Women in Film Feature #3 – Gaslight (1944)

gasl2Gaslight (1944)
Directed by: George Cukor
Written by: John Van Druten, Walter Reisch, John L. Balderston (Based on Gas Light by Patrick Hamilton)
Starring: Ingrid Bergman, Charles Boyer, Joseph Cotten, Dame May Whitty, Angela Lansbury

The Swedish born Ingrid Bergman has starred in some of the most iconic films of the 1940’s and 50’s, and yet remains undiscovered by an entire generation of people unenthused with the pictures, and uninterested in their storied past.  With an impressive resume of films including Casablanca, Notorious, Spellbound, The Bells of St. Mary’s, Anastasia, Murder on the Orient Express, Autumn Sonata, and a thematic trilogy of films with director Roberto Rossellini, Ingrid Bergman has an entire body of work ripe for discovery.  Renowned in Hollywood for her naturalistic performances, Bergman helped change the way actresses were viewed during the golden age of American films.  On screen, she was graceful, subtle, and effortlessly realistic – which stood out in an era filled with over-the-top damsel in distress performances by some of her contemporaries.  Ingrid’s realism focused performances managed to win her two Academy Awards for Best Actress, one for Best Supporting Actress, and saw her nominated a further four times throughout her career.  Her work with directors like Alfred Hitchcock, Roberto Rossellini, Ingmar Bergman, George Cukor, Leo McCarey, and Michael Curtiz remain some of the most acclaimed films of their time, and have ensured that Ingrid Bergman’s place in Hollywood history is rightfully recognized.

The man of the hour in 1944’s Hollywood was undoubtedly the Master of Suspense himself, Alfred Hitchcock.  With a Best Picture win just a few years previously for Rebecca, and a slew of hit American films under his belt, the man had quickly managed to leave an impression on other filmmakers of the time.  There’s no doubt in my mind that director George Cukor took a page (or an entire chapter) out of Hitchcock’s book when approaching the story of Gaslight.  Soaked in an atmosphere of dread, featuring incredibly suspenseful moments, packed with twists and turns, and filled with good performances, it has all the makings of a Hitchcock film.  Cukor had made a career as a director for hire for major studios throughout the 1930’s, and had succeeded in eventually making quite a name for himself.  With a pair of incredible performances from leads Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer, a tight and thrilling screenplay, and dark and moody cinematography, it’s no wonder why Cukor’s Gaslight instantly became one of the director’s biggest hits.   The film earned seven Oscar nominations including major categories like Best Picture, Best Actress (Ingrid Bergman), Best Actor (Charles Boyer), and Best Supporting Actress (Angela Lansbury).  The highly acclaimed Swedish-born actress Ingrid Bergman took home her first of three statues for her performance in Gaslight, praised for her portrayal of a paranoid and desperate woman trying to a solve a deadly mystery with suspects right under her own nose.  Gaslight is also notable for being the on-screen debut of prolific actress Angela Lansbury, multiple time Academy Award nominee, and star of the long running hit show Murder, She Wrote.  The film is seen as being somewhat dated to today’s standards, but remains an incredibly effective and suspenseful look at the forced descent into madness of a woman by a man who has managed to make his way deep into her heart.

gaslight

Paula (Ingrid Bergman) and Elizabeth (Barbara Everest) in 1944’s Gaslight.

Gaslight begins on a murderous note, with opera singer Alice Alquist turning up dead and her jewel-seeking killer fleeing the scene after being interrupted by a young woman.  The young woman is Paula (Ingrid Bergman), Alice’s niece.  The young Paula is sent to Italy soon after, in order to study under a famed opera singer, and so that she can hopefully forget about the events she saw unfold on that fateful night.  Soon, Paula meets a charming and wealthy man by the name of Gregory Anton (Charles Boyer), and the two quickly fall in love and marry.  Gregory convinces Paula that returning to London and living in her aunt’s vacant house would be best for her mental recovery, and the two set off for their new home.  Alice’s belongings are tucked away in the attic in order to help Paula adjust, and a young maid named Nancy (Angela Lansbury) is hired.  After accidentally finding a letter addressed to her late aunt and being forbidden by her husband to read it, Paula begins to notice odd occurrences around her new home.  The home’s gaslights begin to dim and brighten at random, pictures disappear off the walls, and she loses prized possessions from the safety of her own person.  To top it all off, the new maid seems to have taken a disliking to Paula, but her husband ignores all signs of this.  Convinced by Gregory that she’s imagining all of these events and that she’s still reeling from the trauma of seeing her aunt’s murder, Paula begins to doubt many aspects of her own reality.  She is soon isolated from outsiders by those inside the house, and her sanity is called into question by her husband.  Is there more at play than just a woman losing her mind, or is Paula being influenced by an insidious power?  Find out in George Cukor’s Gaslight!

While George Cukor and company may have taken many a page out of Alfred Hitchcock’s style book, there’s something very different and special about the way Gaslight plays out.  Its twists and turns aren’t quite as “big” as some of Hitchcock’s most effective moments, but Cukor instead opts for subtlety and making the audience think really hard.  The well-paced direction focuses on getting to know our principal characters initially, and then takes a sudden and hard turn into one woman’s battle for her own sanity.  The attention to detail and art direction is something to be admired, as the sets and costumes create a realistic and fully-immersive portrait of the film’s time and setting.  The real shining feature of Gaslight though, is its acting.  Cukor’s film is more than anything a moody and dark showcase for four incredible talents to give their absolute best performances possible.  The audience knows the twist from the very beginning, making Ingrid Bergman’s supposed descent into madness a truly frustrating and infuriating experience for viewers.  Bergman’s performance as the tortured Paula is incredible, as it’s never played in an over-the-top fashion.  Paula is a believably traumatized young woman who may have put what little trust she had left into somebody that is completely toxic for her.  Supporting Ingrid Bergman’s Oscar-winning performance is a delightfully evil Charles Boyer as Gregory, Paula’s charming husband.  Boyer’s Gregory is sly, cunning, and has a silver-tongue when it comes to dealing with his wife, and every scene featuring the two becomes a subtle and suspenseful power play.  Even Hitchcock would have trouble making a character so hateable and yet so fully-realized at the same time, but Cukor pulls it off masterfully.  Worth mentioning is the debut of Angela Lansbury, whose turn as the maid Nancy earned her an Oscar nomination as well.  Nancy aids in creating the tense and toxic atmosphere that is slowly driving Paula insane, and the very young Lansbury is perfect for the role.

gaslight_1

Oscar-winner Ingrid Bergman and Best Actor nominee Charles Boyer in George Cukor’s terrific Gaslight.

While it may not be a completely unique or unpredictable tale in the modern age, George Cukor’s Gaslight is an incredible tale of a web of lies, deceit, betrayal, and madness.  It gives Alfred Hitchcock’s very best a run for its money, and has been undoubtedly influential on modern day suspense pictures.  Guillermo del Toro should have taken a page out of George Cukor’s book when making 2015’s Crimson Peak, as the two films share a great deal of similarities.  Gaslight features an Oscar-winning performance from one of Hollywood’s most talented actresses, a terrific and believable antagonist, subtle and deliberate pacing, and hopelessly bleak atmosphere aided by the dark and foggy cinematography.  It’s slow, maddening, and chock full of incredibly admirable qualities.  George Cukor’s Gaslight is highly recommended.

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