Documentary-maker, writer and director Thorold Dickinson’s output was relatively sparse over his short career, but this 1940 psychological thriller, based on the play of the same name by Patrick Hamilton, certainly demonstrates the cinematic flair of the man. It is inevitable (well, for me, anyway) that Dickinson’s film should draw comparison with Hitchcock and Gaslight’s tale of (the superb) Anton Walbrook’s duplicitous husband, Paul Mallen, and his attempts to drive his wife, Diana Wynyard’s Bella, to the point of insanity (for his own mercenary reasons) called to my mind the likes of Rebecca and Notorious, as well as (in terms of the film’s look and feel), films from Hitch’s British period such as Sabotage and (even) The Lodger. And, although the film was no doubt made for a pittance, Dickinson and cinematographer Bernard Knowles do a great job evoking the film’s claustrophobic, misty, late 19th century London feel, which is complemented impressively by Richard Addinsell’s variously eerie, sweeping and dramatic score.
Key to the film’s increasingly disturbing mood, however, is Walbrook’s turn as the alternately haughty, playful, mysterious, seductive, possessive and increasingly volatile and cruel anti-hero, whose coercion of his 'beloved’ (as they return to the Pimlico house where twenty years earlier a murder and attempted robbery took place) is brilliantly depicted. Walbrook has delivered some brilliantly sympathetic turns in his time (perhaps most notably that in Powell and Pressburger’s The Life And Death Of Colonel Blimp), but here he is more akin to his (similarly domineering) Boris Lermontov in the same film-makers’ The Red Shoes. Dickinson’s film is far from a one-man show, however, and Wynyard delivers her 'Joan Fontaine-like’ turn impressively, whilst Frank Pettingell is also particularly good as the ex-copper, now amateur sleuth, Rough, whose suspicions around Mallen’s past connection with the Pimlico residence are aroused.
Dickinson’s talent for cinematic symbolism is also to the fore via the use of the titular source of light as a plot driver, denoting both Bella’s increasingly fragile state of mind and Paul’s nefarious activities. Similarly, the film-maker sets up the film’s 'cockney backdrop’ nicely via Cathleen Cordell’s turn as the 'down-to-earth’ (and flirtatious) maid, Nancy, and the sequences depicting street Punch and Judy and music hall French can-can. There is also a highly effective sequence depicting Paul’s cruelty and highlighting Bella’s frailty during a piano recital.
I must admit to not having seen the Hollywood version (made 4 years later) of the film which, given its cast, must be worth a look, but I doubt it can surpass Walbrook’s great performance here.
The excellent BFI remastered Dual Format release also contains a 32-page booklet on the film, plus a number of Dickinson’s documentary shorts.
on 19 May 2014
Magnificent example of filmaking and suspense. All players are excellent (specially Walbrook, Wynyard & Pettinger). The direction by Thorold Dickinson is superb. The art direction, edition, music, sound, and cinematography is excellent too. Very good adaptation of the play. BFI's restoration is very good if not exceptional. Vastly superior to the MGM remake. The american version is good but this is a classic. This film deserves more recognition for film classic buffs. I recommend it strongly!
on 3 October 2014
Psycopath Anton Walbrook (Paul) is after something at 12 Pimlico Square. His wife Diana Wynyard (Bella) is a hindrance and he needs her out of the way, so goes through with a plan to convince her that she is mad and belongs in an institution. However, ex-detective Frank Pettingell (Rough) recognizes Anton from his past and is determined to find out what he is up to.
I’ve read that MGM tried to destroy all copies of this film so that their 1944 remake would be the definitive version. Thank goodness they failed. This film is just as good as the re-make. It has some subtle differences and the cast are excellent – apart from the servant Cathleen Cordell (Nancy) who seems to grin inanely for no purpose on a couple of occasions. Her suitor Jimmy Hanley (Cobb) speaks like a plonker at the beginning but is forgiven, and Frank Pettigell gives the whole story someone to root for as the saviour. He has no romantic interest, he just acts as a kind of Sherlock Holmes who is solving a mystery.
There are good scenes and settings and we have a gripping climax when Wynyard turns the tables on Walbrook at the end. Is she going to get even? And check out the can-can dancers. An entertaining film.