Wednesday 2 October 2013

Gaslight (1944)

I am on a roll of good films at the moment. “Gaslight” is another one in this sweep of good and entertaining movies. In fact it has been awhile since I have been this much caught up in a story as I was last night watching “Gaslight”.

The key word is suspense. “Gaslight” is a psychological thriller that really manages to get in under my skin. In a sense it is very much a Hitchcock film although this is not his film but George Cukor’s. A woman is in the power of a diabolical man, who pretends to be normal, only we know better. Her ally is a policeman who helps defeat the man and with whom there is some degree of romantic interest. This is not a new story. Hitchcock did this in “Sabotage” and “Shadow of a Doubt” and doubtless there are countless more films with variations over this plot line.

What makes “Gaslight” special and worthy of seeing is the drama unfolding between newly wedded Paula and Gregory Anton (Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer). I knew upfront that Gregory was a rotten apple so there is hardly much spoiler in revealing that. Though in the beginning I was a bit cross with the Book for giving me that piece of information. Cause Gregory starts out being the nicest guy in the world. He is courting Paula Alquist in Italy where she is recovering after her aunt and foster parent Alice Alquist got murdered in their home in London. She is in love with him and he is so smooth. He manages to get married to her and convinces her to move back to the house in London. From this point on he starts turning Paula’s life into hell. Not in any outright manner but by convincing her that she is losing her mind. He is very effective and Paula doubts herself more and more. This is glorious. We know he is playing tricks with her and yet she does not see it. Indeed she continues to love and trust him right up till the end. Yet a part of her clings on to sanity and refuses to believe the reality he is imposing on her. Effectively he is keeping her isolated from the outside world, a prisoner in her own home and if not by the trick then by sheer isolation, she is going nuts.

Gregory’s objective? I will not reveal that here.

Boyer is elegant and creepy at the same time, diabolical and suave, and he is totally on top of Paula, even to the degree of flirting with the maid in Paula’s presence. Bergman, well, to begin with I felt she was overacting, being too transparent and melodramatic, but as she starts doubting herself in her imposed craziness she becomes more and more convincing and as the act is drawn out and she sinks deeper into the mud it becomes almost unbearable. She does not seem to be in physical danger, but something worse, tormented without knowing she is tormented she cannot fight back.

To the rescue comes Brian Cameron (Joseph Cotten), a police detective who were fascinated (in love?) with the murdered Alice Alquist and therefore cannot let go of this otherwise long buried cold case. I like Joseph Cotten (Words insists his name is Cotton) very much. In “Shadow of a Doubt” he really won me over and he has come to represent quality. No less here where he underplays the detective. His problem is just that his part of the story is weaker. From the moment we find out he is a police detective we know he will come to Paula’s rescue. We just do not know how. Unfortunately his investigations are limited to a “I’ve got a hunch about this, there is something fishy about Gregory Anton”. That is a bit unsatisfying. To its defense it leaves more space for the drama between Boyer and Bergman and that is the greatest asset of the film anyway. In a way one could say that Cameron is simply the wakeup call Paula needs to snap out of her stupor and into action. Gregory may be caught by Cameron but he is stripped down by Paula and this is the satisfying comeback. He has a lot to pay for. Also it is only hinted at that Cameron may have a romantic interest in Paula. Frankly I think he is more in love with the image of her aunt than Paula in her own right and that makes him a lot more interesting. I am frankly a bit sick of romantic policemen who cannot separate their love life from their job.

“Gaslight” also features two noteworthy supporting characters. One is the matronly Bessie Thwaites (Dame May Whitty) who is terribly busy with other people’s lives. She is frankly a bit annoying but in a wonderful way. She has absolutely no restraints and is almost the funny sidekick. As it is, her role in the story is to accentuate Paula’s isolation. Even Bessie cannot get access to her and find out what is going on and she knows EVERYTHING about everybody.

The second character is the maid Nancy. She is instructed by Gregory to support the isolation of Paula, but she also the source of information for Cameron as he has placed an “irresistibly handsome” policeman to patrol in front of the house. What is special about Nancy is that this is in fact Angela Lansbury in her film debut, only 17 years old. She may not be the prettiest Hollywood actress ever, but there is always a lot of quality to her acting and I much enjoy her films. Great to see her so young at the opening of her career.

“Gaslight” is top class psychological suspense with first rate actors and a cinematography that exactly nailed the oppressive atmosphere. I enjoyed myself and today I love my little pet project very much..


  1. I enjoyed this film a lot even though I didn't like May Whitty's character that much. I found her far more annoying than entertaining. I loved seeing Angela Lansbury as a lusty teen, though.

    1. I just read your own review and I agree a long way. This is a film that sucks you in. I was quite confused about Bessie. Was it supposed to be funny or was she supposed to be a potential friend Paula might have. As it was she is the type of person I would do anything to avoid, but she did do that part very well, just maybe a bit misplaced.

  2. I thought Lansbury's character was a great part of the story because there's the constant question of whether she is in on the husband's plot or not.

    1. Yes, she is a central charater, but I felt she was underused. It is never really clear what her role in the resolution is or if she indeed had a part in it. That is a shame. I think mostly her role was a combination of Gregory's attempt at wrapping Paula up and as an outside view to the going-ons in the house.

  3. I really enjoyed your review and am looking forward to seeing this again at some point. I agree completely that Cotten = quality. He's been in some bad movies but he has never been bad in them. On the other hand, he has been some of the greatest of all time.

    Count me in the Dame May Whitty camp. Have you seen The Lady Vanishes yet? She is the lady and part of what makes that film so delightful.

    1. I just think that Cotten got too little to work with here. He does it well, but it is almost as if 10 minutes of his screen time was cut out.

      I have not seen the The Lady vanishes, but it is a movie I am very much looking forward to see and I was very happy it got added to the list.