I’ve been a fan of British film director Thorold Dickinson since watching his 1949 classic THE QUEEN OF SPADES (also reviewed on this site). I was therefore delighted to learn that the BFI were bringing out his British version of Patrick Hamilton’s play GASLIGHT. The better known American adaptation was directed by George Cukor, starred Charles Boyer, Ingrid Bergman and Joseph Cotton, and came out in 1944. MGM were so worried that Dickinson’s earlier film would affect the success of their own picture that they tried to prevent its release in the US, with a clause in the remake rights ordering that all copies of the original's negative be destroyed. Thankfully Dickinson himself made a ‘secret’ print which was subsequently donated to the BFI to make the version presented here.
The film opens with little old Alice Barlow being strangled by a shadowy figure who then proceeds to ransack her house. It’s the kind of scene that’s been reproduced many times since, but in 1940 it was undoubtedly quite horrifying. The killer is never found and Alice’s house is put up for sale. Years later the Mallens move in. Paul Mallen (Anton Walbrook) is in the process of convincing his wife Bella (Diana Wynyard) that she is losing her sanity. He hides personal objects and keeps any mail that comes for her. The top two floors of the house are never used although sometimes Bella hears someone walking around up there and at the same time the gas lamps in the rest of the house go dim.
A retired policeman called Rough (Frank Pettingell) suspects Paul of being Alice Barlow’s killer, who went by the name of Louis Bauer. It turns out that, while going through Paul’s things, Bella found an envelope addressed to Bauer. In order to protect his new identity Paul / Louie is trying to drive Bella insane. He has returned to the Barlow house in the hope of finding the rubies he killed Alice for in the first place.
For a film made in 1940, Thorold Dickinson’s GASLIGHT still holds up today as a well-made precursor of what would become know as the giallo. The unseen killer in black at the start, the violence of the murder, and the wide-eyed heroine who fears she may be going insane became staples of everything from the Hammer psycho thrillers of the 1960s to the hedonistic Italian gialli of Sergio Martino and others in the 1970s (most of them starring Edwige Fenech in one compromising position after another). It helps immensely that the BFI’s Blu-ray transfer of Dickinson’s film is so pristine, giving it a look that makes it almost impossible to believe that this film was made over seventy (that's SEVENTY) years ago.
The BFI’s dual format edition presents the film on both Blu-ray and DVD formats. There’s a booklet with essays on the film, and, as extras on the disc, five short films either directed or written by Dickinson.
GASLIGHT is a cracking piece of early 1940s British cinema. George Cukor’s 1944 version is impressive, but Thorold Dickinson’s precursor really is something very special indeed. Highly recommended for fans of top quality psychological thrillers from a bygone age.
The BFI will be releasing Thorold Dickinson's GASLIGHT as a Dual Format Blu-ray and DVD edition on its BFI Flipside label on 18th November 2013