Starring: Anton Wallbrook, Diana Wynyard, Frank Pettingell
Director: Thorold Dickinson
Running Time: 84 mins
Gaslight is a British film about a married couple who move into a house twenty years after an infamous case of murder and robbery. While the wife struggles with a mental disorder, her neglectful husband will stop at nothing to hide a secret of his.
Filled with an air of mystery and a very interesting psychological complex, Gaslight is an often eerier-than-expected drama, although it struggles to really develop tension and intrigue in the way it aims, ultimately proving less than the exhilarating Hitchcockian film it perhaps wants to be.
Let’s start with the positives, however, one of which comes in the form of the film’s excellent performances. With intriguing characters whose real condition and motivations are always clouded in mystery, the actors bring an impressive gravitas to the table here.
Diana Wynyard’s increasing sense of bewilderment and distress throughout the film at her husband’s aggressive behaviour is particularly effective, and you really begin to root for her, despite never being quite sure as to whether she is or isn’t losing her mind as a result of the often melodramatic nature of her performance.
Meanwhile, Anton Wallbrook is fantastically nasty here. Though his character starts off as what seems like a fairly neglectful husband, he really ups the ante when it comes to showcasing the man’s aggression towards his wife, which, along with the arm-long list of amoral decisions he makes throughout, makes you really come to loathe him by the end.
Those two performances play in nicely to the film’s psychological themes about neglect and manipulation. You probably know that the expression ‘gaslighting’, i.e. manipulating someone to believe they’re losing their mind when the truth is anything but, comes from this film, and it makes for a gripping and often heartbreakingly dark central focus throughout.
Again, Wynyard’s likability crossed with a clear vulnerability makes the treatment she receives from her husband absolutely soul-destroying, and the almost relentless abuse she’s dealt through the story really makes the film’s perspective on manipulation rather sobering indeed.
However, while Gaslight features some interesting psychological themes, it’s far from the thrilling mystery it often wants to be. There are a lot of parallels to be drawn between this film and Alfred Hitchcock’s Suspicion, which came out a year later in 1941.
Both films feature wives living in fear of their husbands, although the veracity and reasons for their fears are very different. However, where Hitchcock is able to turn what is effectively a story about a dysfunctional marriage into a nail-biting thriller, director Thorold Dickinson isn’t able to with Gaslight.
It’s certainly a slower, more mellow story than Suspicion, but the movie doesn’t have that striking energy or deeper story intrigue to really hook you. The mystery is either too predictable or too opaque, and the shifting focus between characters hurts the movie in ways that Suspicion avoided with a much more streamlined screenplay.
Saying that, there are still a lot of positives to be taken away from Gaslight. It’s an engaging and often psychologically eerie drama with sobering themes and two excellent lead performances. It may not have the sucker-punch intensity its story perhaps should deliver, but it’s still a strong film, so that’s why I’m giving it a 7.2 overall.