July 8, 2019
Available via Warner Archive;
Stars Charles Boyer, Ingrid Bergman, Joseph Cotten, Dame May Whitty.
Though this couldn’t have been the intention unless some ornery jester inside the Warner Archive brain trust was plotting mild mischief, the new Blu-ray of Gaslight’s additional inclusion of the 1940 Brit original serves an added purpose beyond pouring gravy on a already delicious release. There are lots of reasons why the famed Hollywood follow-up is the version we remember — the result of every production salvo that MGM could lob at it just four years later. Thus, the combined package amounts to a college-level course on how a big-screen mystery on the high side of adequate can be rethought into a classic.
And Metro’s superbly cast George Cukor remake definitely is one, at least of its kind, even if it remains somewhat overshadowed by an astounding string of all-timers from the same year (1944): Double Indemnity; Meet Me in St. Louis; Hail the Conquering Hero; The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek; Laura; and maybe Murder, My Sweet. There was a deep bench, too (Christmas Holiday, anyone?). That old canard about 1939 being the best year for Golden Age movies remains, well … a canard (see also 1946). It also makes one think again about the current theatrical attendance that’s been down all year, enough that my neighborhood multiplex is probably checking this very minute to see if it has enough marquee numerals to handle Howard the Duck CMLXXVIII.
The MGM Gaslight is so stylish— it and Adam’s Rib are easily Cukor’s best films of the 1940s endless you like The Philadelphia Story better than I do — that I wonder if Louis B. Mayer somehow hated it, at least until he saw the grosses. Probably not, because it was steeped in a bedrock genre (historical murder mystery) and thus not one of those new-fangled problem pictures or twisted sisters that probably had L.B. reaching for the Preparation H (everything from Freaks through Intruder in the Dust and a couple John Huston pictures from the early ’50s). On the other hand, to get its ideal cast, the studio had to borrow two A-list leads from penurious David O. Selznick (not just eventual Ingrid Bergman but Joseph Cotten as well). Nor was top-billed Charles Boyer under contract to Leo the Lion.
Gaslight was originally a play by Patrick Hamilton, who also penned the original Rope (later filmed by Alfred Hitchcock — and definitely a movie he had to have hated) plus the eponymous novel that later led to John Brahm’s Hangover Square. The Boyer-Bergman take runs half-an-hour longer than its predecessor (which makes a lot of difference in its favor), and a lot of key details are changed, but the basics are pretty consistent in both versions. A wastrel (The Red Shoes’s Anton Walbrook in the original) marries a delicate woman (the Oscar-winning Cavalcade’s Diana Wynyard) for her inheritance, which is mostly wrapped up in the London house once owned by the latter’s aunt, who was victim of an unsolved murder a decade or so earlier.
The kicker, though, is that the old woman also left her extraordinary valuable jewels somewhere in the house, which the murderer is unable to locate. Thus, he resorts to a rather extreme Plan B, which involves marrying the niece (who was a child when the tragedy occurred) and moving back into the same house, which had remained unoccupied over the ensuing years. This really isn’t spoiler material because most of it is divulged fairly early on — and besides, this is much, much more of a psychological drama than mystery despite some subsequent sleuthing by the suspicious Law. And because “gaslight” used as a verb has so re-entered contemporary parlance — as in, “Someone has been trying to convince me that the most famous tabloid grifter of the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s got elected president” — even the unknowing can easily surmise what the husband is trying to do here to his wife’s shaky emotional state. (A literal gaslight is a key factor in the plot as well.)
Whereas the British original tosses us right into all this without any context, the MGM opens with a happy Bergman in another country, which makes her mental and even physical dissolution so much more dramatic as the movie progresses. What’s more, the remake’s establishing scenes allow us to see Boyer briefly turn on the charm (which Walbrook is never allowed to do), which gives us a reason to accept that the about-to-be new victim would marry this guy in the first place. By turning both parties into respectively, a voice-lesson student and her accompanist, the couple’s obvious built-in musical appreciation adds power to a later scene (in both films) where the wife’s emotional state half-ruins a recital.
And though both versions feature an inspector who, from afar, senses something is badly awry, the original gives us a rumpled-Brit standard issue while the later version serves up a dapper Scotland Yard crime-sniffer played by Cotten. This last move adds some sexual tension to the later going, and though the movie isn’t heavy-handed enough to shoehorn in a romance,there’s definitely something in the air from both directions, and it gives the narrative a boost.
None of this is to knock — at least to any great degree — the decent-enough earlier picture, which, for its part, suffers right out of the gate here via an unrestored print (fans of the original with an all-Region player should note that in a previous Region B solo release from the BFI offers a standalone print that is). But the Cukor version is so beautifully rendered, especially in its performances and cosmetics, that there’s really no comparison, no matter how you cut it. The actors are so on point (the perpetually underrated Boyer more than included) that Cukor knows to let their faces carry the day, only moving the camera in those situations where it’s best served (there are a lot of interior nicknacks to play with here), which was his style. In fact, the cinematography is so lush that I temporarily convinced myself while watching it that Gaslight had to have gotten Joseph Ruttenberg one of his four cinematography Oscars, forgetting that the black-and-white award went to Laura that same year.
Watching Bergman fall to pieces in increments (often increments in the same scene) is an extraordinary acting feat that comes to Blu-ray just a few weeks after Criterion put out Olivia de Havilland’s showstopper in The Heiress; it’s almost too much to absorb. I wouldn’t have wanted to be an academy voter choosing between Bergman and Barbara Stanwyck (Double Indemnity) in 1944 — though for me personally with Bergman, she’ll always be Sister Mary Benedict in The Bells of St. Mary’s, her next movie after Gaslight. And this is coming from a lapsed Presbyterian.
Another treat here is the teenaged Angela Lansbury as this very dysfunctional household’s servant — one who seems to have managed the tuition to go to tart school on the side. Remarkably, this was the same year Lansbury played Elizabeth Taylor’s sister in National Velvet (now, that would make a great Warner Archive Blu-ray), so it looks as of MGM must have figured out it the versatility it had on its hands fairly early (oh, if L.B. Mayer had lived to see The Manchurian Candidate). Lansbury, who just keeps plugging, offers some bonus section remembrances as well — but the MGM Gaslight is such a resplendent entertainment that Warner could have given it as a no-frills release, and it still would be a Blu-ray factor at year’s end.