To Catch a Thief

  • Title:  To Catch a Thief
  • Director:  Alfred Hitchcock
  • Date:  1955
  • Studio:  Paramount
  • Genre:  Action, Romance, Suspense
  • Cast:  Cary Grant, Grace Kelly, Jessie Royce Landis, John Williams, Brigitte Auber
  • Format:  Technicolor, Widescreen
  • DVD Format:  R1, NTSC

“I stole once, a long time ago, I went to jail.” – John Robie (Cary Grant)
“I know. The Germans bombed the prison and you all escaped, joined the Underground, and became heroes.” – Danielle
“I joined because I wanted to make-up for some of the things I’d done. I’ve never stolen since.” – Robie

“You’re here in Europe to buy a husband, huh?” – Robie
“The man I want doesn’t have a price.” – Frances Stevens (Grace Kelly)
“Well, that eliminates me.” – Robie

“John, Why bother?” – Frances
“It’s sort of a hobby of mine, the truth.” – Robie

A series of daring jewel robberies rocks France, specifically the resort communities of the French Rivieria. The police immediately suspect John Robie, a retired jewel thief once known as The Cat. Robie decides the only way he will be able to prove his innocence is to catch the thief himself.

Robie meets HH Hughson, an insurance broker from Lloyd’s of London. His company has insured many of the stolen jewels, so he has a vested interest in finding the jewels so his company doesn’t have to pay the claims. Robie convinces him to give him a list of potential targets. Hughson is a bit dubious, but agrees.

Robie then meets up with Jessie Stevens and her daughter Frances (Francie). Mrs. Stevens is widowed and extremely rich after oil was discovered on her husband’s small Texas ranch. She’s also loud, uncultured, rude, and obnoxious. Her daughter, Frances, has benefited from her mother’s money, having attended a European “finishing school”, and traveled the world. Frances is a bit spoiled, and very bored with her life of travel and suitors after her money. Robie and Frances immediately have an attraction.

Meanwhile, Robie had first gone to the restaurant of his friends from the French Underground movement, but they are convinced he’s guilty and has gone back to his jewel-stealing ways. The only person from his previous life who thinks he’s either innocent, or it doesn’t matter if he’s guilty, is Danielle – the wine steward’s daughter, who flirts shamelessly with Robie – despite being young enough to be his daughter.

The story is told somewhat episodically, against the backdrop of seaside France. The tale alternates between the romantic encounters between John and Frances (swimming at the beach, a wild car ride ending in a romantic picnic, even the tour of a villa) and Danielle’s flirting with John, and John’s attempts to find the thief.

Robie also receives threatening notes at his hotel – which tell him to lay off his search. He misses one robbery entirely, because he is concentrating on the Stevens. He then goes to investigate a villa he’s been staking out for several nights, despite getting a second note that tells him to stay away. He finds the wine steward, dead. The police report to the newspapers, this is The Cat. But Robie goes to the police and points out the steward had a wooden leg, it would have been impossible for him to climb on rooftops. The steward is also Danielle’s father – and when he shows up at the funeral, Danielle accuses him of murder.

Robie then decides to set a trap of his own. He knows that an upcoming costume ball will be a perfect opportunity for The Cat to strike. He goes to the ball with Mrs. Stevens and Frances, and the police attend as well. He and Hughson switch places, and while Hughson dances the night away with Frances, Robie waits for The Cat. His gambit pays off and he catches the real thief – Danielle.

To Catch a Thief  is a lavish production, very colorful and big (the film as a 1:85:1 ratio, despite being shot on 35mm film). Cary Grant is in fine form, and Grace Kelly is brilliant as Frances. But the film has always felt very slow to me. Still, if you’ve never seen it – it is a must-see, a classic film of romantic suspense.

