Years after her aunt was murdered in her home, a young woman moves back into the house with her new husband. However, he has a secret that he will do anything to protect, even if it means driving his wife insane.
Secretly imprisoned in a London insane asylum, the infamous Jack the Ripper helps Scotland Yard investigators solve a series of grisly murders whose victims all share one thing in common: dual puncture wounds to the neck.
Several film critics (notably Leslie Halliwell and William K Everson) have made detailed comparisons between the 1940 'Gaslight' (made in Britain) and its better-known 1944 Hollywood remake. The general consensus is that the British version is better. Still, Ingrid Bergman is very beautiful and compelling in the MGM remake, and I especially enjoyed the splendid performance in that version by underrated character actress Heather Thatcher (wearing a period costume that shows off her very attractive physique). Both films have their separate strengths; how fortunate that we're able to enjoy both, and compare them.
This early telefilm of 'Gas Light' (a two-word title in the opening credits) was a live broadcast of Patrick Hamilton's stage play (brought to Broadway as 'Angel Street'), which was running at the Apollo Theatre in London's West End. On 19 March 1939, the cast of the stage play went to Alexandra Palace to repeat their performances for the BBC's cameras.
This is a stagey production in every sense of the term, but it has its merits. Gwen Ffrangon-Davies is cast in the central role as Bella Manningham, the tormented wife. Despite her patrician name, Ffrangon-Davis was not physically beautiful, but this actually brings plausibility to her performance. As much as I enjoyed the two later film versions of 'Gaslight', in both cases the female protagonist was played by an actress of such stunning beauty (Diana Wynyard, Ingrid Bergman) that I found it hard to believe she would marry so desperately. Ffrangon-Davies begins her performance with a neatly coiffured hairstyle that becomes gradually more unkempt as she descends into madness. As this is a live broadcast, I couldn't tell if the deterioration of her hairstyle was intentional (very clever, if so), or merely down to the hazards of live performance. In the climactic scene, in which Bella threatens to kill her husband, Ffrangon-Davies wears a gaudy patterned frock that emphasises her appropriately haggard appearance.
The villain of this piece - Jack Manningham, the abusive husband - is played by Dennis Arundell, dapper of costume and cultured of voice but far less handsome and suave than Anton Walbrook and Charles Boyer in the later film versions. Whereas Ffrangon-Davies's lack of beauty adds plausibility to her role, Arundell's unpleasant looks detract from his character's plausibility. He has a moustache that looks as if a caterpillar has taken lodgings on his upper lip. As the husband in this stage version is less attractive and much less charming than Walbrook and Boyer in the film versions, it's less clear why Bella ever decided to marry him. Arundell gives a fascinating performance as the sadistic husband, but his cruelty is too obvious from the outset. Walbrook and Boyer were much better suited to this role: in both cases, they played handsome charmers whose cruelty didn't become obvious until the wife was trapped.
Milton Rosmer is rather stolid and insufficiently heroic as Inspector Rough, the detective. Elizabeth Inglis and Beatrice Rowe are briefly impressive in their roles as the Manninghams' servants. The action here is similar to the 1940 film version, but confined entirely to a single stage set. Modern productions of 'Angel Street' (a later version of this same play) feature a clever piece of stage business in which Inspector Rough accidentally leaves his hat on the Manninghams' table just before the husband returns, then must retrieve the hat without revealing his presence. Regrettably, that very suspenseful bit of business is absent here: it was created during rehearsals for the Broadway debut of 'Angel Street', when Leo G. Carroll (as Rough) actually did leave his hat onstage by accident! I'll rate this tele-version of 'Gas Light' 8 points out of 10, mostly for its historical value.
UPDATE: The actress who played the maid in this drama -- Elizabeth Inglis -- later became Sigourney Weaver's mother. Her husband was Sylvester ("Pat") Weaver, a major figure in U.S. television. On the only occasion when I met Mr Weaver, we briefly discussed his wife's acting career, and he praised her performance in 'Gas Light'. As he had not yet met her at the time this performance was transmitted, I must assume that he saw a recording of the performance years later. Elizabeth Inglis was a beautiful and talented actress, and I regret that her career was not more extensive ... although, in her case, this was obviously by choice.
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