There was a time when I’d always confuse two films – Suspicion and Gaslight. This was back in the days when I was a newfound Oscar enthusiast and the similarities between the two films were a bit severe. Both films earned their leading ladies [Joan Fontaine, Ingrid Bergman] Oscar wins, both concerned women whose husbands may or may not be planning to kill them and for a while I believed both had been directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Well Suspicion was directed by Hitchcock, Gaslight was not. I’ll have to ask my Hitchcock enthusiast but I find Gaslight to be a quite Hitchcockian piece, though not overtly so. The film is helmed by George Cukor who is best remembered for his light comedies with Katharine Hepburn and his Oscar winning My Fair Lady. He’s also referred to as a woman’s director, Gaslight is not like most things I’ve seen from him. It’s sentimental like the best of thrillers in the forties, but it is also satirically macabre and though a tad soppy at the end it’s quite dark. I am a fan. It’s a film that most have not seen, or don’t care to revisit. They should.
The opening scene of Gaslight is beautifully done. As the sombre score plays over we see splotches of newspaper titles. Someone has died. A distraught young lady [Ingrid Bergman as gorgeous as ever] is heralded out of an apartment. She looks quite distraught, and as the carriage rolls away she turns to look back, but her chaperone tells her no. Forget, Paula. Perhaps the opening does not serve the film as well as it might since it’s not really as riddled in death as the opening would have us believe but it is enticing. We’ve been given virtually no information, but Cukor’s direction is just scintillating and alluring. Gaslight is the story of Paula Alquist. Her aunt was strangled to death years before; a murder that has remained unsolved. In the wake of her womanhood she falls in love with Gregory, a charismatic gentleman – for better and for worse. It would seem that the film meanders for the first thirty minutes or so, but like any mystery it all comes into perspective at the end. I figure that you’ve probably already been privy to the spoiler that is Gaslight, but I won’t indulge. Even though early on we know the outcome I won’t spoil it for you.
The strange thing is that even though it seems like a typical mystery, it isn’t. Instead of the audience spending the duration wondering who done it…we spend it wondering when everyone else is going to know. This could have gone horribly wrong, but it only intensifies the dramatic tension and it’s all handled wonderfully by George…but it’s not George alone. Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer give impeccable performances. Charles is something of a forgotten gem of the era. He’s not remembered oft today, but the man had a quality. He’s perfectly cast in Gaslight as the disarming husband of Paula. Every time he gives that smile we’re not certain whether or not it’s sinister or not and it’s laudable that his role doesn’t descend into slapstick. Ingrid’s task is just as difficult too, perhaps doubly so. You’ll remember that Joan Fontaine made my worst of list, whereas as Ingrid made my best of list. And there are similar threads between the two women; they both have to descend somewhat into madness while seeming believable. It’s a part that cannot be played subtly throughout, and Ingrid does start out subtle and descends deeper and deeper into what may or may not be madness. But it’s not manic and shrieky madness, it’s the internal madness that we see as her face contorts and she leans on her husband for support, it’s a part she plays impeccably.
Gaslight also should be treasured for bringing Angela Lansbury to film. At seventeen the legend made her debut in Gaslight. She plays the maid to Paula and her Nancy and is a bit of a tart. She’s probably the most complex character in the film. We have no idea what her motivations are, she’s probably just a mean gal, but you can’t really helped being drawn to Angela. Sure she hasn’t reached the pinnacle of her talent as yet, and that irritated look on her face throughout doesn’t really help, but she’s impressive, and it’s nice to think that she earned her first Oscar nomination for a debut performance. Barbara Everest plays the head maid, and it’s a role that I always think is a throwaway, and as with Angela, you can’t be sure what her motivations are but she’s a smart actress. There’s a moment just before the dénouement and she says to Gregory ‘I see exactly how it is.’ Her line reading is chilling and even Charles Boyer gets the message.
Joseph Cotten and Dame May Whitty fill out the cast. The Dame plays an overly inquisitive neighbour and the role is silly, but she’s so delightful in it with only a few scenes that I can’t help but says she’s my favourite of the supporting player. It’s a bit like a Judi Dench in Shakespeare in Love cameo, but without the smartness of Queen Elizabeth. She’s thoroughly enjoyable. It’s inadvertent that I waited to address Tyrone Power last. He has the most thankless role of the lot. Essentially he’s simply there as an alternative to Charles Boyer, but he does his best with the role and it’s commendable.
If I had to choose one scene to represent Ingrid deserving the Oscar it would have to be the final conversation between her and Charles. It’s a showy part, but it’s still good. It consists of Charles being in an unnaturally subservient position and he and Ingrid are both flawless here. No, I’m not giving anything away. You must see it on your own. I figure everyone cannot love Gaslight, because everyone can’t love one thing, but I don’t think that the experience will be unrewarding. If only to see Ingrid Bergman give the performance of her career and to see George Cukor as you’ve never seen him before. Gaslight is often forgotten, but it’s still a classic.