Recommendation:  See it!
Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars
Next Film:  Tomorrow Never Dies

Memento

  • Title: Memento
  • Director:  Christopher Nolan
  • Date:  2000
  • Studio:  Newmarket Capital Group, Summit Entertainment, Columbia-Tristar (distributor)
  • Genre:  Suspense
  • Cast:  Guy Pearce, Carrie-Anne Moss, Joe Pantoliano, Callum Keith Rennie
  • Format:  Color, Widescreen
  • DVD Format:  R1, NTSC

“That must suck. It’s all backwards. I mean, like, maybe you’ve got an idea about what you want to do next, but you can’t remember what you just did.” – Hotel Clerk

“I’m disciplined and organized. I use habit and routine to make my life possible.” – Leonard

Memento is a remarkable movie, because it uses a structure that I don’t think any other film has used. The film is told backwards. It’s also unusual in that there are two films in one. The main story, in color, has each scene taking place immediately before the scene that precedes it. The backing story, in black and white, does move forward in time and is almost a commentary on the other scenes. It also serves to orient the viewer some in any areas that might be really confusing.

The first time I saw Memento, I knew going in that the film would be told backwards – it is what it’s famous for. And even though the film is a little confusing at first, one quickly becomes used to the idea – and it really isn’t as confusing as you might think. The structure forces the viewer to pay close attention to what is happening in the film. The structure also really, really puts an emphasis on editing. And as you watch the film, you end up mentally re-ordering the scenes to put them in context.

However, the structure also emphasizes the character and his point of view. The main character, Leonard (Guy Pearce), is suffering from retrograde amnesia. That is, due to a trauma (we’re told) he can remember his life before the trauma, but he can’t make new memories. Leonard’s life exists in the brief span of a scene, the minute he loses focus, or falls asleep, he forgets everything that’s happened to him. The highly unusual structure, of telling the story backwards, emphasizes this – if you haven’t seen the movie before, you don’t know what happened before either. Therefore when Leonard finds himself chasing a guy – or as he quickly realizes – being chased by a guy with a gun, the audience also has no idea why.

Upon viewing the film a second time, the structure still works. Because the film is told in reverse order, it’s hard to remember individual scenes – so one is, for example, still confused as to why Leonard’s being chased. I was surprised when I watched the film a second time, that the structure still worked and the film isn’t a one hit wonder. I knew the big secret from the end of the film, of course, which I’m not going to reveal in this review. Memento still works as a film even on a second viewing.

Memento is also a film that has a timeless look to it. It’s a story told in cheap hotels, dive bars, and abandoned buildings. Even the one home we see (Natalie’s), although nice, is incredibly nondescript. The anonymous places accentuate Leonard’s situation.

However, Memento is, at it’s center a disturbing film – not because of it’s unique structure, which the viewer quickly gets used to, but because of the Big Secret at the end of the film, The end, which is really the beginning when you think about it. I don’t want to spoil that for movie viewers who haven’t seen it, but once you know, it changes how you view the film. And probably not in the way you think.

Recommendation:  See it! I would especially recommend this movie to film students.
Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars
Next Film:  Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Inception

  • Title:  Inception
  • Director:  Christopher Nolan
  • Date:  2010
  • Studio:  Warner Brothers
  • Genre:  SF, Action, Suspense
  • Cast:  Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page, Tom Hardy, Ken Watanabe, Cillian Murphy, Tom Berenger, Marion Cotillard, Michael Caine
  • Format:  Color, Widescreen
  • DVD Format:  R1, NTSC

“What is the most resilient parasite?  A bacteria, a virus, an intestinal worm? … An idea. Resilient, highly contagious. Once an idea has taken hold in the brain – it’s almost impossible to eradicate. An idea that is fully formed, fully understood, that sticks.”  – Cobb

“Do you want to take a leap of faith? Or become an old man – filled with regret, waiting to die alone?” – Saito

“It’s the chance to build cathedrals, entire cities, things that never existed, things that couldn’t exist in the real world.” – Cobb

Inception is a film about dreams, but it is not the typical film about dreams – such as the person who dreams of being a famous musician then becomes one, or the young man who dreams of becoming a professional sports player – then makes his dream come true.  This film is literally about dreams, and as such, the entire film is a commentary on films themselves.  But for all the meta implications, it’s not a nod-nod-wink-wink type of film that pokes fun at anything.  Rather it suggests a type of caper film, though the caper doesn’t take place in the physical world at all.

Cobb (DiCaprio) and Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) are professional extractors – men who, for a price, will enter a person’s dreams to steal information, often as a form of corporate espionage. However, in this case, when their plans don’t quite work out, the man they are trying to steal from instead hires the two for Inception – the concept of planting an idea in someone’s head, so that they themselves believe that they came up with the idea – themselves.  Like many other caper films, after some debate among themselves, Cobb and Arthur agree to perform the crime – Arthur, because he knows the corporation that hired them in the first place will kill them for being unsuccessful, and Cobb because he’s a wanted man – and Saito has promised to make his charges go away so he can return home and to his own children, if he’s successful.

