Gaslight (1944)

  • Title:  Gaslight
  • Director:  George Cukor
  • Date:  1944
  • Studio:  MGM
  • Genre:  Drama, Film Noir, Suspense, Classic
  • Cast:  Ingrid Bergman, Charles Boyer, Joseph Cotten, Angela Lansbury
  • Format:  Standard, Black and White
  • DVD Format:  R1, NTSC, (Double-sided)

“I was right about you — I knew from the first moment I saw you, you were dangerous to me.” — Gregory
“I knew from the first moment I saw you, you were dangerous to her.” — Mr. Brian Cameron, Scotland Yard

I’ve always thought that Gaslight is one of the scariest movies to watch. It’s spine-tingling and chilling, rather than gross, or shocking. The best way to get the full effect, is to watch it with all the lights off, at night, when you’re alone in the house, and of course a thunderstorm helps. There is nothing scarier than the idea of someone coldly trying to drive you insane. Films about those kinds of mind games are truly frightening.

The movie opens with Paula leaving her aunt’s house, she thinks for the last time. She had been raised by her aunt, after her mother died in childbirth. She’s been encouraged to go to Italy to study singing and forget the recent tragedy that’s befallen her. We learn later that her aunt was a famous opera singer and she was murdered. Still later we learn the murder is still unsolved, there was a jewel theft at the same time, but the jewels were never found, sold, or traded.

In Italy, Paula quickly discovers she has no talent for operatic singing, and she meets the man of her dreams, she thinks. After two weeks, he’s proposed. She tells him she needs time to think about it, and wants a week to herself at a lakeside vacation resort. When her train arrives there, he’s waiting for her. He talks her into settling down in London, and even though Paula doesn’t want to return to London, she agrees. The film is, by the way, set in Victorian London. They end up living in Paula’s Aunt’s house, which Paula has inherited.

The film then gets weird – Gregory Anton completely controls his wife’s life. He doesn’t allow her to go out of the house, not even on a short walk (even by Victorian standards, that’s excessive). He fires Paula’s maid, and hires an impertinent girl named Nancy (beautifully played by Angela Lansbury as alternately sinister and flirty). Again, normally the hiring and firing of servants would be a woman’s job.  And he slowly starts to drive Paula insane, giving her things, then taking them away but telling her she lost them. Taking a picture down off the wall, then pointing it out to be missing and saying she did it.  And going out at night, leaving her alone with a deaf cook and rude maid, who do everything he says and thus join in on his mind games of turning down the gaslight (and saying it hasn’t been) and ignoring the footsteps in the closed off attic that Paula hears.

But the genius of  the movie is that it isn’t obvious about any of this. We don’t actually see Gregory take a brooch from Paula’s purse, we only see him fiddle with it. We don’t see him tell the servants to lie to make Paula look nuts either – we only see him tell Nancy she’s to take all her orders from him and not her mistress.

Joseph Cotten is Mr. (Brian) Cameron, a Scotland Yard detective who happens to see Paula with Gregory one day when they are sight-seeing at the Tower of London. Gregory is immensely jealous when Paula smiles at Cameron after he tips his hat to her, but she was merely being polite. Gregory then goes back to the Yard and examines the cold case of Paula’s aunt’s murder, but is told to leave it alone.  Luckily for Paula, he doesn’t.

Paula, Gregory and Mr. Cameron again run into each other at a party thrown by one of Paula’s aunt’s friends. Again, Gregory pulls his slight of hand, telling Paula his watch is gone and pulling it out of her purse – the hysterical Paula is led from the party.

Gregory’s cold, calculating, insidious little plans get worse and worse, as he tells Paula a letter she found in her aunt’s music doesn’t exist and she was staring at nothing, and that her mother didn’t die in childbirth but rather a year later in an insane asylum.

Fortunately, by this time Cameron and a bobby named Williams have started investigating, and find out  Gregory only goes out to “work” at night, they even find that he disappears in an alley behind the house, and comes out looking dirty and dusty, his tie askew. One night, when Gregory has left, Cameron goes to the house and finds Paula, he starts talking to her when the gaslight dims. She’s excited that he also sees the gas lower. Then he hears the footsteps, and, knowing what he does from his own investigation, concludes her husband is poking around in the attic. They also find the letter that Gregory had claimed didn’t exist.

Then the light turns to normal, Paula encourages Cameron to leave, he does, and when Gregory returns he, and Elizabeth try to convince Paula no one was there that evening. Paula starts to break down and Gregory arrives. After a struggle, Cameron arrests Gregory finding the jewels on him.  Paula’s aunt had sewn them on her costume amongst all the paste jewels. Nothing like hiding in plain sight!

But this isn’t a case of the boy rescues the girl. Ingrid Bergman’s performance is masterful – she portrays a deliriously happy bride, and a frightened wife equally well. But her best scene is at the end of the movie, as she turns the tables on her husband, playing the same mind games on him that he had played on her, if only for a short while, before turning him over to Cameron and the police.

The directing, the use of light and shadow, and the acting, especially by the women in the piece is all masterful.  It’s also a flip-flop of the typical Film Noir motif — that usually involves a cunning, conniving, designing woman, known as the femme fatale, dragging a relatively innocent man down into a well of crime and evil, and thus destroying him. In Gaslight, it’s the man who’s cunning, conniving, cold, and chilling, and he’s attempting to drive his wife insane, after murdering her aunt, to get the jewels he didn’t have time to steal because she had interrupted him. (The police knew Paula had awoken, walked down the stairs, and found her aunt dead, but everything else on the case remained open.) Also, where the man often dies as a result of committing a crime for the femme fatale – here Paula not only survives, but in the end, she’s triumphant, discovering she’s not going insane, getting the chance to pay her husband back (who’s secretly married to someone else, and thus not legally her husband), and possibly even finding happiness with the detective who solved the case. How often can a Film Noir film have a truly happy ending? Not often.

Anyway, it’s an incredibly good film, everyone in it does an excellent and admirable job, and I love it. It can be good to watch something spooky occasionally.

Recommendation:  See It!
Rating:  5 Stars
Next film:  Gaslight (1940)