Gaslight (1944)


Little factoid for you: gaslight was around for 40 years before electricity became the norm
Little factoid for you: gaslight was around for 40 years before electricity became the norm

Genre: Period Drama Thriller

Starring: Charles Boyer (The Earrings of Madame de...Is Paris Burning?), Ingrid Bergman (Casablanca Under Capricorn)

Directed By: George Cukor (The Philadelphia StoryA Star Is Born)

Overview: When her aunt is killed, young Paula leaves the country to start a new life. Years later, she marries and returns to her old house, but all is not well in the home when her possessive husband begins pointing out that she is showing signs of madness.

Feel free to click here to skip the spoiler bit at the beginning.

This paragraph is strictly for those who’ve seen the film, who never plan on seeing the film, or who don’t mind every hook, line and twister being ruined before they see it (you people are weird)...
Click here to skip the spoiler bit.

That Overview I've written above will probably provide its readers with more suspense than Gaslight's own straightforward plot does. Watching a man psychologically torment his wife slowly into madness is still a solid storyline, but one of the issues I forgave Gaslight is that the plot never implied anything else was going on. From the moment husband Gregory tears the damning letter out of his wife Paula's hand in the beginning of the second act, we knew who the bad guy was and that what was happening was entirely one-sided. The script didn't manipulate the events to inspire doubt in the audience. Framed in the Thriller genre with elements of Mystery, I would entirely agree if someone called Gaslight a failure. Moments where we suspend disbelief by forgiving the husband keeping all evidence in his roll-top is one thing, so is the Deus Ex Machina of having a man come in (on several occasioans) to save the girl, but where Gaslight fails me completely is Gregory's motive for driving his wife crazy. The husband, looking for priceless gems in the attic room he has sealed, confuses Paula into believing she has kleptomaniac memory lapses. He keeps her cloistered at home while he goes out pretending to work, only to sneak into the attic, make noise and make her think she's hallucinating. He wears down Paula's faculties with the purpose of having her committed. Why? So he can search around the attic without his wife around. The film proves early on that his wife will obey her husband. All he needed to do was to tell her to stay out of the dangerous cluttered attic and she would have. Alternatively, why would he not merely allow his wife to – nay, insist that his wife - go out and be a socialite? Then he'd have hours alone to find the prize he seeks. The plot of Gaslight is a tremendously weak link.
Really, he's a nice guy, just give him a chance.
Really, he's a nice guy, just give him a chance.

Gaslight opens in a typical Victorian London Fog. A young girl, obviously shaken, is sent away from a crime scene where her rich and famous opera singer aunt Alice was murdered. The young Paula is sent off for an education in Italy, where, like Alice, she trains to become an opera signer. She grows up, is wooed by Gregory and is soon married. They move back to the house in London that Paula inherited. Her emotions are quite obviously distressed as she relives the memories of what happened all those years ago. As she begins searching through her aunt’s things, she uncovers a letter that her husband reacts quite suddenly to. He snatches it away and decides that she is not yet well enough to go out or have guests, explaining that coming back to London, to this house, has taken its toll. From this point on, she rarely leaves the house, sees few people save the servants and her husband frequently mentions how she’s forgetful and loses things. From this point on Paula begins to doubt herself as her husband gets more and more frustrated. Enter Inspector Brian Cameron, a fan of her opera signer aunt Alice, who takes an interest in Paula and her situation, and being a policeman, naturally investigates.

Gaslight is pretty with its dark shadows, Victorian fog and elegant costumes. Ingrid Bergman is talented (and pretty) if a little histrionic. Some of the writing really pops out, especially the final dramatic dialogue. In the end however, though generally entertaining and moody, Gaslight is the sort of film that will appeal more to the completist who wants to see Bergman and Joseph Cotten in another role, the near-Noir costume-drama lover and the film historian who wants to see a rather striking Angela Lansbury in her first movie role. Yet, even if you're sticking to the 40s era, there's so much more, so much better that… well let me quote the 1001 book itself, "Gaslight's plot is somewhat thin… Gaslight makes an elegant period-piece companion to the film noir series then featured by Hollywood." In this context, when someone says 'companion', it tells me that you wouldn't necessarily want to invite them to your house without some other guests, because, you know, they’re entertaining enough, but better in a crowd.

Yes, in fact that IS Angela Lansbury!
Yes, in fact that IS Angela Lansbury!

Performance: 7 Cinematography: 8 Script: 8 Plot: 4 Mood: 7

Overall Rating: 68% (Has Its Occasional Bright Moments)

One of the many reasons I like being a film critic who researches his films is discovering the little puzzle pieces that are the cultural references of our little blue ball in the universe. Gaslighting (sort of a spoiler link) is a term I'd never heard, and now that I know it, am happy to learn that it was coined by the play that inspired George Cukor's Gaslight. That Wikipedia entry even has a picture of Ingrid Bergman from this film.

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