FROM THE ARCHIVES: Gaslight
Reviewed by Leonard Quart
Produced by Arthur Hornblow, Jr.; directed by George Cukor; screenplay by John Van Druten, John L. Balderston, and Walter Reisch, based on the play by Patrick Hamilton; music by Bronislau Kaper; cinematography by Joseph Ruttenberg; editing by Ralph E. Winters; art direction by Cedric Gibbons and William Ferrari; costume design by Irene Sharaff; set design by Edwin B. Willis and Paul Huldschinsky; starring Ingrid Bergman, Charles Boyer, Joseph Cotten, Angela Lansbury, and May Whitty. DVD, B&W, 113 min., 1944. A Warner Bros. Archive release.
George Cukor had a reputation as a “womens’ director” who could summon great performances from his actresses. It was a title he resented, and, as it happens, he was responsible for more films that earned Academy Awards for Best Actor than any other director: James Stewart in The Philadelphia Story (1940), Ronald Colman in A Double Life (1947), and Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady (1964). He also launched the movie careers of Jack Lemmon and Aldo Ray.
Still, Cukor worked seamlessly with many actresses. One of Cukor's first women stars was Katharine Hepburn, who debuted in A Bill of Divorcement (1932), and went on to star in Philadelphia Story and Adam’s Rib (1949), and five of his other films. He also directed, among others, Judy Holliday in Born Yesterday (1950), Judy Garland in A Star is Born(1954), and Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady. He was never a confessional or profoundly personal director; he took on a variety of studio assignments. But in screenwriter Gavin Lambert’s words, “Cukor’s first instinct was to defer—to his actors, his writers, and so on. The ‘I’ exists, but doesn’t care to advertise itself.”
Gaslight is Cukor’s 1944 mystery-thriller adapted from Patrick Hamilton's British play, Gas Light, performed as Angel Street on Broadway in 1941. It was the second version to be filmed; the first, directed by Thorold Dickinson, was released in Great Britain just four years earlier. Cukor’s female star, Ingrid Bergman, won her first of three Academy Awards for Best Actress for her role in the American version.
Bergman begins the film playing a very young woman, Paula Alquist, whose mother died when she was a child. Her aunt—an internationally famous soprano—raises her, and her murder by an unknown killer leaves Paula traumatized. Years later, a susceptible, needy Paula meets a pianist, Gregory Anton (Charles Boyer), and though she knows hardly anything about him, they get married.
Despite its having been the scene of the tragic murder, Gregory insists they move back to the aunt’s house. It’s an early sign that the superficially charming Gregory has nefarious intentions. In fact, there is little mystery in this film, for Gregory’s motives are transparent. Settled in the house, which Paula feels “smells of death,” he plays the aunt’s favorite score on the piano, before peremptorily grabbing out of Paula’s hands a letter of the aunt’s implicating him in her murder.
The rest of this very skillfully directed film is more interesting as an exercise in Cukor’s use of décor and camera angles than as an exploration of Paula’s psychology. Shot in a studio backlot, Gaslight succeeds in creating a permanently foggy London whose only illumination comes from streetlights—an atmosphere into which Gregory mysteriously disappears each evening. The house’s interiors are baroquely conceived: musty, cluttered rooms filled with innumerable knickknacks, and a mysterious boarded-up attic filled with Paula’s aunt’s clothes and furniture. The film is shot from a variety of camera angles: high overhead shots overlooking the winding staircase; tight close-ups evoking tension; and low-angle compositions. It also utilizes a great deal of noirish light and shadow.
The center of the film, however, is not its cinematic style, but the insidious and sadistic Gregory’s systematic attempt to drive Paula mad. His goal is to place her in a sanitarium, and to steal the aunt’s precious jewels, which are hidden in the house. With her broad shoulders and confident, strong features, Bergman does not naturally convey fragility and submissiveness, but she gives a fairly convincing performance as a woman being pushed to the edge of sanity. Her constant expressions of vulnerability and anxiety come to feel repetitive and one-dimensional, but the relationship between Gregory and Paula does capture something of an extreme version of a sadomasochistic marriage, as Gregory tears down his wife’s self-esteem.
Gregory harshly insinuates that she loses things and is becoming forgetful, not so subtly suggesting that she is going crazy. He keeps her isolated in the house, claiming that she is too sick to see other people. Paula’s fear intensifies, and Cukor heightens it by having the gaslight in Paula's bedroom ominously dim, and by depicting her hearing sounds in the boarded-up attic above. Of course, it’s Gregory obsessively searching for the jewels in the middle of the night.
Aside from the (Oscar nominated) acting debut of an eighteen-year-old Angela Lansbury as a sexy, sharp-tongued Cockney servant who is eager to help Gregory, the other secondary roles are utterly forgettable: Joseph Cotten’s dogged Scotland Yard inspector, who becomes Paula’s savior, is a bland character; and May Whitty’s eccentric, nosy neighbor—a type familiar from innumerable British films—is more an irritant than a source of comic relief.
Gaslight is a well-made, moderately entertaining film that at times provides a frisson of terror. Still, it’s more a work of consummate professionalism than of inspiration.
Leonard Quart is the author or coauthor of several books, including the just-published, fourth edition of American Film and Society Since 1945 (Praeger).
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