In the early 1940s, two different film versions of Patrick Hamilton’s play Angel Street were produced. The first version was released in 1940 and titled Gaslight. The second version of this film, which kept the same title, was released just four years later. Although both films were based on the same play and follow the same basic plot line, the 1944 version of Gaslight is superior, in part due to the strong cast and Hitchcockian elements.
Directed by Thorold Dickinson, the first version of Gaslight (1940) begins with a gloomy night. The darkness and fog create the perfect setting for a gruesome murder.
While an elderly woman peacefully sews, a faceless man comes up behind her and strangles her. We do not see the face of the killer; we see only his hands and his shadow as he searches the house; we watch his feet as he runs up and down the staircase. Eventually, a maid finds the body and screams for the police. In the next scene, the camera zooms in on a headline in a newspaper (a very Hitchcockian element) that reads: “DREADFUL MURDER IN PIMLICO SQUARE: BARLOW RUBIES MISSING.” Thus, the story begins.
After what seems to be a long amount of time, a young couple moves into the house where the murder took place. From the very beginning, Paul Mallen (Anton Walbrook), the husband, is a rude, unpleasant person. We never witness a great deal of love shown toward his wife, Bella (Diana Wynyard). In fact, while enraged with his wife at one point in the film, he tells her he hates her. He flirts with the maid, Nancy (Cathleen Cordell), in front of his wife. At one point in the film, Paul even goes so far as to take Nancy to a show and kiss her.
Paul disappears at night to “work.” Mysteriously, each night, the gaslight dims as if someone were turning it on from another part of the house. Bella hears footsteps each night in the attic, which is supposedly not in use. Whenever Bella complains of these mysterious happenings to her husband, he dismisses them and leads her to believe that she is dreaming or believing things that aren’t real. He attempts to convince her that she is going mad.
Hitchcock seemed to love the idea of the charming and refined sociopath: a character idealized at the beginning of a film who later turns out to be a villain. Unfortunately, one of this film version’s lacking points is that there is never any mystery that the husband is a very bad person. His treatment of his wife is appalling from the very beginning. Throughout the film, he manipulates his wife into thinking that she is losing her mind and that she is absentmindedly losing things, stealing things, and moving things around the house. He also alienates her from her family and community; he tells their neighbors that she is not well enough for social events.
Also, there are no trains in the first version.
The remake of Gaslight in 1944 has proven to be much more popular. Granted, the all-star cast probably had a great deal to do with the film’s success.
Although the main characters’ names and some plot details change, the story is basically the same. The husband, Gregory Anton, is played by the debonair Charles Boyer. His wife, Paula Anton, is played by the innocent and charming Ingrid Bergman. A handsome neighbor who saves the day, Brian Cameron, is played by Joseph Cotten. Last but not least, making her very first big-screen appearance is Angela Lansbury, who plays the naughty parlor maid Nancy. Director George Cukor had a promising opportunity with this dynamic cast.
Like its predecessor, this version of the film also begins with a gloomy, dark night. The camera zooms in on a newspaper headline reading: “THORNTON SQUARE MURDER UNSOLVED; STRANGLER STILL AT LARGE.” A major difference in this film is that we witness a young Paula being taken from the home where her aunt was murdered. The next scene shows Paula all grown up, a decade after her aunt was brutally murdered. She is explaining to her singing instructor that she has fallen in love. Who is the lucky fellow? The young man who plays the piano while she sings. When the piano player, Gregory Anton, expresses his love to her, she tells him that she must take some time to think things over on her own. She takes a train to a vacation location. On the train, he meets an elderly lady (Dame May Whitty) who lives on the square where her aunt was murdered. Paula is surprised to find that Gregory is waiting for her when the train stops. (Stalker.) She marries him, and they honeymoon.
In this version, the husband is very charming and romantic at the beginning. On their honeymoon, he manipulates her into agreeing to move to her aunt’s home in London:
“Paula, if you won’t laugh at me, I should like to tell you something … it’s an idea, a silly idea that’s been with me for years. I was in London once in the winter. It seemed to me there was no city in the world that was colder for the homeless, but it could be warmer to the ones who had a home. How I used to long for a home of my own. One of those white houses in little London squares with a woman I would come to love.”
