You are probably already familiar with the 1944, MGM version of the movie, Gaslight, which starred Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman, but there is a chance you may not have heard of the 1940, British National Films version. Some people say it’s better. (I think it is!) It is more true to the original play and certainly makes a lot more sense, relying on plot much more heavily than the newer version, which relied very much on the popularity of its big-name stars.
I like the style of this film, the way it was made, and the fact that the actors all seem to be English (it’s an English story, after all).The narrative in this version flows logically without gaps in the plot. We get a little more backstory on some of the secondary characters. I like the use of symbolism, both by the director of the film, and in the story, itself, which we see much more in this more balanced presentation of the events.
For instance, you will notice that after the credits of this film run, the camera focuses in on the number of the house: 12. It looks a little like the number on the face of a clock, signalling to the viewer that this is the final hour – although, it is just the beginning of the story. But, whose final hour is it? The next scene answers this question.
Inside the house, a wealthy woman is murdered by mysterious hands. We see his ominous shadow on the wall, as the dastardly figure ransacks the house, even cutting open the furniture in search of something – we know not what.
As you watch this film, which is a revelation of male psychological abuse and domination of women, you will notice that the master of the house is surrounded by different classes of women, each of which receive different types of mistreatment based on their status and their relationship to him.
Before each meal, the master forces the women to pray. He gives thanks to everyone except the servants! It is similar to how the master of the grange tried to wield his patriarchal authority in the book, Wuthering Heights.
Nancy, the maid, is the subject of a great deal of manipulation by two men in the story: The master of the house and one of her many boyfriends, who has been charged by his boss (a retired detective) with the task of using her as an informant of the goings on in the house.
One of the many things I preferred about this version over the former is that in the end, Bella’s rescuer (played by Joseph Cotten in the 1944 version) doesn’t seem to have any ulterior motives. He’s simply trying to uncover the truth and working for Bella’s benefit. (Now, there’s some programming in there, too, because we know that men rarely if ever selflessly help women. They usually want something in return, especially if the woman they are helping is attractive or wealthy and Bella is both. But, it’s nice to see this portrayed.) I always found the Joseph Cotten version of the character (which was a combination of the retired detective and his lackey) to be kind of predatory, giving the sense that Bella was still not really safe in the end.
I think this actress who played Bella, Diana Wynyard, is really a much better actress than Ingrid Bergman, who seems to over-act her part – something Bergman does in other films. Bergman’s overacting in the 1944 version is parodied by Jack Benny and Barbara Stanwyck in an old episode of the Jack Benny Show, posted beneath the film. It’s pretty funny!
Here is the film from YouTube. I hope you are able to view it outside the U.S. because not all YT content is available everywhere. I believe it may be in the public domain. There was an attempt by MGM to suppress it so that it would not compete with their film. I think it is clearly a very much better film, despite the MGM version having the bigger stars and probably a much larger budget:
Jack Benny and Barbara Stanwyck do their own version of the 1944 Gaslight: