Gaslight (1944)
Gaslight (1944)

Genre: Crime Drama and Psychological Thriller Running Time: 1 hr. 54 min.

Release Date: May 4th, 1944 MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Director: George Cukor Actors: Ingrid Bergman, Charles Boyer, Joseph Cotten, Dame May Whitty, Angela Lansbury, Barbara Everest, Heather Thatcher

 


 

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strangler is still at large near Thornton Square, making the townsfolk edgy, particularly at night. The victim was Alice Alquist, a world famous singer – and her niece, Paula Alquist (Ingrid Bergman), departs shortly thereafter, heading off to Italy to study singing under the great Maestro Guardi (Emil Rameau). It’s a distraction that should help her to forget the horrible past.

Around ten years later, Paula’s voice and her heart just don’t seem to be focused on performing; instead, she’s diverted by true love, prompting her to give up a career in the arts in favor of happiness. Gregory Anton (Charles Boyer) is the charming suitor, who barely knows Paula (his courting has only lasted about two weeks), though he’s ready to get married. Still madly in love, Paula decides to take a trip to Lake Como to clear her mind. During the carriage ride there, she meets “Bloodthirsty” Bessie Thwaites (Dame May Whitty), who brings up the death of Alice from a decade prior, momentarily jolting Paula into silence. But, much to her surprise, Gregory greets Paula at the lake, having rushed ahead to join her.

“I’m afraid I enjoy a good murder now and then.” Thwaites is fascinated by the unsolved slaying, which amuses her further when she happens to acquire a residence near where the crime occurred: 9 Thornton Square in London. In an extreme coincidence, Gregory wishes to live in that very home, which Paula still owns. With her new husband, she’s certain she won’t be afraid to revisit the macabre location – and so, a month later, the two move in, intending to live happily ever after.

“I’m sorry; I didn’t mean to be so violent.” As with many great thrillers, the facade of new love swiftly fades, revealing the cold truth of the matter: Paula knows almost nothing about her husband; and he designs to control every aspect of her life. From cook Elizabeth (Barbara Everest) to housemaid Nancy (Angela Lansbury), Paula doesn’t get to create much of an impression; Gregory dictates not only her actions but also her likes and dislikes. Through careful, repetitive conditioning, Paula soon loses her identity; she’s completely at the mercy of her husband to tell her how to behave and how to feel. “Are you becoming suspicious as well as absentminded, Paula?”

Based on the Patrick Hamilton play, “Gaslight” is a masterpiece of deception and manipulation. If it weren’t for the exaggerations and coincidences, it would surely serve as a realistic cautionary tale about rushing into romance (or perhaps in doubting one’s own convictions). In many ways, it possesses a Hitchcockian flavor, exploiting the weak-willed to aggravate the audience in a series of noirish, nerve-wracking confrontations. Tempers flare and mental defenses are torn down as Gregory makes scene after scene to fray Paula’s nerves. Soon, fear drives their relationship, aiding to quash any brewing distrust.

Fortunately, there’s a hero amidst Paula’s plight, in the form of the police commissioner’s assistant, Brian Cameron (Joseph Cotten). His involvement is quite by accident, yet it’s essential to provide relief from the protracted torment. Gregory’s manner and maneuvering is odd enough that the mystery of Paula’s deteriorating mental faculties isn’t all that bewildering; as the picture draws to its conclusion, it becomes merely an instance of sorting out motives. The culprits are all too obvious.

Nevertheless, the lengthy sessions of worrying over Paula’s wellbeing certainly cultivate angst and tension (nicely supplemented by Bronislau Kaper’s score), allowing the villainy to remain more potent – right alongside the heroism. Paula’s sense of helplessness is key, as she’s isolated or alienated from friends and family – and from anyone who can help her to overcome her oppression. Toward the climax, a sensationally moving revelation turns up, concerning a missing white glove (one of the film’s greatest moments), as well as the wrapping up of loose ends, culminating in a spectacularly exciting showdown.

– Mike Massie

  • 9/10