Cobb and Arthur to find their crew for this special job:  a chemist – to create a special sedative to put the victim under during the crime, Eames – a spy and con-man – to gather information on the victim, an architect – to build the triple-layered dream world, Arthur, and Cobb.  Their architect is Ariadne, a young student of Miles – Cobb’s old teacher, and the grandfather of his children – Phillipa and James.  Arthur and Cobb train Ariadne in shared dreaming.  Cobb finds the chemist and an old friend who becomes their spy and investigator.

The “heist” involves getting Fischer – the victim – on a ten hour flight, slipping him a mickey, then entering his dreams.  The dream will be three layers or levels deep, and at each stage, the crew – specifically Cobb and Arthur (with some assistance from Eames) work different angles into their con to convince Fischer Jr that he should break-up and sell his father’s near monopoly energy company so he can become his own man by building something new.  In the end, Cobb and Ariadne end-up going to a fourth level – Limbo, or the subconscious – for two reasons, for Saito – who was shot in the first level of the dream, then died in the third level (normally dying in a dream would wake up the dreamer – but not when under sedation) and so Cobb can confront his dead wife, Mal – who’s been haunting him throughout the film.  In fact, as the film goes on – it becomes less about the plot to convince Fischer Jr to break-up his father’s company, and more about the question of Mal and Cobb and just what happened between them.

Inception is also circular in nature. The film opens with Cobb washed up on a beach, captured by Asian gunmen, and taken to a wealthy, older Asian man. We will learn this is Saito, who has lived for years in his subconscious world, because time moves differently in the dream world as to the real world. The film, at the end circles back to Cobb on the beach, and Cobb confronting the Asian man. But then the film adds a couple of scenes at the end that leave the film mysterious and open-ended.

The second major point about the film, Inception, and the reason I can watch it over and over again, is it is visually stunning.  Where else would you see roads folding in on themselves? An endless staircase? A freight train moving through a crowded downtown city street? Or the vanishing point of a set being revealed as a mirror, then being moved by a character to form an infinity box?  Yet these impossible scenes, rather than breaking the fourth wall in the traditional sense, are used to clearly show that a particular moment which seemed “real” is actually part of a dream – so they fit into the larger world of the film.  It is truly a visual masterpiece of film.

Recommendation:  Must see!
Rating: 5 out of 5 Stars
Next Film:  Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind or Memento

North by Northwest

  • Title:  North by Northwest
  • Director:  Alfred Hitchcock
  • Date:  1959
  • Studio:  MGM
  • Genre:  Suspense
  • Cast:  Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint, James Mason, Leo G. Carroll, Edward Platt, Martin Landau
  • Format:  Technicolor, Widescreen
  • DVD Format:  R1, NTSC

“Hello? Hello, Mother? This is your son, Roger Thornhill…”  — Roger (Cary Grant)

“Apparently, the poor sucker got mistaken for George Kaplan.” — Anonymous Spy 1
“How’d he get mistaken for George Kaplan, when George Kaplan doesn’t even exist?” — Anonymous Spy 2

North by Northwest is a very fun, enjoyable, romantic (in both senses) and exciting Hitchcock film. The film’s entire plot rests on a case of mistaken identity. Grant is Roger Thornhill, an Madison Ave (NY) advertising executive, who is meeting some friends and business associates in a hotel bar, when he realizes he needs to send a telegram. He raises his hand to call over the hotel telegram boy just as the telegram boy is calling out for George Kaplan. This is observed by two foreign agents, and thus the snowball starts to roll downhill. The agents assume Thornhill is Kaplan, and kidnap him, taking him to a house in the country. There, he is questioned, and forced to drink a bottle of bourbon. They then pour Thornhill into a car, hoping he will have a nasty accident. Thornhill, however, is somewhat familiar with drunk driving, and he’s able to make his escape, though he is spotted by the police and arrested for drunk driving.

