The National Film Theatre's season of Patrick Hamilton adaptations provided the rare opportunity to see *both* versions of 'Gaslight' within a few days of each other in high-quality prints on the big screen. Invidious comparisons are all but impossible to resist...
The Hollywood remake is a glossy melodrama, full of cod-Englishry. Thorold Dickinson's version is the genuine article, from the bell of the muffin-man to the stalwart ex-'peeler' at the livery stables, and the endlessly evocative 'pop' as the gaslights come on. He knows his setting, and it shows. I was astonished to discover that there was no location shooting on this film. The exteriors are utterly convincing, even in bright sunlight, and full of people, horses and vehicles -- no need to resort to fog clichés here!
But more than this, the storyline of the Hollywood version suffers from fatal sprawl. In the way of all big-money remakes throughout time, it not only tries to fill in what was left implicit in the original but adds an anodyne romance. The latter is its biggest loss, for Frank Pettingell, in the role sacrificed to this purpose, makes a relatively minor part into the understated linchpin of the original show. The rough, salt-of-the-earth retired policeman who never forgets a face provides much of the vital laughter -- even if much of it is pretty black humour -- that contrasts to high effect, in this version, with the tension of the story. But he is no token comedy character like the intrusive Bessie Thwaites of the remake; his massive bulk is reassuring, but it can also be menacing, and he is implacable in pursuit of his hunch about the long-gone murderer of Alice Barlow.
There is little to choose between the performance of the leads in both versions, although the script here gives Diana Wynyard an easier task in the part of a woman who is already on the verge of breakdown when we meet her, her thin hands constantly entwining in her lace, and her great eyes devouring frail features. The difference lies in the script; in the effortless snippets of back-story that emerge almost incidentally by implication -- years that pass unspoken in a patina of dust and the shape of a silver birch -- versus the laborious plod through everything on-screen.
We begin with a murder; we cut to the seemingly innocent aftermath. Music cues the mood throughout, from the oppressive moments of fear to the bright sunshine and jaunty lilt that marks the start of a new life, but it is evocative without ever being intrusive. In this case, the 'ghost' whose recognition sets the whole enquiry off is not that of the heroine, implausibly identical (by cinematic tradition) to her murdered aunt, but that of the husband, returned with the aid of his frail bride's money to the house of *his* murdered aunt...
And so it goes on. There is no need to invoke a 'maverick cop goes against the wishes of his superiors to reopen a closed case' scene (another Hollywood convention), since suspicion here originates very simply in the fact that the investigator is old enough to remember the details of the earlier crime. The husband does not take on an unsuitable maid-servant with the specific aim of embarrassing his wife, he is simply carrying on a affair with the saucy coquette already in the household. He has not sought out abroad and courted the one woman in the world who happens to be heir to the house, he has simply married a rich wife for her money. He does not accuse the servants over the disappearance of a painting of no merit, but over the loss of a valuable brooch. At every point where elements of the plot differ, the original turns out to be lacking the later holes in credibility. This film is tighter, darker, funnier, more chilling in its logic.
And the climax (where Hollywood, inevitably, inserts a gun in place of a policeman's truncheon), which has always been a weak point of the 1944 version, suddenly makes sense when you see what has been changed. Gone is the bathetic intrusion of Miss Thwaites, the obligatory romantic aftermath, the explicit view of what is happening in the hidden rooms and the gunshots. Instead, we have the various elements that *do* work -- the reappearance of the detective as 'a figment of the lady's imagination', the justly famous 'mad' scene where the heroine turns the tables -- all together as one whole, shorn of their interpolated padding. Instead of the bizarre scene where she is apparently about to kill her husband, then turns and shouts for help, we have the scene where she is about to kill him... and it is *he* who shouts, breaking his bonds in his wild struggles to escape, the insane obsession of his mind finally snapping as he croons over his rubies.
The Hollywood version has shot itself in the foot by having a genuine attraction between the two in the first place, which then has to be milked for a tear-jerking farewell as he regrets what he has done. In the original, the bitter, brilliant irony of the plot becomes evident in a flash. It is the *husband* -- 'my sane husband' -- who is mad, who has always been mad, in the calculated psychopathy of his treatment of his wife. And it is she who ultimately drives him over that same edge towards which he sought to compel her.
MGM never made a greater mistake with its adaptation than when it sought to sanitise the ending. The remake is not bad as a melodrama, but too often sags; this one is a taut and outstanding thriller.
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