Classic Cinema: Gaslight (1944)

 

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In 1944’s Gaslight, Ingrid Bergman fills the screen entirely. Throughout the film, she has complete control of your eyes. You can’t simply watch Gaslight, it controls your viewing experience entirely. At times when I wanted to look down and jot a note, I found that Bergman’s gaze wouldn’t me. I was forced to pause the film entirely to take notes. When I did, a flow of observations descended from my fingertips. I didn’t write down basic information like names and locations. Instead I focused all my note taking on how every individual scene made me feel. The film took me on an emotional rollercoaster, unlike any thriller I had seen before. Ingrid Bergman is key to that.

By the 20-minute mark of Gaslight, the plot becomes obvious. A young woman has fallen in love with an older man and he wants to marry her after only two weeks. She’s been alone since the death of her aunt at the beginning the film, and has no parental figure to guide her. Instead of forging her own path and trying to truly find herself, she has been trying to emulate her aunt with a middling singing career. Restless and frustrated with where her life is going, an older man is a welcome escape. His charismatic and romantic presence becoming the only light in her life and she allows herself to be consumed by it.

At first, Bergman plays Paula like a lost girl, highly impressionable and prone to long bouts of melancholy. Traumatized by her aunt’s unsolved murder, what Paula really needs is a therapist and a good friend. Gregory finds her first, and takes full advantage of her loneliness and trustworthy nature. Charles Boyer plays Gregory like a father figure than a lover, but Paula is too young and inexperienced to know the difference.

Throughout the film, we have to watch Gregory manipulate Paula into madness. This plot could have easily made it a torturous viewing experience, and there are definitely points where it toes the line between fascinating and pure misery. A later scene at a concert where Gregory makes Paula believe he stole her watch – leading her to wail openly in public – is especially difficult to watch. But as Gregory manipulates Paula, Bergman manipulates the viewer, entrancing us with her magnetic performance. She’s almost animated- all eyes, face and fluid movement. When she feels the walls closing in on her, we feel them too.

The only person who seems to have honest concern for Paula – at first – is Miss Bessie (Dame May Whitty), an older woman her meets on a train who later becomes her neighbor. When they meet, Paula is trying to take a trip alone to clear her head; she wants to figure out if she really wants to marry Gregory. But the moment the train arrives at its destination, Gregory appears. He frames it as a romantic gesture, but the truth is he didn’t want to risk giving her a moment of space to change her mind. Time alone would only allow her to see clearly, and Gregory is counting on Paula having a clouded mind.

Once Paula and Gregory are married, the outside world is barely shown. We mainly stay with Paula, observing the many ways Gregory isolates her. He instructs to house staff, specifically Nancy (Angela Lansbury) to report to him and never “disturb” Paula. He also flirts with Nancy, pitting her against Paula, and giving her incentive to be cold to her mistress. He doesn’t allow Paula to see Miss Bessie, who is the only woman with the insight to see that something isn’t right with their marriage.

Whenever Gregory takes Paula out, he tricks her into thinking that she’s lost something valuable of his, tormenting her and souring every pleasurable outing. It is during one of these torturous outings – this one to the Tower of London – that we are first introduced to Inspector Brian Cameron (Joseph Cotten). The moment Brian lays eyes on Paula he’s fascinated by her, but she doesn’t even notice him. He appears again during the aforementioned musical gathering, and he watches her leave in hysterics. Brian soon begins to pursue Paula for reasons unknown. Indeed, it’s late in the film before he and Paula even meet. But once they do it becomes clear what the outcome will be.

Gaslight serves as a fascinating depiction of psychological torture. What strikes me about it the most is the way patriarchy and male dominance play out in the narrative. Within the confines of marriage, Paula must answer to her husband. She is surrounded by women, but none of them are able to intervene. Nancy is too enamored by Gregory and bitter towards Paula due to his manipulation. The housekeeper takes everything Gregory says at face value, and rarely questions the way his decisions hurt Paula. Gregory keeps Miss Bessie from entering the house, so she is never able to spend any private time with Paula to talk. Paula is surrounded by other women, but none of them can protect her.

It isn’t until Brian appears that Paula gets any chance at a happy ending. The only person that could pry her from the clutches of a controlling man is… another man. Brian’s appearance also gives Paula the strength to fight back against Gregory – in one of the best displays of rage ever captured on film. I would describe it here, but it really need to be seen (by everyone). Paula’s regained power is somewhat undercut by Brian because their interactions make it obvious that they’ll end up together. I would prefer Paula end up alone and find herself… but I’m a feminist woman in 2017. I can acknowledge my biases. However, I still believe that the great tragedy of the film is that Paula never really gets the space to grow up and find herself on her own terms.

As Gaslight neared the end, I couldn’t help but think about a film that came 11 years later- The Night of the Hunter. Both films feature a woman being tormented by a man who is using her to attain a hidden wealth. Those plot points are where the similarities stop. Paula survives in the end, while Shelley Winters’s Willa Harper is murdered. Still, as I watched Paula being comforted by Brian in the end, I couldn’t help but think of how plausible it would be for Paula to never be saved.

If close my eyes I can still see Paula in that room, her eyes bulging towards the ceiling as the gaslight flickers.

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One comment

  1. This movie is one that I pulled out for one of my cousins a few years back, and now she demands that my copy go a-lending every Halloween so that everyone can see Paula’s speech at the end. Bergman is a powerhouse, and I’m happy to see you offering your take on the film and her performance.

    The thing that saves Brian’s presence in this film for me (at least, in part) is that he is also there to confirm Paula’s perceptions. With real cases of gaslighting, it’s important to have that anchor of reality. It doesn’t make it better that they dump Paula directly into potential romance with another man, but at least he’s got a valid purpose in the plot.

    Liked by 1 person

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