The next morning, Thornhill and his lawyer, played by Edward Platt, attempt to explain what happened. Of course, there is no evidence at the country estate that anything happened, and the hostess who answers the door puts on a performance, claiming she was worried after he’d gotten tipsy at a dinner party. Thornhill pays his $2.00 fine.

Thornhill then returns to New York, searches Kaplan’s hotel room and goes to the United Nations building to meet Townsend, the man who kidnapped him the previous night, he thinks. But the man he meets isn’t the Townsend (James Mason) who kidnapped him. Before he can get any answers, or straighten out the mess, Townsend is killed by a thrown knife. Thornhill, like an idiot, picks up the knife — and his picture is snapped as he does so. With no other choice, he goes on the lam, sneaking aboard a train bound for Chicago, because that was where Kaplan was scheduled to go.

Meanwhile, we meet “The Professor” (Leo G. Carroll) and his merry band of spies. They discuss the issue of Thornhill, and their fake agent “Kaplan”, as well as their real agent who will be in danger, if they step in and clear Thornhill. “The Professor” declares they must do nothing.

On the Chicago-bound train, Thornhill meets Eve Kendall, who hides him. Grant and Kendall immediately have a connection, trading flirty dialogue. In Chicago, Kendall arranges for Grant to meet Kaplan; but we also see her talking to Leonard (Martin Landau), Townsend’s chief henchman, on the phone. Kendall’s directions lead Thornhill to a dry, dusty, deserted road in the middle of a cornfield. He’s attacked by a crop duster.

Thornhill survives that, confronts Kendall, and Grant’s performance is excellent. He’s very icy and cold when he confronts her — subtlely seething with anger that she betrayed him. He then follows her to an auction. Townsend (Mason), his henchmen, and “The Professor” as well as Kendall are all there. When it looks like he’s going to be caught by Townend’s goons, Grant makes a scene at the auction and gets himself arrested. But he’s released and taken to the airport by Carroll. “The Professor” explains more of the plot, before taking him, by plane, to South Dakota.

There, by the Mt. Rushmore monument, the film winds down to it’s conclusion.

Hitchcock uses a lot of very high angle shots in North by Northwest, almost like a kid with a new toy, but it does work. Grant is fantastic as the confused innocent. Eva Marie Saint plays Kendall with icy maturity, even in her more romantic scenes with Grant. The supporting cast is great. Leo G. Carroll, of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. plays a very Mr. Waverly-like character as the un-named head of some un-named security organization. In fact, the entire film almost seems like a pilot for The Man from U.N.C.L.E. at times, but with a much bigger budget. Martin Landau is menacing, and quiet, as Leonard, James Mason’s henchman. And James Mason himself has a cold, sophisticated, frightening evilness about him. Edward Platt, of TV’s Get Smart, as a brief but fun role as Thornhill’s overworked lawyer. Overall, the film is great fun. The bi-wing crop duster chasing Grant in the cornfield, and the climatic chase across the face of Mt. Rushmore are famous movie scenes, that are also quite enjoyable to see intact and in context.

Recommendation:  See it!
Rating:  4 of 5 Stars
Next Film:  Notorious

Jaws

Title:  Jaws
Director:  Steven Spielburg
Date:  1975
Studio:  Universal
Genre:  Suspense, Drama
Cast:  Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw, Richard Dreyfuss
Format:  Technicolor, Widescreen
DVD Format:  R1, NTSC

“This was no boat accident.”  Matt Hooper

“It doesn’t make much sense for a guy who hates the water to live on an island either.”  — Hooper
“It’s only an island if you look at it from the water.”  — Martin Brodie

“We’re going to need a bigger boat.”  — Martin Brodie

Quite by accident Jaws was the first movie that I got on DVD, received as a gift.  I still love it though because it’s a masterful piece of suspense, and a fine character study.  It is not out and out shock-factor horror, in part due to happy accident — the mechanical shark didn’t work, and the film works better when you can’t see it.  There are some scenes where you finally do see the shark, and it looks very fake, though the film stands up by it’s well-drawn characters and their relationships.

Amity Island is an East Coast summer island, preparing for the busy Fourth of July summer holiday.  The film opens with a group of young people having a bonfire on the beach.  One of the teenaged girls runs off to go skinny dipping in the ocean, at night, and is attacked and killed (eaten) by the shark.  Martin Brodie (Roy Scheider), the chief of police, immediately tries to close the beach — but is prevented by the local mayor and business people who are afraid they will lose their summer income.

