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Synopsis: Following in the footsteps of her murdered aunt, Paula Alquist (Ingrid Bergman) sets off to become a great opera singer — but falls in love with her accompanist along the way. Gregory Anton (Charles Boyer) promises to whisk Paula away from her troubled past and show her true love and happiness. But right away, Paula’s nerves are tested when the couple moves into her aunt’s house and scene of her murder. Losing and misplacing things without remembering ever touching them, hearing strange noises in the house at night, and feeling seething resentment from their maid Nancy (Angela Lansbury), Paula’s life becomes dismal, and Gregory insists that her health is at stake. But is Paula really going crazy — or is that just what Gregory wants her to believe? Soon, a curious stranger (Joseph Cotten) pays Paula a visit and reveals that all may not be what it seems.
Well, it’s sure taken me long enough to get around to watching this one, especially given the fact that I own it. Directed by George Cukor for MGM in 1944, Gaslight is a remake of a British film of the same name released only four years prior, which itself is an adaptation of “Angel Street,” a 1938 play by Patrick Hamilton. It was nominated in seven categories at that year’s Academy Awards, winning Ingrid Bergman her first Best Actress Oscar as well as taking home the award for Best Art Direction (Black and White). The term “gaslighting,” which means to abusively manipulate a victim into doubting her or his own sense of reality using emotional and physical tactics, originated with what Charles Boyer’s character does to his wife Bergman in this film. It has become a part of culture and a major part of feminist theory.
While I knew from feminist theory that this was an important film with an all-too-relevant story to tell, I have to admit that I started off disappointed. There isn’t much mystery here, unlike in 1955’s Diabolique which uses superficially-similar themes, as to what Gregory is doing to Paula. We get the sense very early on in their relationship that he is slimy, untrustworthy, manipulative and abusive. We can see it, so why can’t Paula? Albeit, she is young and recovering from major emotional trauma, looking to her new husband to distract her and spirit her away from her turbulent past; but one doesn’t want to see a “weak” female lead character when dissecting a film for its feminist leanings. At some point it just becomes a waiting game for when Joseph Cotten’s character will nonchalantly decide to probe deeper into what’s going on and save Paula from the terrifying prison her husband has created for her.
Paula’s lack of agency and role as a pawn for the two men in her life, while distressing, is wholeheartedly redeemed in the film’s climactic confrontation between Paula and Gregory in the attic. While the viewer is relieved that Brian Cameron has finally swooped in to rescue the damsel in distress, it is just such a wonderful breath of fresh air to see her shove him aside and confront her abuser head-on. I was definitely cheering! Indeed, in running away from her intended career to be with the man she loves, in agreeing to move into her aunt’s house despite it holding so many haunting memories for her, we see that Paula has been a strong-willed, heroic character all along – it is simply her slimeball of a husband who has broken her into this weak, scared little thing incapable of speaking up for herself. Sure, it takes another man to point it out to her, but Paula gets her comeuppance in the end, on her terms.
There are other female characters I found interesting in this film. Angela Lansbury as the petulant maid Nancy is
smokin’ an interesting one to examine. Much like Bette Davis’ Mildred Rogers in Of Human Bondage, Nancy has no use for other women and only speaks to men in order to further her own prospects. It is implied from her introduction that she is in collusion with Gregory, if not actively participating in the process of gaslighting Paula. She doesn’t need to show sympathy for Paula out of any sort of “sisterly” connection, because she is only interested in getting what she wants and playing by her rules. Wouldn’t you feel the same if you’d grown up a poor working-class Cockney girl, likely having watched both your parents work themselves to the bone making the lives of rich people more comfortable? (Or am I reading way too much into this minor character?) I was also intrigued by the “comic relief” neighborhood busybody played by Dame May Whitty. I wonder about her place as an oblivious, murder-obsessed matron in an otherwise serious dramatic thriller. Is she perhaps intended as a stand-in for the audience? For, in sitting here for nearly two hours seeking to be “entertained” by watching this poor woman be tortured and imprisoned in her own home, aren’t we sort of “Bloodthirsty Bessies” ourselves?
Overall what sells this film is Cukor’s magnificent directing. The sets, the lighting, the music are all pitch-perfect and help the film to achieve the necessary Gothic, noir-ish atmosphere it needs to triumph. The scene I found most chilling is the part where Gregory and Paula go on a cheery little date to the Tower of London, and in the torture chamber (who chose this frighteningly-romantic location, anyway?!?), with the shadows of the devices intended to inflict pain and death swooping in around her, Paula discovers that the brooch Gregory has entrusted her with has gone missing. I found it a very foreboding hint of what Paula believes might happen to her when Gregory finds out about the brooch. And of course, when he does find out, he plays it off like he doesn’t care, for the sake of her feelings, because he’s just such a sweet and sympathetic guy. (Slimeball!)
Gaslight is a magnificent film by a magnificent director with a magnificent cast. You shouldn’t need me to recommend it, but I wholeheartedly do. A film with many layers and textures of meaning and symbolism, this one has major replay value and definitely lives up to its well-deserved hype.
Gaslight (1944) – 4.5/5 stars