Strange drama of a captive sweetheart!
When it comes to great screen actresses of Hollywood's golden era, they don't get much greater than Ingrid Bergman. The Swedish-born star, whose acting career spanned from the 1930s all the way up through the 1980s, had a special gift for combining childlike innocence with a deep, resourceful inner strength, and it is these qualities that are most prominently on display in 1944's Gaslight. A remake of a 1940 British film of the same name, this moody, atmospheric melodrama netted Bergman her first of three Academy Awards® for Best Actress and, though it seems strangely misogynistic by today's standards, still manages to get by on the strength of the performances from Bergman, Charles Boyer, and Joseph Cotten, and a very young Angela Lansbury.
Facts of the Case
Bergman plays Paula Alquist, a young woman who, as the film opens, has just experienced a great tragedy in the murder of her aunt, a famous singing star. We then flash forward a number of years, as Paula is living in France and attempting to begin a singing career of her own, a career she soon gives up when she falls desperately in love with her piano player, Gregory Anton (Charles Boyer). The two are married, and Gregory convinces Paula to move back to London, into the house left to her by her aunt, where the murder took place.
Soon after they arrive back in London, strange things begin happening to Paula. She becomes increasingly forgetful. She misplaces precious pieces of her jewelry. She rarely leaves the house, and is not allowed to receive visitors. Soon it becomes apparent that Paula is slowly, systematically losing her mind, and that the process may not be entirely of her own doing. And when a nosy police officer (Joseph Cotten) becomes aware of Paula's plight, it's up to him to save her from a complete plunge into madness, and to bring to her attention a dark secret that Gregory would rather not have exposed.
It's surprising to note that when Casablanca, now considered by many to be the greatest film ever made, took home three Oscars in 1943, its romantic leads, Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, left empty-handed (Bergman wasn't even nominated). Bogart would have to wait until 1950 to win his first Best Actor Oscar (for The African Queen), but for Bergman it would take only a year for Academy voters to rectify their mistake, awarding her for her role in 1944's Gaslight. And though her work in Casablanca is probably the better (and certainly better-remembered) performance, I don't think anyone can rightfully complain about her receiving recognition, even if the Academy were characteristically late in showing it. Better late than never, I always say.
That's not to take anything away from Bergman's work in Gaslight, which is easily on par with most of what she would accomplish throughout her career. Her performance is a marvel of subtlety, and she excels at playing a woman slowly being driven toward the brink of madness, a part she carefully researched by spending a good deal of time in an actual mental institution. Watch her eyes dart every which way as she struggles desperately to keep just on this side of sanity, and you'll understand what it is to be trapped inside one's own mind with no one to help. Watch the rage on her face as she slowly comes to realize how completely the person she loves most has manipulated her. It's not one of her most glamorous performances (like the one she would give in Hitchcock's Notorious, for instance), just really strong work in a damn good movie.
And the movie really is quite good, though, truth be told, it's probably lost a bit of its luster over the years. This is mainly because the overt sexism of the film's main narrative simply won't fly today. Now I'm no member of the PC police, but even I can tell when something is overtly misogynistic, as Gaslight plainly is. Throughout the entire film, our heroine is constantly manipulated by the film's male leads, first by her husband, then by the police officer who becomes wise to his plan. Even when Paula does finally learn the truth about her husband's deception, it's all brought to her attention by Joseph Cotten's Officer Cameron, rather than her figuring it out for herself. It's even more surprising when you take into account that the film was directed by the great "women's director" George Cukor, who frequently made films that were marvelous showcases of female empowerment. Gaslight is certainly the exception to that distinction, and nobody would characterize it as a poster child for women's lib.
What still works about the film, then, is the richly gothic atmosphere and claustrophobic set design, which received the film's only other Oscar. Every touch is just right—from the titular gaslights, which flicker eerily in the darkness, to the intensely cramped Victorian-era London house that Paula and Gregory occupy. It has the feel of creepy black-and-white horror combined with a touch of great film noir, and when combined with the subject matter, creates a mood and intensity that complements the story with perfect realization.
Also adding to the effectiveness of the film are the supporting performances, which are consistently excellent, with nary a bad one in the bunch. Charles Boyer is wonderfully sinister as the charming husband with a dark secret. The underrated Joseph Cotton is his usual amiable self as the police officer, and Dame May Whitty has a great deal of fun as the nosy neighbor who takes an oblivious interest in Paula and Gregory. And in the first role of a long career, Angela Lansbury (who was only 17 when she took the role) excels at playing a maid who doesn't appear ready to offer much help when it appears that Paula may be taking the final plunge toward insanity.
If Gaslight doesn't quite play as well as it probably did in 1944, then it's because our values towards the role of women in relationships have changed so dramatically (for the better, no doubt), as has our ability to be scared by psychological horror rather than visceral shocks. What the film does retain is the magnificent screen presence of its leading lady and the cast that surrounds her, as well as its ability to create a mood and atmosphere that remains as effective as ever. It's a testament to Ms. Bergman that she still maintains the ability to carry a film more than sixty years after its release, and I have no doubt that Gaslight will be a sterling example of her talent for years to come.
Warners' new DVD of Gaslight is another in their line of single-disc classic film releases, and continues to uphold the standard of quality set by previous titles released in a similar fashion (i.e. good A/V presentation, snapper cases, decent extras). The video presentation is solid, featuring a full-frame black-and-white transfer with excellent contrast and a relatively clean source print. There are the usual specks and scratches here and there, but they never become distracting; the film looks just how one might expect a 60-year-old film to look. Audio is in the usual Dolby Digital mono and is noticeably free of any background hiss, with an alternate French language track and subtitles in English, French, and Spanish.
Extras-wise, there's not much here, save for one doozy—Warner has seen fit to include the 1940 original version of the film, directed by Thorold Dickinson, on Side B of the flipper disc. The original film stars Anton Walbrook and Diana Wynyard in the Boyer and Bergman roles, and has a decidedly more British flavor to it, most evidently in the role of the police officer, played here by British actor Frank Pettingel, as opposed to Joe Cotten's good-natured Yank. The original film is also a bit tighter, and gets moving a bit quicker than the more leisurely-paced remake and as a result, ends up running about a half hour shorter (84 minutes as opposed to 113 minutes). When all was said and done, I ended up preferring the Cukor version to the original, mostly due to the presence of more recognizable actors (e.g. Bergman and Cotten), and because the remake lays the atmosphere on a bit thicker, thanks to its more languorous pace. But it's all a matter of preference, and it's wonderful that Warner has given us the option of choosing between the two.
The only other extras on the disc include a brief 10-minute documentary, Reflections on Gaslight, which includes interviews with surviving cast member Lansbury as well as Bergman's daughter, Pia Lindstrom, and some newsreel footage of the Bergman's Oscar acceptance speech. The 1944 version's theatrical trailer is also featured.
A fabulously atmospheric tale from Hollywood's golden age, Gaslight remains a terrific showcase for the acting prowess of its leading lady, Ingrid Bergman, and ends up as a fairly effective thriller in its own right. Though a bit dated in places, it holds up well, and because it can be found at most retail outlets for $14.95 or less (a terrific bargain when taking into account the inclusion off the original film), should be sought out by anyone interested in classic cinema.
Not guilty on all counts. Case dismissed.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Original 1940 British Version of Gaslight Starring Anton Walbrook and Diana Wynyard
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