And thus the first half of the film almost has the format of a disaster film:  one guy (Brodie) knows there’s a threat to life and limb, but no one listens to him, because doing the smart thing is a threat to local business and income.  Later a young child is killed, and reward is offered for the shark.  Soon every idiot who can find a boat is out looking for the shark, and doing a terrible job.

At this point, Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss), a shark expert, shows up.  He tells Brodie the shark someone’s caught is a Tiger shark and too small to have killed the girl who died.  What they are looking for is a Great White.

The scene where Hooper examines the remains of the dead girl is well done, because we don’t actually see the body, he just describes into a dictaphone what he sees and what’s missing, while trying not to lose his lunch.  Similarly, when Brodie found the girl in the first place — all the audience saw was the girl’s hand — that’s it, no body and no blood.  (There isn’t even any blood in the first attack scene, though there are in later ones).

Again, Brodie and Hooper want to close the beaches, but the mayor won’t allow it on Fourth of  July weekend.  After another attack, and Brodie nearly losing his own son (he survives), the mayor relents.

Whereas, the first half of the movie is like a disaster film — with the one guy trying to convince everyone else and not being believed; the second half of the film is closer to horror — though it’s still more suspense than horror.  Because of the problems with the shark, and Spielburg’s excellent direction, surprise, brief glances, and suggestion is used more than actually seeing the shark eat anyone.

The second half of the film has Brodie — the chief of police, and a guy who’s afraid of water; Quint (Robert Shaw) the old poacher and fisherman, and Hooper (the shark expert), stuck on Quint’s boat trying to catch the shark.  The film examines these three characters, their relationships to each other, and their relationships to the shark.  This is where the character-building occurs, having already been touched upon as the three very different men are introduced.

My favorite scene in the entire movie is actually where the three are in the cabin of the boat, they’ve just finished comparing scars (except Brodie), and the three start singing, “I’m tired and I Wanna go Home”, only to have the shark butt in, literally, as it begins to ram the boat.  At this point, too, the shark goes from the unseen, spooky, where will it show up next, monster — to something they cannot kill.  It makes the film more towards the horror genre, but even once we start to see the shark, it still isn’t seen all that often.  A big part of what makes Jaws scary is that what you don’t see is a lot scarier than what you do see.  Even in Jaws, when we see people splashing around in the water, and hear the marvelous Jaws theme music, that’s scarier as the audience anticipates something happening, than later when the shark takes a chunk out of Quint’s boat.

Again, the acting in this is marvelous.  Scheider is calm and collected, but you can see he’s repressing his fears, especially when in the boat, or watching people swimming in dangerous waters.  Some of the best shots are of him reacting to things.  Dreyfuss is the manic scientist, smart, knowledgeable, but also able to get a quick insult off at the stupidity of people on the island when he needs to.  He also quickly convinces Brodie exactly what they need to do.  And Quint, the poacher and fisherman — course, mean-tempered, essentially a salty old sailor — the perfect foil for the more normal Brodie and Hooper.

In the end, of course, Hooper disappears (but survives), Quint doesn’t, and Brodie manages to thrust a compressed air tank into the shark’s mouth and then blow it up by shooting it.  Instant sushi.

Still, an excellent movie with great characters and some really good acting.

Recommendation:  See it!  But not for the really young (I’d go 13 plus on this)
Rating:  4 of 5 Stars
Next Film:  Justice League Crisis on Two Earths

Gaslight (1940)

  • Title:  Gaslight
  • Director:  Thorold Dickinson
  • Date:  1940
  • Studio:  British National Films, MGM
  • Genre:  Drama, Suspense
  • Cast:  Anton Walbrook, Diana Wyngood
  • Format:  Standard, Black and White
  • Format:  R1, NTSC

“You can’t possibly tell if you’re hurt until you’ve had time to think about it.” –Ex-cop to Bella

This film is on the reverse side of the 1944 version DVD I own.  The original film is based on an 1938 play.  This version of the film begins with a bang, showing an old woman getting strangled at Number 12, and the murderer tearing up the house looking for something.  We then see several people who live in the square talking about the horrible crime that happened there, and we’re made aware the house has stood empty for several years.  Next, Paul and Bella Mellon arrive (the characters known as Gregory and Paula Anton in the 1944 version).  We also see an ex-cop talking to a groom as they care for their horses about the strange happenings at Number 12.

