Gaslight

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Available via Warner Archive;
Warner;
Mystery;
$21.99 Blu-ray;
Not rated.

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 IndemnityMeet Me in St. LouisHail the Conquering HeroThe Miracle of Morgan’s CreekLaura; 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.

Mike’s Picks: ‘Gaslight’ and ‘Mother Wore Tights’

My Name Is Julia Ross

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

MVD/Arrow;
Mystery;
$39.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Nina Foch, Dame May Whitty, George Macready.

Somewhere around the time we spot George Macready cutting up women’s clothing with scissors as his elderly mother looks on, the thought is cemented for good that My Name Is Julia Ross isn’t your standard garden-variety ‘B’ from 1940s Columbia Pictures. And it wasn’t. Released around Thanksgiving 1945 just a couple months after World War II’s conclusion, JR has been regarded as its year’s dominant big-screen sleeper for so many decades that I first began reading about it as an 11-year-old in the ’50s.

Released just a year earlier, MGM’s Gaslight had won an Oscar for Ingrid Bergman, long before its title entered the modern-day lexicon as a verb for trying to convince people that things aren’t as they appear. Unlike poor ball-of-confusion Bergman in Gaslight’s earlier going, the abducted Julia character that Nina Foch plays isn’t having any of it because she knows that she’s in the hands of charlatans. She just doesn’t know why.

Aside from those occasional plot holes without which speedily efficient ‘B’-pics likely couldn’t have existed, the feminist blueprint here (screenplay by Muriel Roy Bolton from a novel by male pseudonym Anthony Gilbert) gave director Joseph H. Lewis fairly sturdy material with which to fine-tune some stylish touches. In fact, the very first fog-filled shot aptly establishes Foch/Julia’s isolation in London: no parents, no gal-pals and no boyfriend after a thought-to-be-contender ends up choosing another woman. And in terms of work, she also has no prospects, and the landlady would really like to get her back rent.

Suddenly, there emerges a miracle newspaper posting from a job agency unknown to her (and, as it turns out, no one else). An elderly type (Dame May Whitty) needs a live-in secretary, and lonely Julia strikes her as perfection, presumably setting the table for a mutually beneficial union. What’s more, actress Whitty momentarily conjures up warm audience feelings, given all that (then and still) screen currency she built up from her sympathetic performances in Hitchcock’s ever-popular The Lady Vanishes and the lesser-seen but still remarkable Night Must Fall (original version). Then, a little later, Whitty’s son turns around from a window gaze to reveal that’s he’s George Macready — an actor who was just a year away from his unforgettably creepy turn opposite Rita Hayworth and Glenn Ford in Gilda and one who was once described by the late film historian Doug McClellan as “Columbia’s all-purpose degenerate of the ’40s.” (Now, that’s turning a phrase.)

No good can come of this, and before we can blink, the agency has flown the coop while mom-son-maid and their small band have fled their London digs for a Cornwall near-mansion where Julia wakes up in bed as waves crash below on rocks below. The joint wouldn’t be a bad R&R spot under different circumstances, but in this case the confused abductee is in a bad dream that keeps getting worse. Not helping is the fact that the initials “M.G.” are everywhere (monograms included), while everyone is telling Julia that her name is really Marian Hughes and that she’s the mentally shaky wife of Macready.

He’s no prize, to be sure, and Julia hasn’t even seen him scissoring the clothing — that act certainly a window into his odd personality, along with a fiery temper that tends to manifest itself in women’s bruises. The rest is mostly cat-and-mouse dealing with the prisoner’s attempts to escape, resulting in a highly competent co-feature of the day whose onetime potency has diminished somewhat over the years due to screen subsequent variations (William Wyler’s knockout take on John Fowles’ The Collector, this is not). Helping things out a lot is cinematographer Burnett Guffey, who like all those workhorse old-timers seemed to shoot about 17 pictures a year, though they obviously didn’t. I’m always impressed by camera whizzes who pulled off Oscar wins in both black-and-white and color, as well as in different screen eras. Guffey did both (From Here to Eternity and Bonnie and Clyde), and in Julia Ross, I never once think I’m anywhere on Columbia Pictures’ backlot.

Director Lewis gets a lot of credit for this, as well he should. This was his breakout picture, along with 1946’s So Dark the Night, which Arrow has just released on Blu-ray as well. (And I’d better take an immediate look at this because the packed bonus section features Glenn Kenny, Farran Smith Nehme and Imogen Sara Smith — or “all the stars in heaven,” as they used to say at MGM). Not that anyone’s slumming here: In addition to a detailed print intro by critic Adrian Martin as part of Arrow’s always slick-in-the-good-sense packaging, this Julia Ross release features recent Michael Curtiz biographer Alan K. Rode for its own bragging rights, and he’s as amused at Macready slicing up women’s clothing as I am.

In keeping with his commentary on the recent Blu-ray of the Raymond Chandler-scripted The Blue Dahlia, Rode is adept at sleuthing old studio records to reject inaccurate claims that have been made about the movie — as with Lewis’s assertion that his picture’s enthusiastic reception led Columbia Pictures to move it to the top of double bills, which never happened. For all of Lewis’s skill with scant budgets (he later did Gun Crazy and The Big Combo), he was apparently one who inflated certain accomplishments, as many do in later years if they’re not careful. On the other hand, Lewis’s swan song Terror in a Texas Town (secretly scripted by still blacklisted Dalton Trumbo) should by itself put him on some map. It’s presumably the only Western whose climactic dusty-street gunfight pits a gunman against Sterling Hayden heaving a whaling harpoon.

Also featured is Nora Fiore (aka The Nitrate Diva), whose feminist-oriented critical take is the kind you can bet the film didn’t get at the time (though with a late ’45 release date, the picture hit just as many reluctant women were being forced back into domesticity from the wartime factory work they had enjoyed). I suppose it’s a thought-provoker linking these two events, though one has to wonder if Columbia chief Harry Cohn had these kind of lofty ambitions on his mind for a second feature whose shelf life he couldn’t envision. For Cohn, male feminism probably amounted to chasing one less starlet around his desk.

Mike’s Picks: ‘Desert Fury’ and ‘My Name Is Julia Ross’