Firstly the HD print on the 2013 BFI release is amazingly good. The crackly soundtrack becomes a little obtrusive at times, but given how close this film came to DNE status, this presentation is fantastic.
Gaslight is a psychological thriller in a melodramatical corset, with the over garments of a detective mystery and a period Victorian piece.
These latter types really are supportive: the oppressive conventions and mores of civilised Victorian life set the framework within which Bella Mallen must act her role (and grotesquely, Paul can violate his); but this isn’t a true to life period presentation, it’s all too modern, as the title alludes. These characters have a very contemporary presence (I’m thinking of the parlourmaid and the detective Rough).
Gaslight is spare in plot: the detective has a hunch, does a minimal amount of trailing and then can present a fait accompli to the victim (that he can reveal Louis Bauer as a bigamist, releases Bella from her dues as a wife).
There is no mystery, so we can focus on the major theme of the film: the spectacular and memorable malign personality of Paul Mallen/Louis Bauer and the manner in which he is presented, most obviously in his cruel program of mentally torturing his wife.
Anton Walbrook is one of the masterful film actors. He has a exquisite Viennese poise and control that one can marvel at. When the resolution to the mystery happens and Bauer’s madness is released, the effect is amazing.
Bella is a character torn between lucidity and insanity; a loving woman yearning for a loving marriage and a family, but emotionally destroyed by her reality (and her husband’s evil). The setting demands that her madness is external but passive. The character’s trauma, her self-consciousness brutally transposing into paranoia – Diana Wynard is totally convincing.
So Gaslight is a emotional thriller of no little power. The resolution of the mystery with fifteen minutes left is in effect a plot detail and only causes the tension to ramp up even more, as it can allow the final reckoning between husband and wife (the tension and emotional electricity in this phase of the film is spellbinding). Walbrook’s acting as Bauer succumbs to his madness is justly celebrated.
Thorold Dickinson’s direction supports the leads and puts quite a lot of meat on to the film (it is very imaginative, particularly the opening, that puts the background in place). It keeps its focus on the emotional drama and the taut, spare, withheld power that makes this film so remarkable.