Friday, March 28, 2008

A surprisingly good original

Many classic movies are remakes of earlier movies. Here, I don't mean "classic" in the sense of "old", the way it is more or less used in the name of cable channel Turner Classic Movies; I'm referring here to some of the great movies of all time. A lot of these movies are based on earlier source material: movies such as the Judy Garland of The Wizard of Oz, Humphrey Bogart's The Maltese Falcon, and Charlton Heston's Ben-Hur are all based on books; all of these books had previously been made into movies before the versions we know and recognize today as the "definitive" movie versions of these books.

Plays have also been subjected to multiple movie treatments. Not only are there the public domain plays such as those of William Shakespeare, contemporary plays like the recently-mentioned Outward Bound have been made into movies on more than one occasion. And so it is with Gaslight. The 1944 movie starring Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman is probably best remembered, as it won Bergman an Oscar, but this morning, TCM showed the 1940 version. I was surprised at just how good it was.

The 1940 version was made in the UK by British International pictures, and distributed in the US by MGM (who made the 1944 version). Having been made in the UK, it's to be expected that the production values aren't quite as good as what one could expect from the most prestigious of the Hollywood studios. But the cast is quite effective. Anton Walbrook plays the role reprised by Charles Boyer, that of the man trying to drive his wife mad so that he can get at her aunt's jewels. The wife in the 1940 version is played by Diana Wynyard, who might be the weak link in this movie: she doesn't hit the emotional depth that Bergman does. The housemaid is also better in the 1944 version; Angela Lansbury is shockingly good as the saucy young girl helping her boss drive his wife mad; in the 1940 version, she comes across as much more flat. But one role that's better in the 1940 version is the man who helps our lady-in-distress discover the truth about her husband. In the 1944 version, that role is filled by Joseph Cotten playing a Scotland Yard detective, a role for which he's thoroughly unsuited. In the original, Frank Pettingell plays Rough, a retired cop looking to let the house next to Walbrook's; Pettingell plays his role with a sense of verve and forwardness that is entirely appropriate, and makes his character seem entirely realistic.

Fortunately, both versions of Gaslight are available on DVD.

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