Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Oscar Film Journal: Gaslight (1944)

Welcome to another installment in the Oscar Film Journal, here at!

Today's film is steeped in psychological torment and paranoia, and its title has become, especially in recent years, part of our lexicon.  In fact its core subject matter is perhaps as relevant as ever, in this age of post-truth and disinformation.  I'm talking about the 1944 thriller Gaslight, starring Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer.

Based on a 1938 play and a 1940 British film (In its arrogance MGM tried to have all copies of that version destroyed prior to this film's release - rather ironic considering the topic), Gaslight concerns a woman whose husband systematically breaks her down mentally and emotionally, to the point that she believes she's going insane.  Its depiction of a psychologically abusive relationship was so potent that it gave birth to the term "gaslighting," meaning to lie to and abuse one's partner so thoroughly they doubt their own reality and accept the one you've created for them.  

The film begins with the aftermath of a murder; a famous opera singer has been killed in her London home and her 14-year-old niece Paula is sent to Italy.  There as a voice student she meets a charming pianist and the two have a whirlwind romance culminating in their hasty wedding.  Her new husband Gregory talks her into moving back to London, into the house Paula's aunt bequeathed to her.  From there it's obvious there's more to Gregory than meets the eye, as he reacts violently to one of the aunt's fan letters (specifically the name of its author) and accuses Paula when small objects begin to go missing around the house.  He hires a new maid (18-year-old Angela Lansbury in a pretty great supporting turn) who clearly seems to be in his pocket, passively aggressively antagonizing the lady of the house at every turn, and begins isolating his wife from the outside world under the pretense of her "not being well."  Every night Gregory goes out to "work" while Paula is locked in her bedroom, and she sees the gaslight dim as if someone elsewhere in the house turned on another, and hears noises from a supposedly boarded room upstairs.  All the while a Scotland Yard detective (an always engaging Joseph Cotten) recognizes Paula as a relative of the deceased aunt and decides to reopen the unsolved murder case.
Both lead performances are intensely credible, as are the two chief supporting performances. Charles Boyer toes the line between outright malevolence and apparent charm, never laying a hand on Paula but constantly tearing her down and using textbook manipulation tactics to drive her insane.  Bergman's relatable girl-next-door appeal gives way to tragic anguish as her husband pushes her to the breaking point.  Joseph Cotten, so effective as a con man in Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt, is a wholesome straight arrow here, infusing the detective character with a bit of Sherlock Holmes.  Lansbury plays the young temptress to the hilt but also may be working with the police as an informant.  The film was nominated for seven Oscars including Best Picture, and won two of them - Best Black & White Art Direction, and of course a Best Actress award for Ms. Bergman.   

Gaslight is a cross between a Victorian era murder mystery and a 40s film noir, released among a slew of films exploring dysfunctional husband-wife relationships.  It's often said that 1950s cinema was the peak in dealing with fear and distrust thanks to the red scare, but the early and mid-40s were replete with movies in which the protagonist's romantic partner was either not what they seemed or was out to get them.  Consider Hitchcock's aforementioned Shadow of a Doubt, Rebecca, and Suspicion, Charles Vidor's Gilda, Michael Curtiz's Mildred Pierce, and Orson Welles' The Stranger, all centered around dishonest spouses.  What was up with 1940s marriages anyway, were abusive relationships more common back then?

At any rate, Gaslight is a taut and engaging, if somewhat predictable mystery/domestic drama featuring a consummate abusive bastard husband, a deeply sympathetic, victimized wife, and a valiantly clever police inspector.  It's smartly devised and emotionally intense; you'll relish the idea of that sonofabitch Gregory getting his comeuppance.

I give the film ***1/2 out of ****.

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