There is considerably more exposition and more discussion by minor characters of the murder, and the new residents of Number 12, almost so much that the movie at first seems to be about the house rather than the people living there.  The 1944 version, is much more grounded in the characters living in the house, and told mostly from Paula’s point of view.  This older version switches points of view several times, showing us exactly what Paul is doing, showing the ex-cop’s investigation (without ever giving his name either), showing us various residents of the same square and their impressions, etc.

Paul’s flirting with Nancy, the parlourmaid, is much more pronounced.  In one scene he kisses her, in another he actually takes her on a date to a music hall (and we’re subjected to watching it, as awful as it is, though the Can-Can dancers are interesting).  Nancy, however, isn’t nearly as sinister as she is in the 1944 versions.  She’s almost a harmless flirt.  Paul’s playing around with the maid is contemptible but Bella seems to intentionally turn a blind eye to it.

The scene in the parlour with Paul torturing Bella about the missing picture, making her call in the servants, and questioning the servants is almost word-for-word the same in both films, as is the scene of Bella at the concert where he tortures her about taking his watch.  However, in this film we actually see Paul put the watch in Bella’s purse.

Besides having a lot more exposition up front; there’s also less suspense than the 1944 version because we see a lot of what Paul is doing straight out.  In the 1944 version, especially if you’ve never seen the film before, you don’t know what’s going on – is Paula actually going mad?  In this version, we know Paul is torturing Bella, and although the actress does, in some scenes, do a good job of portraying someone who thinks she’s going out of her mind — her belief that she’s for some reason taking things, becomes weak and wimpy when we see Bella begging Paul to keep her anyway.

Like the 1944 version, Paul has a roll top desk which hides some of his secrets – including a brooch he’s taken from Bella and told her she lost.  However, there’s no letter from an admirer to Paula’s aunt — because in this story, Bella isn’t related to the murdered woman, but rather her husband is.  However, Bella does find an envelope address to “Anton Boyer” which is Paul’s real name.  The search for rubies (£20,000 Pounds worth) is much more pronounced, but rather than being hidden in plain sight, sewn onto a theatrical costume among fakes; the rubies are actually hidden inside the brooch.  (One of the more unbelievable bits – Bella takes the rubies out of a vase, where she’d hidden them after finding them loose inside the brooch.  She asks the ex-cop helping her — Are they valuable?)

Less is made of Paul’s nocturnal visits out – and even Bella’s hearing footsteps and the gaslight going down then back-up don’t occur until over halfway through the film — making it considerably less spooky.  A minor character, Bella’s cousin, is more important – he tries to see Bella, but is refused by her husband.  He doesn’t exist in the 1944 version, and one of his visits is given to Joseph Cotten’s detective, as is some of his dialogue.  Another change is one of the cops who start investigating is in number 14 (the next door empty house) when Paul enters it.

There is a nice shot of  Bella’s reflection in a music box, as she hears footsteps and finally starts to scream for Elizabeth, the cook, who pooh-poohs her.  However, like Nancy, the cook seems harmless.  She’s also not deaf as she is in the 1944 version.

There is a scene with Paul telling Bella she’s mad and she will die in a lunatic asylum and he hates her, in which he is quite, quite sinister.  And, of course, we’ve seen all along exactly what he’s doing to drive his wife mad.  And since we’ve also seen the old woman’s murder and the ransacking of the house rather than hearing about it later, one can make the connection between that crime and Paul’s behavior towards Bella, even though we don’t see his face.

Overall, a competent film.  Competent direction, not overly flat, with some nice touches.  Competent acting, too.  Diana Wyngood isn’t bad as Bella — but she does seem wimpy at times, simply from the rearrangement of scenes, and the lack of focus on her.  There is the scene between Bella and Paul at the end, where Paul’s been caught, but it lack the raw power of Bergman’s performance, despite almost identical dialogue, simply because we’re not so caught up in Bella’s story.

Recommendation:  Wouldn’t hurt to see it, but the 1944 version is much better.
Rating:  3
Next film:  The Gay Divorcee

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)