“Gaslighting” is thrown around a lot today, but some are probably not aware of the term’s origin. It comes from the 1944 MGM melodrama Gaslight, in which a husband torments his wife in an elaborate scheme to steal her family’s jewels. The wife is played by Ingrid Bergman, who won her first Best Actress Oscar for a performance that defined her ability to play tortured women. The husband is played by Charles Boyer, playing against type here and hoping to prove he was more than just a romantic lead.
In MGM’s pursuit of making their own film adaptation of Patrick Hamilton’s 1938 hit play Gas Light, the studio unknowingly played a little gaslighting themselves. They tried to bury the British version, made just four years earlier and featuring a devastating performance by Anton Walbrook that puts Boyer’s to shame. When MGM bought the remake rights, they reportedly tried to destroy all copies of the 1940 film, which was released to critical acclaim in the U.S. under the title Angel Street. (Inexplicably, this was also the title used for the play on Broadway).
MGM must have been paranoid because, unlike a foreign-language original film that would only be played in the big cities, an English-language original would be stronger competition. But 75 years after the MGM film’s release and 80 years after the U.K. film came out, the two films can sit comfortably next to each other as two wildly different adaptations of the same play.
Whereas the U.K. film is a low-budget chamber drama that rarely leaves the house, the MGM movie is a glamorous Hollywood production with no expenses spared. It opens the play up, delving a little deeper into the early romance between Gregory (Boyer) and Paula (Bergman). It plays to the actors’ strengths, thanks in part to the fascinating direction of George Cukor, who manages to balance MGM’s need for glamour with the story’s darkest corners.
The U.K. film was directed by Thorold Dickinson, who makes the best of the production’s obvious constraints. Where Cukor appears to have an unlimited budget, Dickinson uses the camera as an amazing tool to bring emotions out and focus on specific things in the frame. The 1940 Gaslight might actually be the real best-Hitchcock-movie-not-directed-by-Hitchock and it’s easy to see why. Bernard Knowles, the cinematographer on Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps, Sabotage and Secret Agent, also shot the U.K. Gaslight.
Dickinson’s movie also sticks closer to the play, with a former detective (Frank Pettingell) being the one to crack the case because he needed a way to keep busy, instead of a dashing Scotland Yard detective (Joseph Cotten), as in the Cukor. The performances by the leads are also incomparable, as Diana Wynyard is no Ingrid Bergman, at least in this case. Bergman owned the monopoly on playing tortured women for decades, and this role earned her first Best Actress Oscar.
Thankfully, both versions of the film are included on the Warner Archive Collection’s new Blu-ray release. The 1940 version became a bit of a rarity again after the original flipper-disc DVD went out of print and WAC released a DVD of just the ’44 version in 2011.
It’s beginning to sound like a broken record, but WAC once again presents a breathtaking release of a black and white movie on Blu-ray. The ’44 version is the main feature here, and looks immaculate, free of damage and just overall perfect. The audio track is DTS-HD 2.0 Master Audio in mono, and also sounds great.
Here are the extras, which replicate the original, out-of-print 2004 DVD. The only extra included on the 2011 DVD-R release is the trailer.
- Gaslight (1940) – Unfortunately, WAC’s presentation of the 1940 film shows no restoration and is only in standard definition. This is a big disappointment, especially since the BFI did release a Region-B Blu-ray in 2013. Still, it’s great to have it here at all and to compare the two wildly different versions.
- Reflections on Gaslight – This is a 13-minute featurette hosted by Bergman’s daughter Pia Lindstrom. It goes over the film’s production and includes an interview with Angela Lansbury, who was just 18 years old when she played Nancy.
- Lux Radio Theater Broadcast – A third adaptation of Gaslight is presented here through this hour-long 1946 radio broadcast with Boyer and Bergman.
- 1944 Academy Awards Ceremony Newsreel – This is a brief newsreel showing footage from the 17th Academy Awards. Gaslight was nominated for seven Oscars, but only won for Best Actress and Best Art Direction – Interior Decoration, Black and White.
Both versions of Gaslight are classics and being able to compare them is invaluable. The 1944 version features one of the great performances from Ingrid Bergman, among the greatest actors the screen ever gave us. Newcomers will be shocked at how vibrant, modern and devastating the performance is. They will also be surprised to see how eerily relevant Gaslight remains today, especially in an environment where we are told facts are inexplicably not always the truth.
‘Gaslight’ is available at WBShop.com.
Note: All screenshots are from the 2011 DVD, not the Blu-ray.