Review of “Gaslight” (1940)


Image via IMDB

Poster for the film Gaslight (1940).

By Liv Ream, Film Critic

Gaslight is a classic 1940 film, directed by Thorold Dickinson and written by Arthur Richard Rawlinson and Bridget Boland. It was based on the 1938 play Gas Light by Patrick Hamilton starring Diana Wynyard as Bella Mallen and Anton Walbrook as Paul Mallen. We can see this British psychological thriller through a modern lens. The film is available for free on YouTube and the Roku Channel. I will do my best not to spoil it even though you have had 82 years to view the film.  

Late in the night in 1865, a mysterious man breaks into the home of Alice Barlow (Marie Wright) at 12 Pimlico Sq. in London. After killing her and ransacking every room, the killer is gone. The following morning’s paper reports the crime, along with Barlow’s missing rubies. 

Cut to twenty years later, the hot gossip is all about the new couple, the Mallens, moving into 12 Pimlico Sq. Outside of Sunday service, the upper-class congregation watch as Paul and Bella Mallen arrive, making sure to comment on the absolute scandal that they only have two maids. A subtle, perfectly aged way to show they might be… struggling financially. How embarrassing for them. 

It’s clear that Bella has a history of mental instability. She begs her husband Paul to be patient with her as items around the house regularly go missing. The “lost” objects are later found in her possession or places she has easy access to. When she starts noticing gas lamps throughout the home dimming at odd times, Paul insists she is imagining things. Still, Bella is unable to shake these supposed delusions, as the flickering of the gas lamps illuminates her husband’s insidious intentions. It is revealed that Paul has been sneaking up to the closed-off levels of the house to search for the missing Barlow rubies. Lighting the gas lamps to assist his search interrupted the flow of gas to the downstairs lamps, causing them to flicker.  

I enjoyed how tightly paced this movie is. No time is wasted grabbing your attention from the beginning. I love the symbolism of the gas lamps. In every scene of Paul pushing Bella further and further towards a breakdown, the gas lamps are positioned right over their heads. It felt specific and intentional as if trying to cast a light on Paul’s abuse. Diana Wynyard plays the wilting wife trope perfectly, complimenting Anton Walbrook’s calculated, philandering husband. The power imbalance between the couple hangs in the air throughout the entire film. Themes of psychological abuse, manipulation, and isolation are portrayed by talented actors with convincing performances that keep this film relevant and entertaining today.  

MGM studios bought the remake rights after the success of the play and film. The studio added a clause that all existing prints of Dickinson’s version (including the negative) must be destroyed. This is rumored to have occurred because the studio did not want to compete with the film that was already well received, but maybe they just wanted to try gaslighting us into forgetting the original. Thankfully, Dickinson had kept his own personal copy. MGM’s remake is generally considered flashier, boasting a two-million-dollar budget, star-studded cast, and seven Academy Award nominations. Despite this, Dickinson’s take on the story continues to be hailed as the stronger of the two films.