Bernie pic

Bernie pic

Saturday, 7 November 2015

Watch a film classic for free

PLEASE sir, can I have some more film noir?
       Like Oliver Twist, we are asking the question, only we will not be turned away with a clip across the ear.
       Today we will go to the land of Charles Dickens to continue our feast of noir.
      As we now know, classic noir refers to Hollywood films from the early 1940s to the late 1950s. But that is just an easy definition to cover many noirs because Gaslight is a British film made in 1940.
       If Hollywood had had its way, we would not be watching Gaslight later today.
Gaslight started life as the 1938 play Gas Light by Patrick Hamilton. Theatre buffs can imagine how astounding the play would have been with the central gaslight icon and the glorious role-reversal scene towards the end.
       The play made it to Broadway with a strange name change to Angel Street. If anyone knows the story behind the name change I would love to hear it.
       Anyway, the British movie and the Broadway play, both called Angel Street were successful and the Hollywood studio MGM paid its respects. It bought the remake rights. But  - and some like big buts in Hollywood – MGM demanded all existing prints of the British version be destroyed. The studio further demanded the negatives be obliterated as well. Luckily this outrageous caveat was not met.


       The 1944 MGM version was a big budget exercise and an outstanding success. But many noir lovers would argue it is inferior to the earlier film.
Thorold Dickinson directed the 1940 British film which stars Anton Walbrook, Diana Wynyard, and Frank Pettingell.

       Our take-home trivia about director Dickinson is that he went on to become Britain’s first University professor of film. Now that’s a good job if you can get it. Oh Thorold, you’re not bringing work home again. Ah well, best open the home theatre and invite over a few friends.

       Gaslight lead Diana Winyard was the first British actress to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress for Cavalcade(1933). She later had a distinguished career on the British stage punctuated with character roles in film. Trivia wise, she was married to doyen of British noir director Carol Reed from February 1943 until August 1947. Reed won the Academy Award for Best Director for Oliver! (1968)

       Austrian Anton Walbrook abandoned his domestic stage and film career to settle in England after the rise of Adolf Hitler. Trivia point, his birth name was Adolf and he changed it when he emigrated. In Gaslight watch for a racial slur during a church scene. The racism is quite disturbing given the developments in the film.

       Character actor Frank Pettingell plays the amusingly named retired policeman B. G. Rough. One of the real strengths of film noir was the use of theatre actors in eye-catching support roles. Pettingell was a former artist, journalist, amateur and then professional stage actor who had his screen role in 1931 when he was 40-years-old. Pettingell appeared in more than 60 films, the last as Bishop of York Becket (1964) two years before his death.
       Gaslight has more contrast than the unrelenting future film noirs. Britain is after all the home of Shakespeare and the film has light relief in both scenery and dialogue.
       But as far as the noir scenes go, Gaslight wrote the first text. The motif of the gaslight is central to the film and light penetrating the darkness is exquisite in good noirs. Okay, turn off those lights. Bill, go get that $2 torch we bought from Penney’s. Shine it in Sam’s face. Hold the bloody thing still, can’t you? No wait, that jerky light across his face looks good. Keep doing that.
       Mirror scenes, vertical dark slats across scenes, portentous music: they are all here in Gaslight.
      Bask in the glory of early noir.

Now for our song. If noir be the film I love, let the projector roll on.

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