Thursday, June 01, 2006

Gaslight (1940) vs Gaslight (1944), and other musings

In between bouts of intense work on this book (a DVD guide, on which more later) it's been 1940s cinema a-go-go around here, what with all those 1942 supporting actresses to watch and a couple of key Ingrid Bergman movies I've only just got round to catching. I'm not sure Hitchcock's Spellbound (1945) actually deserves to be called key, though its star acquits herself relatively well given the barmy compound of dime-store Freudianism and Surrealist chic she finds herself sifting through. Ponderously organised, slick and faddish, it's a David O. Selznick movie with occasional flashes of creepy Hitchcock wit, but it's disappointing to watch a director who only the following year, in the wonderful Notorious, would sail so blissfully through a bonkers plot making such heavy weather of the gimmickry here: the puzzle-box layering of the Gregory Peck character, in particular, strikes me as virtually unactable, though square and wooden he can manage. I'm not at all sure that the first five, remarkably prolific years Hitchcock spent in Hollywood — from Rebecca through to this, scoring him his first three Best Director nominations — aren't actually his least interesting from any period: the double threat of Selznick and WWII seemed to stifle his sense of humour, I'm not even that crazy about Shadow of a Doubt (1943), and several of the others (Suspicion, Saboteur, Lifeboat) are workmanlike and impersonal in ways that dull the edge of their promising concepts.

I had a better time during George Cukor's Gaslight, with its Suspicion-like plot, though fans of the director and the film should take note that the earlier British version, made by Thorold Dickinson in 1940 and famously suppressed by Louis B Mayer, is in every way its superior. (It even makes it into my top 100.) Bergman's well-calibrated hysterics are both the movie's trump card and its problem, since it's fashioned so opulently by Cukor as a sort of vehicle for them, Charles Boyer's smooth but oddly unimpressive heavy coming nowhere near the unforgettable taunting sadism of Anton Walbrook. Cukor gets excellent work as usual from his ladies — Angela Lansbury's marvellous debut as the slutty maid fully earned her supporting nod, and Barbara Everest is good too as the housekeeper — but I think he lacks the killer genre instincts to make this material work as well as it should: a Hitchcock, for instance, would never allow Dame May Whitty to pop by and say coo-ee at the precise moment Boyer's being violently apprehended, and where Dickinson prowls around and points his camera unsettlingly at the ceiling, Cukor's just a shade too hung up giving Ingrid her sumptuous pained close-ups instead. It's by no means bad but it's glossy in a somewhat predictable way and — at a good half hour longer than Dickinson's — it rather lets the air out.

Spellbound (1945) C+
Gaslight (1940) A
Gaslight (1944) B

5 comments:

Goran said...

Get this: My boyfriend's doing a psychology degree - a relatively well-respected one - and a couple of months ago, his lecturer told his class that they should watch Hitchcock's "Spellbound" to learn more about amnesia. Hah!

I'm quite a fan of several Hitchcock pictures from his early US period: including Rebecca (though I do see it as more of a Selznick picture than a Hitchock one), Shadow of a Doubt, Lifeboat, Saboteur and bits of Foreign Correspondent. It's a shame though - and a bit confusing - that Mr. and Mrs Smith, his sole foray into screwball comedy, (starring none other than Carole Lombard, in the same year as To Be or Not to Be) turned out paltry. I found Spellbound much funnier.

I'd say his weakest period however, was probably 47-49. His other Selznick picture - The Paradine Case - is leaden, and Rope was an idea that worked better in theory than in execution.

A lot of people would probably dump Stage Fright along with his weaker pictures, but I think it's terrific fun - I wish Hitch made more movies with Marlene Dietrich.

tim r said...

I would agree with you if I didn't like Rope so much as a formal experiment — I think it paves the way for a lot of his best 1950s work, like Rear Window — but that's a strangely skimpy transitional period for sure. Notorious casts a long shadow for me though, and I can't comment on Under Capricorn as I haven't seen it...

Kamikaze Camel said...

Cukor's Gaslight is in MY Top 100, that's all I know.

Nick Davis said...

I'm not a fan of Spellbound, either, and I like Suspicion even less. (That may actually qualify in my book as a poor film, certainly graced with one of the weakest Best Actress-winning performances on the books.) Everything you say here about Spellbound communicates exactly why I don't care for it, though I do think Michael Chekhov is fun in it.

Goran said...

How long do you think we'll have to wait before someone finally tracks down the original Suspicion ending in some godforsaken studio archive?
I'm not the patient kind myself.