Thursday, November 22, 2012

10 reasons to watch Gaslight (1944)

Title: Gaslight
Director: George Cukor
Language: English
Rating: PG

Paula Alquist (Ingrid Bergman) used to live with her aunt, a famous opera singer who was strangled to death in her own home. Years later, when studying music in Italy, Paula falls in love with and marries Gregory Anton (Charles Boyer), a pianist. The two move back to her aunt's old home in a pretty London square, where Gregory patiently sets about destroying her sanity.

(The expression gaslighting - when you deliberately cause someone to doubt their own sanity, judgment, and other mental faculties - comes from the 1930s play on which this movie is based, though the movie itself is what really popularized its usage.)

10 Reasons to Watch It
1) Gaslight is an excellent study in psychological/emotional abuse. Gregory doesn't raise a violent hand to Paula but nearly destroys her anyway. He uses classic abuser tactics: isolates her, controls her, belittles her, humiliates her, keeps her on an emotional rollercoaster (in which there is no real happiness, only relief from fear and pain), and gaslights her by lying and playing tricks that make her think she's forgetful, prone to losing things, and slowly going mad. He pushes her towards despair, and makes her forget that she was ever any different than the nervous wreck she's become. (If you want to read more about classic signs of emotional abuse, check out this post at my other blog.)

2) The movie also illustrates a key reason for why Gregory's emotional abuse and gaslighting are so effective: he speaks to Paula the way women have long been spoken to. He convinces her that she's hysterical and emotional; he refers to her as unstable and untrustworthy. He calls her "silly child" and also projects his worst qualities onto her ("if I could only get inside that brain of yours," he tells her at one point, "and understand what makes you do these crazy, twisted things...")

She trusts him because that's what women have traditionally been taught to do - to consider their own version of reality as secondary to what authoritative men such as fathers, husbands, and psychiatrists tell them. Abusers need their victims to lose trust in themselves. It's so much easier to prey on a woman when she believes that being a woman automatically makes her mentally unreliable.

3) Ingrid Bergman's performance is magnificent, one of the best I've seen on film. It draws on a huge, often rapidly shifting array of emotions - among them happy love, hysterical relief, dread, self-doubt, and resolute hatred.

Paula looks at her husband Gregory with new eyes

4) Charles Boyer is the soul of lizard-eyed evil. You want to reach through the screen and throttle him, he's that good at being a villain. As the film progresses his face hardens, becomes cold and inhuman, and his eyes deaden. But he's so charming in the beginning, as charming as a dead-eyed sociopath can be.

5) This is Angela Lansbury's movie debut. Though only 18 here, she goes toe to toe against the older actors in her role as a cheeky, scheming housemaid, and does a great job of it. In some ways, she looks much like the elderly Lansbury of today (her face is timeless Lansbury).

Angela Lansbury in Gaslight

6) Throughout the movie, Cukor has the camera focus on Paula's and Gregory's faces, framed by the same shot. This camera technique shows how they're bound together, with Gregory a parasite feeding on Paula's sanity, and it also brings out the contrast in their feelings. At one point in the movie, Gregory has bestowed an unexpected kindness on Paula, and her face is full of giddy relief as she dances around the room and then embraces him from behind; meanwhile Gregory's face is the picture of cold discomfort. Then there's another scene - one of the most painful in the movie - where they're attending a piano recital. They sit side by side, Gregory wearing an aloof and contemptuous expression as Paula slowly falls apart.

7) The final scene where Paula confronts Gregory is riveting. I watched it twice (then once more on Youtube, a few days later).

Ingrid Bergman as Paula confronting Charles Boyer as Gregory

8) The visuals in their honeymoon scene seem to have been lifted from a medieval ballad or a tapestry: flowing gowns, dark water and stone. Tranquil joy.

Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer in Gaslight

9) Most of the drama is set in an old, atmospheric house with flickering gaslights and the shadow of leaves blotting the windows. A murdered woman's portrait dominates the parlor, until it's taken down and placed in the attic, where footsteps are heard late at night.

10) Two outsiders widen the cracks in the wall Gregory has built up around Paula. One of them is a nosy neighbor, Miss Thwaites (Dame May Whitty) and a nosy (and smitten) Scotland Yard detective, Brian Cameron (Joseph Cotten - holding onto his American accent). Nosiness isn't always bad; people's concern and curiosity can sometimes save the day.

Further Thoughts
Gregory's motives become clear relatively early in the movie, but it didn't matter to me. I kept watching it not because of the mystery, but because of the acting and the atmosphere, and the psychological exploration.

*All images link back to their sources (Cinema Fanatic and Flixster Community).