Gaslight (United States, 1944)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Ingrid Bergman won her first Oscar for portraying Paula Alquist, the vulnerable, insecure heroine of George Cukor's diabolical, atmospheric thriller, Gaslight. Bergman, essaying a much different character from either of her last two roles (Maria in 1943's For Whom the Bell Tolls and Ilsa in 1942's Casablanca), is alluring and convincing as a woman held captive by her own fears.

The first half-hour of Gaslight is deceptively romantic. We are introduced to Paula, a young English singer living and studying in Italy during the latter half of the nineteenth century. Over the past few weeks, however, her attention has not been on her craft, and her wily mentor remarks that he believes that she's in love. When Paula confirms his suspicions, and indicates that she may marry the gentleman in question, Gregory Anton (Charles Boyer), she is released from her studies. Less than a week later, she and Gregory are on their honeymoon.

At this point, Gaslight turns ominous. Gregory wants to live in England, so he and Paula move into a house that she inherited from her late aunt, a well-known singer who was murdered a decade ago. Once there, Gregory's attentiveness acquires a sinister edge. He convinces Paula that she's having delusions, and, as a result, isn't well enough to see visitors. He hires a forthright young maid, Nancy (Angela Lansbury in her feature debut), who holds her mistress in contempt. And he disappears every night on clandestine business of his own.

A local Scotland Yard officer, Brian Cameron (Joseph Cotten), takes an interest in Paula's predicament, but Gregory and Nancy conspire to keep them from meeting. The more familiar Brian becomes with the situation, however, the more convinced he is that Paula's current circumstances are somehow related to her aunt's murder and a cache of missing jewels.

By the convoluted standards of many of today's ultra-slick thrillers, Gaslight may be seen as slow-moving and obvious. But no film like Basic Instinct can match this picture's intricate psychology. Paula's self-doubt builds slowly as her husband meticulously orchestrates her spiral into insanity. Since she's completely in his thrall, she never senses that he represents a threat. And, because Paula is isolated from everyone except Gregory, Nancy, and one other servant, she has no point of reference against which to gauge her mental stability.

Beautifully filmed in a gloomy, atmospheric black-and-white, Gaslight exhibits all the classic visual elements of '40s film noir. The attention to detail is more obvious than in many modern films. The benighted streets of London are cloaked with fog, and the large, lonely house where most of the action transpires is filled with shadows and strange noises. The paranoid, claustrophobic world of Paula's confinement is effectively conveyed. Even though we, as viewers, know that her insanity is contrived, we can feel the walls of the trap closing in as the situation grows progressively more hopeless.

In addition to Bergman's fine performance as the harried Paula, Charles Boyer and Angela Lansbury do excellent jobs. In less than two hours, Boyer's Gregory goes from a suave, debonair gentleman to a cunning, fiendish villain. The success of this transformation is an eloquent testament to Boyer's range. Meanwhile, Lansbury imbues Nancy with a impertinence that makes her Gregory's perfect, albeit unwitting, accomplice.

In many ways, Gaslight is as much a character study as a thriller. And, although "tame" by today's standards (and even by those of Hitchcock's Psycho), Gaslight is chilling enough to engross even a jaded modern audience. Yes, the ending is weak, and there are aspects of the story that don't stand up to scrutiny, but this is the kind of effectively-crafted, well-acted motion picture that rises above its faults to earn its "classic" appellation.

Gaslight (United States, 1944)

Run Time: 1:54
U.S. Release Date: -
MPAA Rating: "NR"
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1