Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman in 1944's "Gaslight."

Gaslight July 3, 2020

  

DIRECTED BY

George Cukor

 

STARRING

Ingrid Bergman

Charles Boyer

Joseph Cotton

Angela Lansbury

Dame May Whitty

 

RATED

PG

 

RELEASED IN

1944

 

RUNNING TIME

1 Hr., 54 Mins.

A

fter two weeks of dating, Paula (Ingrid Bergman), an amateur opera singer, and Gregory (Charles Boyer), an enigmatic Frenchman, decide that they are so in love that marriage cannot wait. Paula doesn’t know Gregory very well; in fact she tells him as much when he proposes. But because his intentions seem pure enough to her, Paula decides unequivocally that she can trust him. This is love. She trusts him so

much that when Gregory pressures her immediately to move with him to London (currently they're in Italy) and into her iconic opera-singer aunt Alice's streetside mansion there, she agrees. She doesn't really question the strangeness of this request. Something to know about aunt Alice: While her 

talent is ultimately what got her her legacy, much of that legacy has been overwhelmed by the fact that she was murdered by a fan who was never identified a few years ago. Her death continues to haunt Paula. When the latter's chatty seat companion (Dame May Whitty) on a London-bound train ride brings up Alice’s murder as a juicy local legend to share, not realizing that her temporary neighbor is a descendent, Paula freezes. She practically leaves her body.

 

There’s a cockeyedness to all this; we're wary of Paula and Gregory’s whirlwind romance. Why is it that he not only proposes marriage after two weeks but is also obsessive — and finally persuasive — about him and Paula living in her dead relative's mansion, something with which the former is evidently not entirely comfortable? Our skepticism is replaced by a blaring internal alarm bell when, early on in the movie, Paula reads aloud a letter she's found. It's from a fan, and was delivered to Alice just a few days before she was killed. Gregory aggressively snatches it away from her — a gesture that makes it clear to us that there are ulterior motives to his interest in Paula. Perhaps, we think, he was the obsessed fan who wrote the letter. Who else would react like that? 

 

Suspicions about Gregory’s true identity turn to almost complete certainty when, toward the end of the first act of the scary Gaslight (1944), a period thriller whose chilly thrills stem from his apparent predations, the latter starts to work diligently to convince Paula that she is going mad. He purposely misplaces items and then convinces her that it was she who did the misplacing. They’ll visit someplace, like a local haunt, and then Gregory will persuade Paula shortly afterward that such a place was never set foot in. She imagined things. Paula invests so much in Gregory that it isn’t long into the film that she has begun to unwaveringly buy into his claims of what appears to be insanity. She is so in thrall to him that she is unable to see, like we see, that a trustworthy spouse would not get so angry with her for forgetting things here and there. Wouldn't they conversely try to help out? A spouse's eyes wouldn't look so black and beady and unfeeling when you're making it plain that you're struggling. They wouldn't disallow you from going outside, having friends. 

 

Many thrillers of the era — notably 1941’s Suspicion or 1948’s Sorry, Wrong Number — featured shady husbands scheming against their wives for personal gain. But what makes Gaslight unusually unnerving is how much more weight it comparatively gives to recognizable psychological-abuse tactics. George Cukor’s uncanny, Gothic-chic direction feels increasingly claustrophobic — mirroring the caving-in of the narrative and of Paula's world in general. Bergan’s exhilarating performance, which she won an Oscar for, is harrowingly articulate. A lesser actress might hammily milk the increasing hysterics the screenplay calls for. But with Bergman, you can almost see the internal rumbling; in the cathartic moments where her Paula yelps at nothing in particular in frustration, it feels like just a microcosm of how exactly she’s feeling. Bergman, who can do so much with her beautiful, Greek-statue-esque face, really seems as though she is being driven crazy. Though I think Boyer’s progressively ruthless performance tends to be a bit one-dimensionally viperous, it adequately reflects the unyielding force of a manipulator and abuser like Gregory. 

 

Take away Gregory’s true, mystery-thriller-style motivation to get involved with Paula, take away the insertion of the Scotland Yard detective (Joseph Cotten) who by chance stumbles on what is going on, and this is a more than cogent reflection of an everyday, textbook abusive relationship. You can see why the term “gaslighting,” as a result of this film’s success, caught on. (It wasn’t this film alone that brought the abusive act notoriety, though: it’s one of many adaptations of the popular 1938 play of the same name.) This movie lays out a specific, common kind of torment that until then had not been so concisely asserted in the popular imagination. It’s also terrifying. A-