George Cukor, 1944
Starring: Ingrid Bergman, Charles Boyer, Joseph Cotten, Angela Lansbury
Beloved opera singer Alice Alquist is murdered and her young niece, Paula, is sent to Italy to recover and train as an opera singer. While there she is swept off her feet by a man she barely knows, Gregory, and decides to put her career on hold and marry him. At first things are blissful, but he convinces her that they should move into her aunt’s old house in London, which has been left to Paula in her aunt’s will.
Here Gregory becomes increasingly controlling. Paula is told she can’t go out or receive visitors because she is not “well enough,” and Gregory accuses her of misplacing things, forgetting things, and making things up. They board up her aunt’s belongings in the attic room and Gregory has a violent outburst when she discovers a letter to her aunt from a man named Sergius Bowers, sent only a few days before her death. Gregory later tells her the letter was a figment of her imagination. There is also something going on with the house: the gaslights randomly dim and brighten in the evenings and Paula hears footsteps above her bedroom.
Gregory takes her out on a tour of the Tower of London, though she loses a brooch he gave her and is near hysteria. They run into a man who seems shocked to see her. He is Inspector Cameron, a fan of her aunt Alice in his childhood, who takes a new look at Alice’s murder case. Paula insists on attending a dinner party, but Gregory accuses her of stealing his pocket watch and drives her to hysterics. She fears he is going to have her committed, but Cameron begins a deeper investigation and is determined to come to Paula’s aid.
What has been hinted to us early on is revealed by Cameron. Gregory is Sergius Bauer and murdered Paula’s aunt many years ago in order to steal some jewels he became obsessed with. Unable to find the jewels on the night of the murder, he seduced and married Paula and has driven her insane so he can search for them uninterrupted during the night. He does find the jewels, but it is too late. Cameron used his absence to enter the house and speak to Paula. He ensures her that she is not insane. They are able to apprehend Gregory/Sergius and force him to admit his guilt. Cameron declares his feelings for Paula and says he will be there for her recovery process.
Seemingly building upon the gothic themes and female inspired horror of novels like Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, Gaslight is one of a number of films in the ‘40s where the home is a prison or a place of horror for women; Hitchcock’s Rebecca and Shadow of a Doubt are key examples, as well as more overt horror films like The Spiral Staircase. While Gaslight will likely not interest fans of Universal’s more supernatural driven horror tales of the ‘30s and ‘40s, it is a successful exercise in subtle, suspense-fueled terror. Though essentially a film about emotional spousal abuse, the themes of madness and murder launch this into horror territory.
Gaslight is both a remake of a 1940 British film and an adaptation of a play by Patrick Hamilton. The script had a few notables working on it, including John L. Balderston, who penned numerous horror scripts for Universal, including Dracula and Frankenstein, and John Van Druten, who would adapt Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories into a play, I Am a Camera, which was the basis for Cabaret. The crowded, Victorian style house looks amazing, thanks to art direction from Cedric Gibbons and his team, and it provides some wonderful atmosphere for the film. There is also a heavy reliance on shadowy rooms and foggy streets. The cinematography from Joseph Ruttenberg (Brigadoon among many more) is certainly one of the film’s finest points.
Gaslight seems like an odd choice for director George Cukor, more known for his comedies and musicals, such as The Philadelphia Story, Adam’s Rib, Pat and Mike, My Fair Lady, and more. Cukor did make a great number of films with strong female characters and that serves him well here. The film is sympathetic to Paula and ultimately allows her to get her revenge.
Shockingly, Bergman was passed over by the Academy for Casablanca, but won her first Academy Award for her performance here. She is excellent as Paula and effectively carries the film. Allegedly, to research the part, she spent time in a mental institution. As with The Picture of Dorian Gray, a very young Angela Lansbury plays a small side role. While she was lovely and sweet in the former film, here she plays a rude maid who openly dislikes Paula and flirts with Gregory. Allegedly this role was a lot smaller, but Cukor was so impressed with Lansbury that he gave her more screen time. The part wound up earning her a Best Supporting Actress nomination.
Charles Boyer (Algiers, Hold Back the Dawn) is well cast as Gregory. He is both charming and slimy, carefully manipulating Alice in every scene and driving her inexorably toward madness and breakdown. Ultimately his character seems a little ridiculous, but historically, patterns of spousal abuse indicate that a man doesn’t need the motivation of jewels to emotionally abuse his wife and empty her life of support. Joseph Cotten, in an early role, doesn’t have much to do as Inspector Cameron, but he is likable and, as Boyer’s opposite, was a good choice for the film’s hero.
Gaslight is available on DVD from Warner and comes highly recommended, though primarily to fans of classic suspense films. The original 1940 British film directed by Thorold Dickinson is also included with the Warner DVD and provides an interesting counterpoint.