Gaslight (1944)

Gaslight (1944) is an historical psychological and ever topical film noir drama by George Cukor, starring Ingrid Bergman, and based on a play by writer Patrick Hamilton.

While an engaging and massively popular item of historical drama, Gaslight (1944) is probably most remarkable as a cultural point of reference for the denominalisation of its title — to become the term 'gaslighting' — an aspect of psychological abuse generally within couples such as this — an abusive and controlling male.

To serve it its proper definition and coinage, gaslighting proper is a form of psychological abuse in which a person or group causes someone to question their own sanity, memories, or perception of reality. And this is, to quote the film's period poster: (the) strange drama of a captive sweetheart!

People who experience gaslighting will feel confused, anxious, or as though they cannot trust themselves, exactly as Ingrid Bergman portrays in this movie.

This being a movie, however, the abuse is not an end in itself, and the somewhat Scooby-Doo like revelation of the plot purposes even places method behind the wicked madness of arch gaslighter Gregory Anton — played by Charles Boyer.

Charles Boyer creeping into view in Gaslight (1944)

Generally and in real life, such abuse when it takes place does not normally happen for the sake of material gain as it is here, and will not often be a criminal means. In daily life and outside of classic film noir cinema, such activity is a common and often unobserved method of control in a larger pattern of abuse, or often simply the basis for a relationship in the actions of a controlling partner.

Gaslight (1944)

For this reason Gaslight (1944) is very much in the canon of the paranoid woman feature, incredibly popular in the 1940s. In fact, across the range of paranoid woman movies, such gaslighting and instilling of fear and doubt, and even madness in the mind of a wife, is standard practice.

This role is brilliantly played by Ingrid Bergman, in one of the decade's most memorable performances.

Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman in Gaslight (1944)

As with all such features, most of the action takes place in a family home, which becomes something of a prison for the women involved. The final object in such drama is to stress the fear of marriage that must have been entirely usual for women of that age, when without means and any independent life plans of their own, they would often move from the paternal home to the marital home, with little in the way of counsel, or any kind of emotional or social stepping stone.

Fantasy honeymoon in Gaslight (1944)

The growing awareness of this vulnerability also leaned itself to historical drama and historical noir, for a variety of reasons. One such reason was that the themes of such captivity were much more safely represented in the past, where there were not only no social moeurs, but not even any telephones to save you.

A further reason these dramas work better in the past is locked into the subject itself, which was alarmingly antiquated given the preceding slow decades of awareness of feminism and women's social issues in general.

The paranoid woman film began properly with Alfred Hitchcock's Rebecca (1940), and continues in two other popular Hitchcock hits of the decade, Suspicion (1941), and Shadow of a Doubt (1943).

Both Gaslight and Jane Eyre (1944) cement these ideas and are set in the past also. There are many examples of this genre within a genre, the paranoid woman film; such as Dragonwyck (1945), Notorious (1946) and The Spiral Staircase (1946), The Two Mrs. Carrolls (1947), Sorry, Wrong Number (1948) and Sleep, My Love (1948)

Joseph Cotten in Gaslight (1944)

Most of these films are not considered classic film noir by the definitions and themes that the style is known for. However All of these films use the film noir visual and thematic vocabulary and they all share the same premise and narrative. Generally the women is wealthy and lives a sheltered life and is threatened by an older and usually deranged man, usually her husband.

In every one of these films, the family home, which should be a symbol of shelter and security, becomes a trap in itself and the locus of terror. The aspect of wealth which is portrayed every time can be explained for thematic, dramatic and psychological purposes. Above all, wealth is cinematic, as there is more to film, and the notion of cinema as a means of glimpsing out with the mundane is fulfilled. 

And there is the idea that with wealth there is a certain amount of corruption of the soul, which may be seen as inevitable by those who do not possess wealth; and finally there is the underlying idea that if these bad things can happen to the wealthy, then they can certainly happen to anyone, with the notion being forwarded that wealth does not protect you from moral weakness and personal evil.

