Gaslight 1940 and 1944 – a short, feminist comparison

Gas Light is a play by Patrick Hamilton, which premiered in 1938. If you’ve ever heard of the term “gaslighting someone”, it comes from this play. In it, a husband psychologically abuses his wife until she believes that she is going mad.

They live in the house of a rich woman, who was killed for her jewels – by the husband. Now he has returned with his wife to search through the house for them. To cover up his crime and his search, he tortures his wife. A retired policeman recognizes him and starts researching the circumstances. He convinces the wife that she is not insane and helps her return to her family. Read the synopsis on Wikipedia.

The play was turned into a film made in Britain in 1940, directed by Thorold Dickinson (IMDB link / Wikipedia link). It is intensely creepy and terrifying to see the psychological abuse. The film sticks very close to the play – the characters are British, the person taking an interest in the case is a retired policeman who recognizes the husband and helps the wife, because he objects to her treatment and to solve the case (after all, the husband is a murderer).

In 1944, the film was remade in Hollywood, directed by George Cukor, starring Ingrid Bergman and Joseph Cotten (IMDB link / Wikipedia link). Interestingly, the husband suddenly becomes “a foreigner”, speaking with a fake “foreign” accent. The woman killed for her jewels was the wife’s aunt, a famous opera singer. It is perpetually hinted, that she had “famous admirers” (NUDGE NUDGE WINK WINK), that’s how she got the jewels.

The policeman who becomes interested in investigating the case isn’t an older man anymore, it’s a young man who once saw the opera singer when he was 12 and fell madly in love with her. The wife supposedly looks like her aunt, that’s why he notices her and decides to investigate the case. And because the husband looks shifty. In the end, the wife isn’t returned to her family, since she has none, but can look forward to the bright future of being married to the policeman.

There are more interesting things to notice – the servants, an older woman and a younger woman. The younger woman is complicit in the abuse in both films, more so in the 1944 version, since the husband deliberately flirts with her, promising her attention, entertainment, a status change via sex if she does as he says. (misterable stereotype masking the sexual harrassment and abuse of female servants). In the 1940 version the husband takes the younger servant out to a music hall show where dancers are objectified (although they all wear long underwear and their acrobatics are very impressive).

The older woman is complicit as well at first, but not as much. In the 1944 version she is hard of hearing, so she can’t hear the noises the husband makes as he searches for the jewels, which unfortunately leads the wife to think she is imagining them (because everybody tells her so). Later, when everything is revealed, the older woman in the 1944 version tries to protect the wife from her husband. In the 1944 version there is also an elderly neighbour who is very nosy (more stereotyping), but through her nosiness gives a lot of information to the policeman. In her own way, she is helping the wife, but I wish she had been portrayed less stereotypically.

Anyway, I’ll take the British version, please. Except I don’t really want to see it again.


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