could barely hold their integrity under projector lights, or careless handling and duplication ruining master prints for the sake of a few dollars more, or the more modern problem with early digital indie film neglected as non-important leaving us in a situation where works from many pioneers now sit unknown and unmarked, their contents rotting from their tapes. Projects like the Registry and any other film preservation board are vital because, for all the incredible talent you find in the movie industry world over, the folks responsible for ensuring the next generation can actually see these films are often downright negligent in their duties.

Or outright malicious in a few cases! Today’s feature, Gaslight, comes to us courtesy of MGM, and interestingly for a film in a series on pictures preserved for their cultural value, its creation almost cost the world another culture’s take on the same material. See, Gaslight is based on Gas Light, the popular Patrick Hamilton play about a husband who tries to drive his wife into insanity through casual and persistent thievery and falsehoods when she almost discovers his true identity as a murderous jewel thief. In its native England, Gas Light had received the cinematic treatment four years prior, as 1940’s Gaslight under director Thorold Dickinson, with Anton Walbrook and Diana Wynyard in the starring roles. The film proved a smash hit on both sides of the pond, which piqued MGM’s interest in funding an adaptation of their own, but with a catch: for Gaslight to receive an American version, all copies of the British version were to be destroyed, so the studio wouldn’t have to worry so much about comparisons with a critical and audience darling should George Cukor fail to deliver the goods. Fortune beyond fortune, MGM’s efforts to wipe the first Gaslight from this earth failed, reputedly because the film was distributed in America as Angel Street and so missed come the purging order, so we today are able to enjoy and compare both to our heart’s content. Under normal circumstances, I’d feel remiss to focus so much attention on contrasting two takes on the same story rather than treating the one highlighted for discussion as its own work, but considering our focus, it should shake out fine. Doing Gaslight justice as a Registry film practically requires holding it against Gaslight against 1944 MGM management’s wishes and scrutinizing what they changed to ensure we aren’t gaslit into believing their take is the only take on the gaslit Victorian parable of Gas Light worth discussion. Savvy?

Dickinson first, to establish a baseline. Our perspective and sympathies here are initially divided between a near-omniscient presence and Frank Pettingell’s retired detective B.G. Rough, as we open on a rather shocking shadowy murder and ransacking for 1940, and then continue on through the local gossips and busybodies as Number 12 Pimlico Square falls into disrepair over ten long years and Rough gives up on ever solving the case. Only after fifteen minutes do we properly enter the world of new owners Paul and Bella Mallen as played by Walbrook and Wynyard, and from the gun it’s obvious there’s something very much wrong between them. Even if we’re not tuned into Paul’s slight of hand and more obvious fabrications until later in the runtime, his habit of switching from all-loving husband to cold and accusing figure marks him as an antagonist to long-suffering Bella within minutes. Plain to us and plain to Rough, whose attempts to uncover and expose Paul’s real motives forms a parallel throughline with Bella’s degrading confidence in her own senses. As the cruelty Paul puts her through, from undermining her through the servants with a kiss on the Bible to publicly inducing a breakdown by pretending he’s lost a watch, leaves her increasingly vulnerable to panic at mysterious happenings not even engineered by his hand, Rough’s investigation leaves us pertinently aware there must inevitably come a breaking point. The thrill of the earlier film rests in immediately engaging with the scenario at its most pointed expression, promising a resolution, and leaving the audience to wonder if said resolution will come in time to save Bella’s mind from total disintegration under her husband’s cruel machinations. With a tighter eighty-four minute runtime, it’s effectively an exercise in in immediacy, the danger and its nature right in our faces, the fear for Wynyard’s sanity constant and growing through the entire thing.

