Editor’s Note: The following review is part of our coverage for TIFF’s Notorious: Celebrating the Ingrid Bergman Centenary. For more information on this TIFF film series visit http://tiff.net and follow TIFF on Twitter at @TIFF_NET.
Of all the psychological dramas of the 1940s, George Cukor’s Gaslight stands out as one of the best. This could be due to Ingrid Bergman’s Oscar-winning performance or Cukor’s inspired direction, but more likely it’s because it is possibly the most devious of them. This is also a rare American remake that is better than the original (the film was originally filmed in 1940 in England, but that film was so successfully suppressed by MGM that it didn’t receive a U.S. theatrical debut until 1952. It’s possible that MGM also suppressed it overseas, as it didn’t get a release outside of the U.K. until 1946, two years after their film). The term “gaslighting” became a colloquialism and later a clinical term for manipulating someone into insanity and it all traces back to this film more so than the original film or the play on which both are based.
Bergman. . .is one of the greatest actresses of not only the Golden Age of Cinema but of all time.
The story revolves around Paula (Ingrid Bergman), niece of a famous singer (who was also her surrogate mother after both her parents died when she was still a baby) who was murdered in her home when Paula was a young woman, around 18 or 19 years old. Ten years later Paula meets, falls in love with and marries Gregory (Charles Boyer) in a whirlwind romance. He decides they should move back to that London house where she grew up, and she had not been inside since the night of the murder (for obvious reasons). While in their first moments there, she finds a letter that provokes a violent reaction by Gregory, snatching it out of her hands and yelling at her that it’s nothing. They proceed to move all of Paula’s aunt’s furniture and effects to the third floor and board up the door to it in an attempt, Gregory says, to help Paula forget the horror that occurred there.
He then proceeds to, for reasons unknown until late in the film, make Paula believe she is slowly losing her grip on reality and sanity. He first tells her she imagined the letter, then he pockets a brooch and tells her she lost it, and each night while in her room after Gregory has gone out to his office to work on his compositions, the gas light in her room dims, which signifies that someone else is using the gas in another part of the house, and is told by the housekeepers (one of whom is played by 18-year-old Angela Lansbury in her film debut) that no one else is in the house and the gas has been on where they are the whole time, so she must be imagining it. All of this is escalated by the fact that Gregory rarely lets Paula leave the house.
Cukor. . .builds the tension by giving the audience clues, holding on objects and looks, leading us but not spelling out much.
It’s the light that is her anchor to sanity, in a way. She knows it’s going down despite being told otherwise and with all of Gregory’s insistence that she is losing or taking or moving things without her knowledge, she holds on to the fact she knows the light is dimming. It is also the greatest source of her anguish since no one else seems to notice it or the footsteps overhead that accompany the light dimming.
Enter Brian Cameron (Joseph Cotten), a Scotland Yard inspector and longtime admirer of Paula’s aunt. A chance meeting with Paula makes him curious about her so he begins to inquire about her and look into the old, unsolved case of the aunt’s murder. He’s convinced something is awry but can’t prove anything right off, so he keeps digging.
Boyer’s work here is risky. Known as a suave and debonair leading man, for him to take the role of a sadistic torturer was a daring one that paid off in spades. He perfectly embodies the role of the devilish man who will stop at nothing to achieve his own ends even if that means torturing an innocent and naïve woman to do it. He makes Gregory artful and methodical in his deception of Paula, perfectly comfortable with playing the long game. Joseph Cotten is excellent as usual as the inspector who refuses to let the case go, even after he’s told by his superiors that nothing will come of reopening it. Angela Lansbury shines in her debut, earning an Oscar nomination (her first of three) as the malicious housemaid with a less-than-stellar reputation, and designs on Gregory she intends to put into serious motion after Paula is inevitably institutionalized.
The linchpin of the film is Bergman, though. Her work here transcends much of what she had previously done and much of what she did after, which is saying a lot considering she is one of the greatest actresses of not only the Golden Age of Cinema but of all time. She is more than convincing as Paula. You feel her anguish and her fervent want to believe she is not going insane all while you slowly watch her lose her grip and respond exactly as Gregory wants her to. The ending is so powerful and so brilliantly executed that it would be hard not to feel her joy, and it would not have worked if she hadn’t been able to pull in the audience and hold them from beginning to end. The way she plays the ending is nothing short of stunning in its execution and technique.
Director Cukor doesn’t just let the actors carry the film though. He works hard on establishing the mood and tone of the piece. He expertly handles the framing and composition of each scene, putting us in both the position of knowing Paula is being driven insane by Gregory and questioning the sanity of Paula at the same time. He builds the tension by giving the audience clues, holding on objects and looks, leading us but not spelling out much. Cukor reaffirms his status as one of the greats here by adapting his style and borrowing from another master: Hitchcock. He artfully uses sound design and dialogue-free sequences to amplify the tension in a way that typical studio directors would not have and knows when to inject some humor in an otherwise tense and dramatic film.
Gaslight surely set the bar for psychological thrillers so high that few (that weren’t directed by Hitchcock) could achieve, and manages to hold up better than even some Hitchcock films do. It’s hard to believe that a film that is so graphic in its depiction of someone being mentally tortured would make it past the censors in 1944, but we can be eternally grateful that it did. Gaslight is a brilliant slow build of a film that leads to a searing, powerhouse of an ending that is both surprising and satisfying.
Gaslight sets an almost impossibly bar for psychological thrillers. It is a brilliant slow build of a film that leads to a searing, powerhouse ending that is both surprising and satisfying.