Saturday Night Cinema: Gaslight

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I thought it the perfect choice, being that the whole country is being gaslighted with the Chinese Virus.

Gaslight is a 1940 British film directed by Thorold Dickinson which stars Anton Walbrook and Diana Wynyard, and features Frank Pettingell. The film adheres more closely to the original play upon which it is based – Patrick Hamilton’s Gas Light (1938) – than the better-known 1944 MGM adaptation. The play had been shown on Broadway as Angel Street, so when the film was released in the United States it was given the same

 

Why ‘Gaslight’ Hasn’t Lost Its Glow

The 1940s thriller enjoys an afterlife as a classic movie and as a buzzy word in political and psychoanalytic discourse.

By:  J. Hoberman, The New York Times:

As a popular art, movies inevitably enrich our lexicon with their titles — “Dirty Harry” is a term for rogue cop and “Star Wars” a moniker for a missile defense system.

Sometimes a title becomes a verb: To “gump,” from “Forrest Gump,” is to insert a fictional character into a historical situation. The verb “to gaslight,” voted by the American Dialect Society in 2016 as the word most useful/likely to succeed, and defined as “to psychologically manipulate a person into questioning their own sanity,” derives from MGM’s 1944 movie, directed by George Cukor.

“Gaslight,” in which a diabolical husband plans to drive his wife mad through a campaign of false accusations, fabricated memories and bland denials of his previous statements, had two successful iterations before the Cukor film. A British adaptation of Patrick Hamilton’s 1938 play, released in 1940 as “Gaslight,” cast the Austrian émigré Anton Walbrook as its duplicitous villain; the following year Hamilton’s play opened on Broadway with Vincent Price as the smooth-talking husband and ran for 1,295 performances.

Although featuring a major star as the villain, Charles Boyer, cast against type, Cukor’s film differed from previous productions. It strengthened the part of the abused wife — largely overshadowed by actors playing the abusive husband — by giving the role to a great actress: Ingrid Bergman.

For its part, MGM undertook to gaslight audiences by pretending that the British movie never existed. The studio tried to destroy all prints; that the first “Gaslight” survived at all may be credited to the director Thorold Dickinson’s foresight in making a personal copy.

Like the movie’s horrible husband, MGM had a reason. Bergman’s bravura performance aside, the Dickinson film is superior to the Hollywood version in nearly every way: more economical (running half an hour shorter), more brutal (opening with the murder of an elderly woman and the killer ransacking her flat), and a lot nastier. Walbrook malevolently lords over his pathetic wife (Diana Wynyard). Unctuously pious, he’s clearly unhinged as well as openly predatory in making the housemaid his mistress. (Cathleen Cordell is a lot tawdrier than Lansbury as well.) There’s a terrific bit of business where the pair go off to the music hall to catch some French cancan dancers.

More than a tough little thriller, the 1940 “Gaslight” is a sardonic portrait of a bad marriage between a couple that turns out to not even be married. Still, when the film finally made its tardy way to the United States in 1952, Crowther found it inferior to the Cukor version: “The street sets are plainly artificial, the atmosphere seems laboriously contrived and the direction of Thorold Dickinson is perceptibly casual and slow.”

By then, the plot became overly familiar. In addition to Hitchcock’s two kindred gothics, other versions of this female noir included Joseph H. Lewis’s “My Name is Julia Ross” (1945), Vincente Minnelli’s “Undercurrent” (1946) and two Anatole Litvak 1948 melodramas, the Barbara Stanwyck vehicle “Sorry Wrong Number” and Olivia de Havilland in “The Snake Pit.” “Gaslight” was dramatized on the radio and satirized on TV. By the time Robert Aldrich made “Hush … Hush, Sweet Charlotte” (1964) in which Joseph Cotten and Olivia de Havilland conspire to undermine Bette Davis’s sanity, the verb “to gaslight” had made its way into both popular culture (used in sitcoms as early as 1952) and psychoanalytic discourse.

Maureen Dowd may have been the first to apply the “gaslight” to politics. Her 1995 op-ed piece, “The Gaslight Strategy” playfully described the Clinton administration’s attempt to provoke the speaker of the house, Newt Gingrich, into making irrational outbursts. In Gingrich’s case, she thought such a scheme was unnecessary: “You can’t Gaslight someone who is already a little lit.” True or not, we’ll see if this term, so commonly used in the last presidential election, continues to have relevance in the next.

The 1944 version of “Gaslight” can be streamed via Amazon Prime, Vudu and YouTube; the 1940 version is available from Amazon Prime, iTunes, and Vudu.

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