Director: George Cukor
Producer: Arthur Hornblow, Jr.
Writer: John Van Druten & Walter Reisch and John L. Balderston
Cast: Charles Boyer, Ingrid Bergman, Joseph Cotten, Dame May Whitty, Angela Lansbury
Why I DVRed This: For personal reasons, I have been very interested in the Narcissistic Personality Disorder, and in my research, I came across a behavior pattern known as gaslighting. The term refers to a mental abuse perpetrated by a narcissist (or actually any abuser) in which the abuser twists, spins, selectively omits, or outright makes up information to make the victim mistrust his/her own memory or sanity. So, for example, if you remember a narcissist berating you, the narcissist might tell you that you have an active imagination and remind you that you actually started the fight. Anyway, so I read about this behavior and found out the term originated from the play Gas Light, the source material for this film (and a British film called, like this one, Gaslight). Then I saw that the film was playing on TCM, and it seemed like kismet.
Oh, there’s also this great song called “Gaslight” that I’ve liked for a long time, so I suppose I would’ve been inclined to find out about the film Gaslight even without caring about narcissists.
Presentation on TCM: I don’t know why this was on, but it was on at 10 in the morning a few months ago. I waited to watch it because my wife wanted to see it too, so we needed a night in which we were both home and both in the mood to watch a film. We ended up doing a “woman-being-made-crazy-or-crazier-by-male-abuse” film festival, following it with a presentation of A Streetcar Named Desire also from TCM (but from a different date). But neither film actually featured any special presentation or announcement from the network.
Synopsis: As a young girl, Paula Alquist (Bergman) witnesses the murder of her opera-singing aunt. Years later, she meets and marries the dashing Gregory Anton (Boyer) in Italy, and the two move back into her aunt’s house in Victorian London. There, he changes her environment in subtle ways to convince her that she is going insane, all while he works on a scheme to abscond with precious jewels, unless the intrepid Inspector Brian Cameron of Scotland Yard (Cotten) can figure out the con in time!
Analysis (contains spoilers): This film is really over the top, but damn if it doesn’t work. The acting seemed completely overdone, but since everyone overacted in the movie, it works to great effect. Indeed, Angela Lansbury, Charles Boyer, and Ingrid Bergman were all nominated for Oscars for their acting (with Bergman winning), and though I usually prefer more subtle performances, I have to say I found everyone believable in the context of a plot that is completely unbelievable (I mean, Anton has a plan over a decade in the making to steal fucking jewels from a house he seems to know how to break into easily?). To be fair, Bergman has some nuance in her performance, but it’s very theatrical nuance. Regardless, I found the theatrical acting largely complemented the equally theatrical sets and atmospherics.
And those elements are indeed fun! There is a classic Victorian London square with a classic house, but the film also shows a fancy parlor concert, a Scotland Yard office, and a lavish house on Lake Como. Everything in the scenes is put together well and contributes to the overall mise en scène. The film has a feel of gothic horror (especially in the fog-drenched London night scenes), so that even when nothing sinister is actually happening on the screen, the audience never quite feels safe. And the sets in the house are so tightly packed that we feel trapped and claustrophobic even before any gaslighting starts to happen. Everything in Italy in the film seems light and airy, while London feels dark and drab, even though the house is gaudy and resplendent. Thus, everything that happens in London seems sinister and ominous.
The framing of individual shots contributes to this effect too. For instance, we see Anton and Paula framed by bars and shadows often, implying that she is or will soon be trapped. And we see Anton nefariously and surreptitiously pocket the letter that will be the most damning proof of his guilt and her sanity. Again, there is no subtlety in this movie or in its foreshadowing. Even the film’s big reveal about Anton being the strangler of the aunt is foreshadowed by the inordinate number of shots we see of his hands either caressing Paula’s neck or eerily disembodied from the rest of him. When he surprises Paula at the train station in Italy, for instance, we see his arms reaching out to embrace her before we see that they are his arms. Instead, they are just arms floating in from stage left. Gee, I wonder if he’s ever strangled anyone!
Still, the over-the-top aspects of the film are all in good fun and are indeed reminiscent of so many of the old Hollywood productions. The film might be more interesting as a film noir or something like that, but there’s nothing wrong with a well-crafted mystery film. I had three complaints about the film. One, I found the movement of the camera very very distracting, and I didn’t find it added anything to the film. Two, the classical lighting (which I know is a near-must for a movie of the time period) sometimes offset the effect of the dimming of the gas lights that Paula experiences. That is, she comments on (and the camera shows us) the lights growing dim, but the scene itself is still lit offstage, meaning we as an audience don’t see anything get darker. For a film that has a central tenet of lights growing dim (I mean, the title is Gaslight!), I feel like there ought to be more darkness and shadows in the diegetic world. Three, and this is a result of the first two—I think the film could’ve worked better if the direction were closer to Paula, if there were more subjectivity so that the audience got into her head a little bit more. It would help us see if she actually is growing insane or just getting pissed off that she’s being treated like she’s insane. But then again, those changes would make for a very different movie and maybe not as enjoyable a film. While I might prefer a noir, the director, George Cukor, chose to adhere more closely to Gothic conventions. Of course as the great David Bordwell reminds us in his article about the rise of suspenseful murder plots in 1940s movies, “We need to remember that female Gothics and films noirs are really ex post facto categories, constructed by later critics to point out affinities and differences among groups of films. These categories didn’t exist for contemporaries, and filmmakers and writers of the time carved things up rather differently.” Thus, let’s just appreciate Gaslight for what it is, not what it might’ve been.
With that in mind, overall, I can’t complain too much about Gaslight. It’s a fun picture that is totally engrossing, even with its ridiculousness. I loved Angela Lansbury’s cockney accent and the fact that her entire role seemed to consist of her giving side eye (as my wife put it) to all the principals. And Joseph Cotton’s detective work is fun, especially because literally every mystery of the film gets explained and connected, as it should in any mystery film. We are left with answers to everything, and it all adds up to a satisfying conclusion. Finally, I love the scene in which Bergman has Boyer tied up and calls him out on his bullshit. I won’t go so far as to say it’s empowering for all women, but it’s certainly more empowering than the rest of the film (in which she is made to feel insane by one man until another man saves her because her aunt gave him a glove once). And, if nothing else, it’s good acting from Bergman! (Also, interestingly, MGM insisted on Cotton’s character being rewritten as a suitable love interest for Bergman, so some of the weirder aspects of the film’s plot might just derive from the fact censors couldn’t simply have the implication that poor Paula would end up a divorcee because she married a killer.)
Should I Have DVRed This On TCM: Yes. I had fun watching this film, and that’s worth something. I’d recommend this film to anyone in the mood for an escapist suspense film. Or anyone who wants to hear a variety of weird accents and see a variety of dramatic atmospherics. Or anyone who likes movies about creepy husbands menacingly taking advantage of newlyweds (Rebecca, the more recent and underrated Crimson Peak). Or really just about anyone.