As a film opener, seeing an old woman strangled in her home whilst knitting in front of the fire is pretty dramatic. The assailant is then seen rifling through the house unable to find whatever it was they had just killed for. This isn’t the latest Hollywood horror or gory thriller, it is Gaslight, set in Edwardian England and released in 1940 (not to be confused with the American 1944 version). Years after this shocking event, the house is newly occupied by the old lady’s nephew and his delicate wife, who suffering from delusions and memory lapses, believes she is going mad. Even her staff – maid and housekeeper/cook – know their mistress is not quite normal.
It’s not long before we discover that her husband Paul is actually one of the most sinister villains committed to celluloid, planning to drive his wife to suffocating madness because she has discovered his evil secret. He takes her things and tries to convince her that she’s hidden them. In one awfully manipulative scene, he unsuspectingly hides his pocket watch in her bag and takes her to a society concert. When she begins to enjoy herself, he silently accuses her of stealing it and opens the bag, at which point she becomes hysterical and has to be carried from the room humiliated. As the film progresses the two plots begin to interweave and you final learn how everything connects to the old lady’s death and the gaslight of the title.
Anton Wallbrook was a brilliant choice to play Paul Mallen; his voice is always low and cruel, and his accented speech adds to the pretty menacing air. Diana Wynyard as Bella Mallen did a very good job of being confused and vulnerable, without bordering on annoying which sometimes roles like that can do. Frank Pettingell had all the funny lines as the suspicious policeman drawn to help the defenceless Mrs Mallen, whilst Cathleen Cordell was great as the over familiar maid who, despite his objectionable and sadistic personality, seems more than keen to begin an affair with her employer. The sharpness of these characterisations was clearly aided by the unusual decision to film the scenes in order.
Gaslight is a great thriller written by Patrick Hamilton, whose play Rope was later filmed by Hitchcock. And there are some thematic similarities, particularly in the examination of personality and the almost Darwinian way in which stronger characters dominate and destroy weaker ones. It’s apparently frighteningly easy to convince your loved-ones that they’re mad and who’d argue with the intimidating and creepy Mallen. As with Rope, this filmed version feels very theatrical, and tension is largely built through dialogue, but the final scenes provide some exciting action in a largely subtle and still film. An excellent set of performances and a worthy part of the BFI’s Gothic season.