Friday, June 22, 2007

He's Behind You!


Patrick Hamilton's play Gaslight is the story of Jack Massingham and his wife Bella. She thinks she's going mad, albeit in a highly genteel way: taking pictures off walls and hiding them behind the furniture and suchlike. But following the arrival of a stranger, a former police detective named Rough, it is discovered that her husband is deliberately engineering her mental breakdown. Twenty years earlier in the same house he had murdered an old woman for rubies that he never found and for which, at night, he continues to search.
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Victorian melodrama, once as lowbrow a diversion as could be found, now seems the most rarefied high art, a genre frozen in amber. Like music hall or The Mousetrap it needs a measure of internal audience participation if it is to fully succeed; we need to play the Victorian audience as much as the actors play the Victorian characters. Travel with it and experience the joy of reversing time, play the sophisticate and condescend and the effect will be like watching through a window.
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Gaslight has all the strengths of the form: a carefully-defined sense of time and of place, with the house in which it is set virtually a character in its own right, a plot that doesn't stand up to a moment's scrutiny, a general commitment to the supremacy of atmosphere over realism, a beautiful swooning heroine, a resourceful detective and a villain of the deepest dye. Of course, there are plenty of people ready to swear that such ingredients are weaknesses rather than strengths. Just be glad you don't know any of them - they usually don't like George Formby movies either.
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As an exercise in compare and contrast, we've enjoyed three versions of this dusty masterpiece this week. We started with the most famous film version, George Cukor’s Hollywood adaptation of 1944, and you should too if you want to concentrate on its virtues. The Cukor touch is always in evidence, unfussy and elegant, and the leads are fine: Ingrid Bergman in hysterics and Charles Boyer (as the villain, here named Gregory Anton) making the most of a rare chance to exploit the obvious potential for menace in all that impeccable Gallic charm.
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The rest is fun, but hardly plays fair by its source, a fact confirmed by a mid-week visit to the Old Vic’s new staging of Hamilton’s original, with the lovely Rosamund Pike from Pride and Prejudice, and one of my favourite Bond girls.
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You shouldn't miss this. Where Cukor misses no excuse to wander from the point in hand, the play does the lot in two intense hour-long sessions on a single set, almost every plot development conveyed by dialogue alone. Of course it helps when it’s done with this kind of care, faultless set dressing and costumes and snatches of barrel-organ drifting in occasionally through the window, but withal this is cleverly written stuff; it grips from the first and the two hours rattle by.
Without Hollywood resources it seems a lot more sinister. The unseen menace, conveyed eerily by the lowering of the lights alone, is more threatening for being less tangible, the growing paranoia of Rosamund Pike’s Bella is intensified by her physical confinement; she's on stage for almost the entire play, trapped in one set like a caged bird.
All is authentically Victorian, from the largest detail to the smallest (the latter, perhaps, a musical box that plays a snatch of ‘I dreamt I dwelt in marble halls’ from Balfe’s Bohemian Girl). Crucially, it never stoops to laughing at the material; such esoteric pleasures delivered with this much care and respect are rare indeed.
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Fresh from this single-minded, froth-free arrangement of the original, you are better placed to appreciate the merits of the British film of 1940, a masterpiece of precise and efficient film-making, told with the occasional Hitchcock-like flourish from director Thorold Dickinson. (Look out for the tree being planted and then shown fully-grown for one of cinema’s most original yet artfully economical motifs for conveying the passage of time.)
MGM actually had the audacity to buy the rights to this version when they announced Cukor's film with the intention of destroying the negative: thank God that what was apparently an illegal dupe managed to survive, for it is a better film in almost every conceivable way, from the opening credits (the title seemingly written in gas flame, the cast and crew listed like a Victorian play-bill) to the complicated and dramatically satisfying tracking shot with which it ends (the camera gracefully receding from the benighted household, gliding across the square and finishing in close-up on a gas lamp).
Dickinson has, of course, ventilated the play, indeed he and writers AR Rawlinson (who wrote for Tod Slaughter; an ideal choice) and Bridget Boland have taken every opportunity possible to change location, pare down dialogue and stage what in the play are mere references and recollections. (A visit to the music hall is an especially fine addition; if ever Dickinson gave the lie to his journeyman status it is in this stylishly photographed and assembled can-can by the Darmora Ballet.) But it all sticks to the point, and uses the resources of cinema only in the interests of expansion, never distraction.

It benefits too from excellent performances:Diana Wynyard's as Bella, Frank Pettingell’s Rough and Anton Walbrook’s Massingham, here renamed Mallen to allow for the actor’s Austrian accent. Walbrook was always one of the more eccentric regulars in British (and international) film, lending a popular but genuinely unusual touch to entertainments as diverse as Colonel Blimp, The Red Shoes and La Ronde. His is the definitive take on the role, oozing with malignacy, duplicity and smarm, and, in a nice twist at the end (at most no more than suggested in the original play), appearing to go mad himself under Bella’s triumphant taunting. (The expressionistic, pin-sharp close-ups in this sequence of Wynyard and Walbrook, the latter lank-haired and dripping with sweat, are exceptionally fine.)
Meanwhile Pettingell’s bluff, Liverpudlian Rough offers perfect counterpoint, the performance remaining the high spot of a cv that includes roles in The Good Companions, Sing As We Go and The Magic Box. He supported Jessie Matthews, Will Hay and George Formby, and played Sheridan Whiteside on tv. A lovely actor; too bad he’s more or less forgotten today.

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Come back to Cukor after this and it starts to look more and more like a travesty. The first half hour or so of what can now be seen to be a grossly overlong remake consists almost entirely of blind alleys and thumb-twiddling distractions. Inspector Rough is written out entirely to make room for Joseph Cotten purely so Bergman will have a pair of arms around her at the fade-out. And compared to Dickinson’s version, it’s simply not gaslighty enough, far too bright and opulent in MGM’s most smothering manner. (The studio always had a problem getting the tone right in these Victorian pieces; their ’41 version of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde, again with Bergman, is a virtual scene for scene remake of Mamoulian’s masterpiece, yet misses the flavour of almost every one; the same problems beset their ’45 version of The Picture of Dorian Gray.)
There are some unambiguous points in its favour. Making the house Bella’s property (or Paula's, as she has been oddly renamed) renders a little more comprehensible the fact that so cold-blooded a schemer as Massingham marries her in the first place, only to then have to hatch so laborious a scheme for getting rid of her again. The downside is that we must then miss out on one of the play’s best frissons, as we witness Bella's slow realisation that the house in which the old woman was murdered is the one in which she now lives.
Among the alterations two stand out as a positive: Dame May Whitty – Hitchcock’s Miss Froy – is as delightful as always as one of the film’s many newly invented characters.
And best of all, slatternly maid Nancy gets the definitive treatment from the teenage Angela Lansbury in her film debut. (The following year she helped redeem Dorian Gray, too.) Each version, in fact, contributes a player to the ideal version dream team: Lansbury as Nancy, Pike as Bella, and Walbrook as Massingham.

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