Four years later, Cukor takes a slower approach. An equivalent scene to the 1940 film’s introduction for Paul and Bella does not take place for Gregory and Paula Anton until a good fifty-five minutes in. The shocking murder opener of the original is relegated to an offscreen happening, replaced by a first act of seeming domestic bliss between Boyer and Bergman, the latter of whom is given an expanded connection to the murder by way of being made the victim’s niece, one with palpable fear of ever returning to Number 9 Thornton Square. We spend a good long while following these two as an ordinary couple, a couple of young lovers whose eyes care for naught save each other, and the darkness creeps in far more gradually. Though the sheer volume of hints towards Gregory’s true nature are a little overwhelming if you’re familiar with the story by way of watching the original for a comparative exercise, the benefits outweigh the clunkiness of going “HE’S OBSESSED WITH JEWELS, DO YA GET IT?”, as we see the introduction of his undermining techniques piece by piece, almost invisibly as Paula continues trust him, helping us understand just how she came to fall for such insidious trickery. Philosophically, the hook here is in watching a horrible situation develop, such that by the time we reach the fifty-five minute mark and find a cavalcade of equivalences to the original following one after another, one can trace the path and understand how an unsuspecting victim might come under Gregory’s unscrupulous power. I might prefer the British film’s sensibilities for knowing what it has to sell and making no illusions about what the audience wants to see, but the impulse motivating Cukor’s approach is understandable if you’re shooting for something more expansive than a mere thriller, and in its way makes the final confrontation a good deal more satisfactory.

Much hinges on the performances here, and in a direct comparison, I’m inclined to say I prefer Walbrook over Boyer, and Bergman over Wynyard. Neither of my lesser preferred players turns in a bad performance you’ll understand – when Boyer loses his temper on numerous occasions, it’s a real sight to behold, while Wynyard’s trembling breakdowns and ultimate realization of what she’s endured and for why make fantastic bits. In combination with the stronger actor of their respective pieces, they both fulfill their parts with aplomb, between Boyer’s casual manipulative manner turned animalistic when confronted across from Bergman’s victim, and Wynyard shrinking under a single meaningful glance from Walbrook. When you get down to it, though Walbrook has this slinking, snakey vibe about him, a man capable of incredible violence if pushed to it, but refined and patient and cunning enough to play out callous, calculated deeds as if they were the only natural reaction to the situation he’s crafted. It probably also helps how Dickinson presents Paul at face value and only casts real suspicion on him during Rough’s scenes, while Cukor is all too happy to let you in on Gregory’s malicious intent at any and all turns, which makes Walbrook a more compelling presence without the structure constantly undermining his mask like it does Boyer’s. As to Bergman in the victim’s part, it again helps how the roomier American version enables her to embody the procession from ordinary happy bachelorette to imprisoned, paranoid mess, yet even considering equivalent scenes between her and Wynyard, the Swedish actress makes far more of the part. The shifts between emotional states are subtler, the realizations of another mad episode she’s supposed forgotten contort her face to a more painful degree, the fear in her eyes when left alone to watch the gaslamps dim burns all the brighter. She’s downright attacking the scenes when her mental stability hits an all-time low, and you can see the effort to maintain and relish in her every movement when she’s finally freed and given reign to get a little revenge on her beloved husband. Not sure this was the performance to win Best Actress over Stanwyck in Double Indemnity, simply because it’s damned hard to top anyone in Double Indemnity, but with its breadth, depth, and vigor, it’s also hard to call it anything save great.

One can, of course, enumerate a number of other differences between the two productions, alternately weighing how they benefit or detract by comparison. Though both contain lush production design and strong camerawork, the American version is pretty clearly a post-Citizen Kane work, and so takes better advantage of its expansive sets with staging geared towards emphasizing distance and relative size as well as a greater deal of deep focus shots. On another token, taking us through so many exterior and alternate locations relieves some tension in the American take, tension the British version captures better by staging the action almost entirely within the house, reserving sallies forth for disastrous breakdowns at the husband’s will. Dame Angela Lansbury is more compelling as the housemaid Nancy in the American version with her meatier part and contrast between a squawky manner and simmering jealousy, yet the elimination of Gregory courting her as Paul did Cathleen Cordell removes some scandalous wicked verve from his person, and allows the American film a bit more time for Barbara Everest to impress as live-in cook and ineffectual confidant Elizabeth compared to Minnie Rayner’s slighter presence. Cukor and his script team’s choice to split Rough into Joseph Cotten’s Inspector Brian and May Whitty’s nosey neighbor Bessie creates two enjoyable characters to send running about during the finale, but I wouldn’t call either a patch on Pettingell’s gruff presence, who doesn’t have to worry about Cotten’s somewhat clunky exposition thanks to the smoother nature of his integration, even as he’s not as much a charming presence as Bloodthirsty Bessie. On and on and on we can go, highlighting various aspects and seeking out some subjective truth as to which production appeals the senses greater than the other. When we really come down to it, though, I think the most important question here is thus: which Gaslight captures the terror of gaslighting with better poignancy?

