Gaslight (1944)

Gaslight PosterYoung Paula is hustled out of London after the death of her famous singer aunt. As is the case with most survivors of violent crime, Paula is eligible for an all expense paid trip to beautiful Italy! While there, you will try and follow in the melodic footsteps of your aunt, but be sidetracked by the smooth-talking Charles Boyer who is after a bunch of really sweet jewels that your dead aunt got from some shadowy royal figure. Or you can pass and bid on Showcase #2!

Years pass and Paula (Ingrid Bergman) spends her days having her voice trained by her aunt’s old teacher. It becomes apparent however that her singing is not up to snuff and her teacher, being the kind grandfatherly type, immediately discerns that her caterwauling is not the result of being a better actress than singer. It’s because she is in love! She breathes a sigh of relief now that she can quit her gig as crappy singer and start her new job as wife to crazy guy she barely knows.

But who is this guy that she is willing to ditch an unfulfilling and probably doomed career as a singer for? Why he’s the piano player that has been accompanying her practice sessions! His name is Gregory and they are in love and he wants to marry her right away, but she needs time to think about it so she does what any of us out of work singers would do and takes the train to an Italian resort.

She arrives at the resort only to find Gregory waiting for her. It’s still early in the relationship so she’s really excited to see him instead of being pissed that now she won’t get to watch HBO in the air conditioned hotel room by herself.

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They get married and move back to London right smack into the same old house as the one her aunt was bumped off in. It always amazes me in these movies how readily people are to move back into the place where something heinous (and always unsolved!) has taken place in. I guess it just shows how strong these people are. Or how contrived the plots of these films are.

Everything is going okay until Paula finds a letter to her aunt written two days before her death from an admirer named Serges. Greg goes nuts and grabs the letter from her and then tries to play it off that he was upset because all the memories were upsetting her. Greg then starts putting his dastardly plan into action.

Before going out for a night on the town, Greg makes a big show out of giving Paula some ugly broach and tells her not to lose it. Greg comes off as a smarmy jerk, even in the early going as he continuously puts Paula down for losing and forgetting things and basically treats her like she was his slow daughter. They go out for their little trip and sure enough, that crazy dame has gone ahead and lost the broach! Or has she? And who is that mysterious stranger that is hunkily tipping his hat to her? Why it’s Brian Cameron, the not-at-all-British-sounding assistant to the head of Scotland Yard!

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Meanwhile, Greg is ratcheting up his psychological warfare on her by moving pictures around and then blaming her. There are other things going on as well. The gaslight flickers and gets lower when it shouldn’t and Paula hears footsteps in the closed off attic. Paula begins to fear that she is losing her mind. Adding to the mystery is that her husband goes out every night to supposedly practice his music at some little room he’s rented that she’s never seen.

Brian uncovers what Greg is up to, leading to an anticlimactic ending where Brian tells all to Paula and then has a brief and mostly off-screen confrontation.

The movie should be over here, but they let Paula confront Greg for no real reason but to give the audience the catharsis from him tormenting and tricking her for the last ninety minutes. The whole thing feels tacked on. It would have been more effective if she had actually done something to get herself out of things, like investigating or subduing the guy, but she basically sat around all movie waiting for Prince Charming to bust in and save her.

Boyer is effective, though he’s another one of those screen villains that unnecessarily complicates things for the sake of drama. Couldn’t he just tell Paula he was going through her aunt’s things to sort out what needed to be kept and what needed to be stored or sold? And why wait ten years and marry Paula before putting his plan into action? If he could get into a vacant house next to the aunt’s, then why couldn’t he get into the aunt’s house while it was empty all those years?

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Bergman won an Oscar for her role, an Oscar that should have gone to Barbara Stanwyck for her much more memorable turn as the soulless wife in Double Indemnity, but Bergman manages to take the weak-willed woman role and give it more layers than you would expect.

Frequently, Greg thinks he has her under his thumb, but then she’ll show a little spine and demand to go out somewhere or she’ll continue to have doubts that she truly is insane, so she isn’t the total doormat you usually see in films like this.

This is a solid, if overrated film with stars that knew how to wring the most out of the material they were given. I was probably guilty of going into this with too high of expectations, but I can’t say that I didn’t enjoy what was up on the screen. Good performances by Boyer and Bergman illuminate the isolation and mental domination that mark dysfunctional relationships though the finished product was marred by the absurd story.

© 2013 MonsterHunter

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