Paula tells him of her aunt’s murder, and she tells him that her aunt left the house to her. This, of course, he already knows.
Paula: “I’ve found peace in loving you. I could even face that house with you.”
Gregory: “Oh, no, no, Paula, beloved, I would not ask that of you.”
Paula: “Yes, yes, you shall have your dream. You shall have your house in the square.”
In the next scene, they arrive at the house. Gregory is still nice and comforting. He listens attentively as Paula shows him the house. When she gets upset, he tries to comfort her: “How would it be if we took away all these things that remind you so of her. The painting, all this furniture, shut it away so you can’t even see it. Suppose we make it a new house with new things, beautiful things for a new, beautiful life for us?”
Gregory asks, “Now where should we put all these things?” It is Paula who suggests that they keep it in the attic. Clever, Gregory, clever.
He snaps on her when she finds a letter sent to her aunt two days before her murder. This is the first time we see his dark side, and this is what makes the film so brilliant and delightfully Hitchy, for he seemed so wonderful at the beginning of the film. He seemed so charming, so accomplished, so handsome. Slowly and subtly, however, he begins to become colder and crueler. He tells everyone he meets that his wife is ill:
Nancy: “What’s the matter with the mistress? She don’t look ill to me. Is she?”
Elizabeth: “I don’t know. Not as I can see, but the master keeps tellin’ her she is.”
On a rare outing, Paula and Gregory go to the Tower of London to view romantic sights such as the guillotine. Gregory tricks Paula into thinking that she’s lost the broach that he gave her as a gift. He also interrogates her for bowing to a man who was smiling at her:
Paula: “I have no idea who he is, Gregory. He seemed to know me.”
Gregory: “Do you usually bow to people you don’t know?”
Paula: “No, I supposed I’d met him somewhere.”
Gregory: “Are you telling me the truth?”
Paula: “Of course, why should I lie? I don’t know who he is.”
Gregory: “Yet you smile at him. Why?”
Paula: “I tell you, I wasn’t thinking. I don’t know why I did it.”
Gregory: “Like the other things.”
Paula: “What other things?”
Gregory: “Oh. Nothing. Only I’ve been noticing, Paula, that you’ve been forgetful lately.”
Gregory: “Well, losing things … and oh, don’t look so worried, Paula. It’s nothing. You get tired …”
Paula: “Yes, that’s probably what it is. I get tired. I’m tired now, can’t we go home?”
Gregory: “Oh, no! We still have the crown jewels to see. They’re in that building over there.”
Paula: “How do you know? You’ve never been here before.”
Gregory: “The guide told us inside. Are you becoming suspicious as well as absent-minded, Paula?”
The more perceptive Paula grows, the stronger his deceptive manipulation grows against her. Unlike in the 1940 version, where we are told from the beginning that the character is going mad, we can witness her descent into self-doubt in this version. Another classic Hitchcockian element, the transference of guilt, is extremely evident in the relationship between these two characters. When the nosy but friendly Mrs. Thwaites comes to visit, Gregory tells Nancy to tell her that her mistress isn’t well enough to see her. Paula is upset, explaining that she would have liked to have seen Mrs. Thwaites. Gregory pretends that he is confused, and acts as though he was attempting to spare Paula the trouble of receiving their obnoxious neighbor: “And you thought I was being cruel to you, keeping people away from you, making you a prisoner … haha.”
Haha … ha … oh.
While both films were Hitchcockian in tone and setting, the 1944 version, complete with a murder mystery, plenty of staircase scenes, a lovable sociopath, and plenty of dark gloomy nights (as well as a train scene!), truly could be mistaken as a genuine Hitchcock product. Frankly, I’m shocked that Mr. Hitchcock wasn’t involved!
This post is one of three contributions True Classics will be making to the “Best Hitchcock Films Hitchcock Never Made” blogathon, hosted by Dorian of Tales of the Easily Distracted and Becky of ClassicBecky’s Brain Food. Check out all of the wonderful contributions throughout the week!