It is, after all, the lasting legacy of this work, an eye-catching premise recognized as and turned name for a professionally-acknowledged form of long-term psychological abuse. One imagines the prevalence of media outlets (traditional and social alike) describing A Certain Somebody’s behavior as gaslighting an entire nation over the last several years played a part in Gaslight‘s selection for preservation during last year’s inductions. Cinematically, though, which of the pair communictes the concept to deeper effect? The bodily immersion from the very start that assumes you’re smart enough to know what’s what and makes the most of its hand in a quicker play, or the measured descent that plays a bit too coy but shows you every step of the process. For providing model on how these tactics work and worm their way into an unsuspecting partner’s head over time, one might say the American version has the edge, and certainly a few scenes communicating Paula’s deathly terror at the dimming gaslamps through camera angle, lighting, and Bergman’s gaping eyes gets across the psychological devastation quite readily. Immensely satisfying as her version of the final turnaround is, though, when Paula taunts her tormentor using his own tactics and keeps her wits entirely, something strikes me as a bit off comparatively. Oh it’s a fantastic bit of acting, probably the scene they’d play as her highlight if the performance were nominated for an Oscar today, and it gives you what you want more than anything after nearly two hours of an almost shattered mind, but then you glance over at the British film’s nearly identical sequence, when Bella has Gregory at knifepoint whilst denying she’s any knife at all… and he gives her a single pleading glance, which causes it all to come flooding back into her mind, and him just enough time to break his bonds for a last desperate lunge at his precious jewels while she drops to the floor. Much as there is to be said for giving a long-suffering character a good revenging closure, much as I prefer Cukor and Bergman’s interpretation of the scene, something in Walbrook’s perverse manner and Wynyard’s expression when he casts his gaze upon her makes the experience feel all the more damaging, an ordeal whose consequences will last far longer and scar far deeper than empty words from Joseph Cotten can ever heal.

Abuse of any sort will crush some precious, hard-to-restore part of your heart and soul. To adequately, fully capture what gaslighting someone will actually do to them, a tinge of darkness around the ending is preferable over Bloodthirsty Bessie giving off one last approving, “Well!”

Not to say Cukor’s accomplishments are any lesser for playing a final note I find appropriate on one level over another. On the whole, both rounds of Gaslight acquit themselves well to the modern eye. The one drenches the atmosphere quicker, boasts a tighter, snappier structure, and lingers on a dirty, selfish soul and its impact in more sordid detail; the other turns up the lavish production design, follows the full development of an abusive relationship, and lets Ingrid Bergman off the chain in yet another characteristically triumphant performance. I’ll say neither’s tendency of cuing the audience on the husband’s motives makes a fully ideal picture – the best version of Gaslight to my mind is one which allows the why of the situation its own slow-burn revelation and traps us entirely within the wife’s perspective, no inspector needed. Accepting limitations as they are, I’m glad we’ve both pictures to poke and prod and knead so we can examine British conservative filmmaking vs. Hollywood excess, and discuss a psychological term’s origin across different dimensions of understanding. If only close-proximity remakes were always this smart, we might not disparage the concept so eagerly. Gaslight, in this respect, proves cultural reinterpretation can easily lend itself to fine new creative avenues given the chance – and given the failure of executives who can’t bear the thought of a critic speaking about their film with a harsher tongue than mine.

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Boy oh boy did I have a bit of A Mental Episode in the middle of writing this! Fingers crossed it didn’t impact the quality none! Next week, we hop into the 50s as Phil Karlson brings us a true crime dramaticization of Albert Patterson’s assassination in The Phenix City Story! Amazon’s your best bet for streaming, though DirecTV also offers it for subscribers. See you then with, hopefully, a clearer head!