Gaslight Movie Review
Director: George Cukor
Starring: Charles Boyer, Ingrid Bergman, Joseph Cotten, Dame May Whitty, Angela Lansbury, Barbara Everest, Emil Rameau, Edmund Breon, Halliwell Hobbes, Tom Stevenson, Heather Thatcher, Lawrence Grossmith
Oscar Wins: Best Actress (Ingrid Bergman), Best Art Direction (Black and White)
Other Nominations: Best Actor (Charles Boyer), Best Supporting Actress (Angela Lansbury), Best Cinematography (Black and White), Best Writing, Best Picture
The term ‘gaslighting’ has entered popular culture with a vengeance. I mean, you can’t read an article about politics or popular culture without it coming up at least once. But before ‘gaslight’ became an SEO tag, it was a play about a man who slowly manipulates his wife into believing she’s going insane.
The 1938 fictional play gave birth to the term ‘gas light’, and two film adaptations (one in 1940 and this adaptation in 1944) would help cement the term in popular culture. How it came to mean what it does is a twisted, evil story that begins as any great story begins: with a murder.
World-famous opera singer Alice Alquist has just been murdered in her London townhome. The perpetrator, who committed the crime in search of valuable jewels, has fled the scene empty-handed after being interrupted by Paula, Alice’s 14-year-old orphaned niece. Now without any legal guardians, Paula is sent to Italy to study opera herself.
It’s now several years later. Paula (Ingrid Bergman) is a newly married woman returning to live in the abandoned home once occupied by her aunt. She and her husband, Gregory Anton (Charles Boyer) begin their life together, she the caring and attentive wife, he the doting and debonair husband. Buuuut that doesn’t last long.
Gregory begins isolating Paula, making her doubt herself and her sanity. He steals her belongings, convincing her she’s losing them…he tricks her into seeing and hearing things that aren’t there and he forbids her from leaving the house or having friends come to see her. She’s completely isolated in her own house – and her own mind.
Not long after Paula begins her decent into madness, Gregory goes on nightly explorations, leaving Paula alone with the flirtatious and seemingly mysterious young maid of the house (played by a young Angela Lansbury in her film debut). Every night when Gregory is gone, Paula notices the gas lights in the house flickering (thus the term, ‘gas light’). Gregory persuades her that it’s just her delusions, but when a visiting local Scotland Yard officer also notices the lights flickering, Paula begins to discover that maybe she’s not crazy after all…and perhaps the man she married isn’t all he appears to be.
Like any great psychological thriller, fear itself becomes a character in this movie, with claustrophobic scenes depicting Paula’s tension. Indoor scenes are shot with minimal lighting while outdoor scenes are almost always clouded in London fog. This is not unlike an Alfred Hitchcock thriller, with small clues and details that even have the audience questioning their own sanity.
Ingrid Bergman was brilliant as Paula and this role would end up giving her one of three Academy Awards for Best Actress (For Whom the Bell Tolls and Casablanca would follow). In addition to Bergman, Charles Boyer does an excellent job of turning his suave, debonair persona into that of a calculating, fiendish villain.
In many ways, Gaslight is as much a character study as it is a thriller – and I love me a good character study. Yes, the ending is a bit weak and expected, but I think that’s mainly due to the fact that the build was so well-crafted. I don’t think the ending was ever meant to surprise us…any fan of gumshoe detective lore could really have figured it out by now, but you don’t watch this movie for the ending. The real terror happens long after the ending of the movie…when you’re lying in bed, wondering if that noise outside is real or just your imagination.