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Monday, May 9, 2011

GASLIGHT / ANGEL STREET (1940)

Four years after releasing this British film of the famous Patrick Hamilton play (w/ Diana Wynyard & Anton Walbrook), M-G-M tried to bury it (prints & all) to clear the field for their shiny new version with Ingrid Bergman, Charles Boyer, Joseph Cotton & debuting Angela Lansbury. But it survived and now comes on the flip DVD side of its deluxe 1944 sibling. Critics have long championed it, but, except for Walbrook, who’s as fine in his way as Boyer is, the plush remake improves on almost every point. The basic story remains: devious husband tries to make his fragile wife think she is losing her mind; and the tone of swank terror is similar, but the structure, character development & flow of information is far more cunningly handled in the later pic. This one opens with a grisly murder; the remake starts with a terrified young girl leaving a house of death. So much more mysterious & intriguing right off the bat. And while a second prologue, set in Italy, is neatly elided in 1940, much of the first act also goes missing, leaving a lot of the suspense ungrounded. Director Thorold Dickinson & lenser Bernard Knowles were major talents, but they got far less out of the material than George Cukor & Joseph Ruttenberg did @ M-G-M. Their deft camera moves & chiaroscuro lighting in 1944 aren’t just there to show off the Hollywood studio system (though they do!, they do!), but in this sort of story atmosphere is content, and vice versa. Add in Cukor’s special knack with actors, including his supporting players, and you’ve made your case. After you’ve watched, check out the two opening sequences, side-by-side, and then the final 15 or 20 minutes of each. It tells the tale.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: To see Dickinson & Walbrook at their best together, try their marvelous version of Pushkin’s THE QUEEN OF SPADES/’49. (There are bad Public Domain prints around, but a new British edition, with an intro from Martin Scorsese, is bound to show up Stateside.)

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