Gaslight – Film Review

Atmospheric and disturbing 1944 thriller about domestic psychological torment that, along with the original play, spawned the well-known modern term.

Directed by George Cukor, Gaslight stars Ingrid Bergman as Paula Alquist, a haunted young woman raised by her aunt Alice, a world-famous opera singer. When Alice is found murdered at her London home, Paula leaves England to live and study abroad in Italy. Many years later, her shrewd singing teacher remarks that Paula’s heart is no longer in her craft, and she confirms his suspicions by admitting she’s in love with her accompanist – so in love in fact that she marries the darkly handsome gentleman in question, Gregory Anton (Charles Boyer), after two weeks of whirlwind romance.

It turns out that Gregory has always dreamed of living in London, and despite her traumatic memories, Paula agrees to move into her aunt’s old house and make it their home. Soon after, her husband’s behaviour becomes increasingly sinister. Little by little, he convinces Paula that she’s having delusions and memory gaps, misplacing items and imagining noises upstairs, to the point where she becomes afraid of her own mind.

At Gregory’s insistence that she’s not well enough to go out or have visitors, Paula spends most of her time indoors, where her only company is an insolent Cockney maid (very young and vibrant Angela Lansbury in her feature debut) who openly despises her mistress. Paula’s only thread of hope is a Scotland Yard officer, Brian Cameron (Joseph Cotten), who knows her aunt’s murder case inside out and comes to suspect that there’s a connection between the murder and Paula’s current predicament.

To be honest, as a thriller Gaslight is entirely predictable and obvious, and you can put everything together after the first twenty minutes with minimum brain effort. As a story of malicious psychological manipulation, however, it still has a power to chill, as you watch a vulnerable, isolated young woman slowly spiral into insanity, never suspecting where the real threat comes from. As George, Boyer does a fantastic job transforming from a suave charmer into a despicable villain who makes your fists itch; I think I’d want to finish the movie just to see him get his comeuppance.

Ingrid Bergman’s Oscar-winning performance is probably the main reason this film has become synonymous with the kind of insidious abuse her heroine suffers, running the full gamut of emotions: innocent and lovestruck, frightened and despairing, defiant and almost scarily vengeful. I’ve only seen her previously in – what else – Casablanca, and this movie definitely made me want to chase up more of her films. She’s a wonderful, magnetic actress with an unpretentious and natural kind of beauty.

Visually, Paula’s claustrophobic world is captured effectively in black-and-white, with gloomy and foggy London streets, creeping shadows and camera angles designed to evoke unease. Though it might feel a tad slow by today’s standards and lack the slickness of modern thrillers, Gaslight is a superb example of a 40s noir.

P.S. Once in a while I’ll watch a period film and think to myself, man people used to be so well-dressed, even when they went outside for a casual stroll around the block. I maybe wouldn’t wish for the return of the elaborate Edwardian dress, but how much more fun would my train rides to work be if everyone put more effort into their clothes.

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