Earlier in the year I had some friends over for one of my occasional Movie Nights. As usual, it was jam-packed with short subjects (we have rounded the bend on the 1941 Republic serial Spy Smasher, one of the best chapterplays to come out of that studio and one of the best, period). The feature, as democratically chosen by my guests, was Gaslight, George Cukor’s 1944 “remake” of an earlier British thriller — although in this case it’s fair to use quotes around the remake, as the film has claims to be derived specifically from a play by Patrick Hamilton, with a completely different script and approach to the material than the earlier version.
It’s one of those very, very rare cases where the “remake” is better than the original: with a high-powered cast (an arch Charles Boyer as the villain, Joe Cotton taking his own sweet time, thank you very much, to save the day, and Ingrid Bergman in one of her best roles as Boyer’s victimized wife), an assured director and a far more measured “take” on the story.
It creates a mood, to put it mildly. I’d never watched the picture in mixed company before, and a lot of the fun in this viewing came from watching the reactions of the distaff members of the audience. Oh, indeed, the women in the room got their backs right up, to the point of talking back to the screen and the Boyer character (which never happens at these affairs)!
Never mind the plot’s hook: the plot is just an excuse, anyhow, to show Boyer slowly undermining Bergman’s confidence, first making her completely dependent upon him and then slowly driving her insane. This movie is the origin of the word “gaslighting” after all — but where I saw a fascinating thriller, the women in the room saw something that was all too real, commonplace even: the story of a controlling husband and abused wife. They were so upset by what was happening on the screen that I wanted to say to them, “Don’t worry, don’t worry, she gets her revenge!” Indeed, the villain’s comeuppance at the end would not be nearly as gratifying as it is if the earlier scenes of casual and calculated abuse were not so effective.
With the DVD still sitting in the player at dinner time the next day, I had to take the opportunity to refresh my memory about the British version. Didn’t watch the whole thing, only about 15 minutes at the beginning and then the last five. Given that they’re based on the same stage play and have the same basic plot, they are two completely different movies! The main characters even have different names: in the British version Bergman’s Paula is called Bella. I must say, in the long term “Bella” would have been the name to stick with. Perhaps only by word association, it’s the more gothic of the two names, and to say that Gaslight, in both versions, has gothic overtones is putting it mildly.
In the British version the initial murder (although not the killer) is shown in detail. The victim is a little old lady, not a singing star. All of that musical backstory of the Cukor version was an invention of the American writing team that adapted the play.
In the Cukor version, Bergman is the ward of the victim; but in the original she is no relation to the victim at all, and comes to the house for the first time as the wife of the Boyer character, who is the nephew of the murdered woman. Am I making this clear?
The backstory that takes up so much screen time in the American version is nonexistent here; we first see the couple as they move into the fateful home. They don’t get a speaking scene until ten minutes into the movie, and by then the “gaslighting” of Bella is shown as already being quite well along: their very first scene is one that was shifted well into the middle of the Cukor version, an incident in the study in which the husband convinces his wife that she’s taken down one of his paintings.
A very young Angela Lansbury has a juicy role in the American version as a saucy maid who greatly complicates things with her stupidity. This character, in the British version, is an undeveloped walk-on part, a deus ex machina to get the detective’s assistant into the house. The big ol’ fancy jewels of the American film and are small rubies, and it turns out that they were secreted in a different place, in a different manner, and here the film does not quite play fair with the audience as certain details known to all the characters are withheld from us.
It is the detective (who makes a much-delayed entrance in Cukor’s film) who occupies the earliest scenes of the original. He has some dialogue about his suspicions and begins to take action before the couple have a single scene together!
Even the ending, which I must say is incredibly satisfying in either version, with the villain tied to a chair and his victim finally realizing what has happened and getting some back in a small way, is very slightly different, with somewhat different dialogue... and the Boyer character actually escapes from his bonds and makes a lunge for the jewels before being wrestled back into submission.
The British version runs 84 minutes compared to the much longer 113 minutes of the American version; one of those cases where extra screen time is not only fully justified but, it could be argued, essential. The two movies have completely different writing teams. The American version is co-written by John Van Druten, whose stage play Bell Book and Candle was given a particularly insensitive film version starring James Stewart and Kim Novak, and who also wrote the stage play, based on the memoirs of Christopher Isherwood, that later became the musical Cabaret; and by John Balderston, a prominent figure in the history of Universal’s great Monster Movies. It was Balderston who adapted the stage play of Dracula to the screen for Universal -- gutting the title character’s dialogue in the process (when Bela Lugosi, fresh off his Broadway success in the role, got to Hollywood and saw the script for the movie version he actually slapped it and said, “only three sides?”).
Taken together, both movies make a wonderful study in film writing and film making. Taken separately, on their own terms, the British Gaslight is a creditable if minor thriller — while Cukor’s 1944 version is a great classic of the genre, a leisurely stroll down some very, very dark corridors.