Austrian actor Anton Walbrook is perhaps best-known for his turn as ballet master Boris Lermontov in Powell and Pressburger’s sumptuous The Red Shoes (1948). In that film, jealousy saw him prey on the fears and desires of Mora Shearer and eight years earlier he was causing similar mental anguish through manipulation in Gaslight (1940). Rereleased as part of the BFI’s Gothic season, its narrative is also driven by an obsession over items of glimmering scarlet – on this occasion, some hidden rubies. Yet, it’s a dearth of tension that ultimately lessens the impact of Thorold Dickinson’s psychological drama.
Gaslight opens with the ghastly murder of a one Mrs. Barlow (Marie Wright); garrotted in her living room, her home ransacked and her famous jewels vanished. The house on Pimlico Square remains uninhabited for years until finally being bought by the Mallens, Paul (Walbrook) and Bella (Diana Wynyard), who close up the former resident’s bedroom on the top floor and live in the remainder. It seems, however, that No. 12 is destined at be haunted by a spectre from its ghoulish past when a local ex-policeman, B.G. Rough (Frank Pettingell), recognises Mallen as the nephew of the murdered Mrs. Barlow. Why would he come back to the scene of the grizzly crime? And has he something to do with the mental unravelling of his good lady wife?
Perhaps foremost should be Walbrook himself who gives a trademark intense performance that drips with malevolent intent. It’s the kind of acting that would be considered over the top to modern audiences, but perfectly suits this Gothic drama. Similar in pitch is Wynyard, who must play the disturbed wife spiralling into madness at the hands of her nefarious husband. Her memory falters, she begins to develop an odd case of kleptomania, and every evening she imagines the eponymous lights in the house dim whilst alone. They’re supported ably enough by a selection of “awright guvna” cockneys and the steady eye of director, Dickinson.
Strangely, despite being based on a successful stage play, it’s the narrative structure that doesn’t quite work. Rather than seeing Bella as a normal, well-adjusted woman, slowly driven insane, the audience just witnesses the end of her torment and as such, little suspense is created. It may make for a realistic depiction of such manipulation – and terms of the time it would take – but eschews showing her tortuous woes and mental decline. Luckily, Walbrook’s flat-out dastardly turn is enough to convince of the man’s evil ways whether we see them or not and his wild eyes in the finale also leave little doubt. For what could have made for a slow-burning British thriller, Gaslight never quite grips as it should.