A further sold reason for the historical placement of this story is the fear that women suspected of being even slightly mentally ill would have felt in the patriarchal period of Victorian England, when they had few rights and could be accused of being hysterical and sent to institutions and asylums.

The husband in this brand of movie may be characterised as a psycho dandy. Senses of Cinema essayist David Melville defined this character as:

“An immaculately groomed gentleman of refined taste and nonexistent morals, who would turn without scruple to murder to possess the object of his desire. Other examples of this type are Clifton Webb in Laura (Otto Preminger, 1944), George Macready in Gilda (Charles Vidor, 1946) and Eric Portman in Corridor of Mirrors (Terence Young, 1948). He can be traced back to the darker strains of Romantic literature. Each of these men is implicitly gay or, at least, asexual. He may seek to possess Gene Tierney or Rita Hayworth…as a sort of living art object – to dress her and groom her and transform her into his own aesthetic fantasy. He does not, by any stretch of the imagination, want to have sex with her. The script may pretend otherwise, of course – but only to keep the censors quiet. Boyer’s role in Gaslight is an intriguing variation on this type.…The husband is a man whose primary erotic response is not to women (or even to other men) but to jewels – to priceless and coldly exquisite objets d’art.” 

The paranoid woman genre has been coined to capture many of the common themes to a rather surprising amount of films that followed the exact same story. There is a common element of gothicism to such films, and as a reminder that the term 'gothic' commonly refers to architecture, this is often because of the house in question. 

Ingrid Bergman in Gaslight (1944)

Such is the case in Gaslight with its large house filled with dark secrets; the doomed relationship which appears haunted by the external; the isolated female protagonist; the servant who plays an important role; and the suggestion of class differences between the male and female leads.

Quiet suspense is the name of the game with Gaslight, which is also well-famed for its being the film debut of Angela Lansbury, who won an Oscar for her performance as the tarty, flirty low-class Cockney working girl whose attitude adds a perfectly frustrating descant to the growing anxiety of Ingrid Bergman, who also won an Oscar.

Anglea Lansbury winning an Oscar in her debut role in Gaslight (1944)

Ingrid Bergman plays the happiness of the early marriage with a delight that slips with increasingly forgetful doubt, now not remembering where things are and then not remembering what she might have done.  The suspense about whether or not she is going mad maintains — showing that Cukor can do the business very bit as well as Alfred Hitchcock.

If it was I who took that picture down...if it was I who took it down the other times, if I do all these senseless, meaningless things, so meaningless, why should I take a picture down? But then, I don't know what I do anymore...But then, if that's true, then you must be gentle with me. You must bear with me, please. Oh please, Gregory, please!

Gregory is a warning for all time against abusers, and well imagined by the actor, writer and director. He is not violent to Paula but still nearly destroys her. He isolates and controls and belittles as abusers do. Tellingly, he keeps her on an emotional rollercoaster all the time, a scenario once again common to abuse. This is a life in which there is no happiness, only relief from fear.

The gaslighting on full shows him lying and playing tricks that make her think she's prone to losing things, or going mad, or just being forgetful.

This is how a person can be pushed towards despair. She becomes a wreck and forgets that she was anything ever other than a wreck.

Gregory calls his wife a silly child, and projects his own failings on to her, and she trusts him. This is the world in which women could only consider their reality as secondary to what the overbearing milieu of authoritative men told them.

Joseph Cotten in Gaslight (1944)

In film noir these men are fathers, husbands, and psychiatrists, as well as employers and casual lovers. What matters is that Ingrid Bergman's Paula loses trust in herself. 

All of which is brilliantly offset with a honeymoon sound stage set that seems most odd at the time.  This is an almost kind of medieval Mediterranean fantasy, maybe even echoing a ballad or a tapestry. There is a flowing nature to the scenery, like the gowns, and tranquil old world joy in the waters and fine stonework. 

To contrast this joyful marital bond, the drama proper is set in a gloomy London house with flickering gaslights and blotted windows. The murdered aunt watches on in her portrait which dominates an early scene or two, until it's taken down and moved to the attic, where the tortured and tense finale will take place.

Gaslight External Reviews at IMDB

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