Gaslight Director: George Cukor (1944)
“Will you light the gas, please?”
Adopted from Patrick Hamilton’s play of the same name, Gaslight is a psychological exploration of control and entrapment (apparently, it deviates significantly from the play). It stars a young Ingrid Bergman, Charles Boyer, Joseph Cotton, and Angela Lansbury. For me, Ingrid Bergman delivers an incredible performance as a slowly unraveling woman. Also it was amusing to see Angela Lansbury play a morally loose cockney household servant. Today, the term “gaslighting” is a colloquialism that refers to a kind of psychological abuse –a manipulative tactic employed by an abuser to fully control a victim.
The films tells the story of Paula and Gregory Anton. Paula inherits a large amount of money from her wealthy aristocratic aunt who lived in London. Paula’s aunt was found strangled to death and she owned a reputable collection of priceless jewels. One day Paula elopes with Gregory Anton, the piano player from her Italian voice lessons. Together, they move into her late aunt’s flat in London. In time, Gregory persuades Paula that she is losing her sanity. Gregory begins forbidding Paula from going outside and he plays psychological games, convincing her she has lost various valuable items (i.e. a painting, his watch, and so on), meanwhile Gregory ventures out for long walks every night, strolling around the block only to secretly enter the attic to his house. Paula starts to believe she is truly going mad as she hears footsteps in the attic, all the while Gregory spends each night scavenging the attic for the priceless jewels Paula inherited. The film comes to a head when the police and an investigator, Brian Cameron (Joseph Cotten), become involved. Gregory (who has been using an alias) is caught in the end and taken away just at just the moment that he discovers the jewels embroidered upon a magnificent gown.
Gaslight offers a disturbing glimpse into an abusive relationship, a toxic partnership sans all the violence –it is a study of one greedy man’s ploy to completely control his wife in order to steal her inheritance. All throughout the film we are given recurring images of burning gaslights and lamps as they line the streets and parks of London, while they also brighten and dim inside Paula’s room whenever she hears the strange footsteps overhead (footsteps she persuades herself are merely the phantasms of her declining mental state). Ingrid Bergman’s tragically unhinged portrayal of Paula makes the dramatic capture of Gregory all the more gratifying. The closing scene of Gregory tied up in the attic while Paula taunts him leaves an indelible impression –a very well deserved award for Best Actress for Ingrid Bergman.