The Film: There is something extraordinary when a film that is over seventy years old still has the capacity to captivate a viewer. Gaslight is one such film; made in 1944 yet having conventions within it that surpass even contemporary film, especially in the genre of suspense. In many regards, components of the film such as the Charles Dickens-like fog that encompasses the London streets or the macabre Bram Stoker-like set designs formulate and reinforce an aura that not only stays consistent within the film, but also work together to heighten the environment of claustrophobia and paranoia that is almost unpalatable for the film’s main character to endure. Yet what truly sells this film are the actors, who all contribute and complement each other in a plotline that needed a variation of emotions in order for the film to work. The talent that comes from Charles Boyer, Ingrid Bergman, Angela Lansbury, Joseph Cotten, and Dame May Whitty are all astounding given their differing range of talent and interpretation of their roles, which director George Cukor was masterful in utilizing each of them to make their own within the film.
The film is based off Patrick Hamilton’s 1938 play, Gas Light, which opens with the murder of a famous opera singer. The deceased’s niece, Paula Alquist (Ingrid Bergman) was living at the residence at the time of the murder and was the one who discovered the body. The event had traumatized her, shaking the stability of her mental state . Years later while she is in Italy learning to become an opera singer herself, she meets Gregory Anton (Charles Boyer), an attractive piano player and immediately they fall in love and are married. Soon after, Gregory convinces Paula for them to return to her aunt’s old townhouse and live there themselves. He suggests being back there will calm Paula’s nerves about the past and will truly allow for her to move on with her life. However, once they arrive Paula begins to suspect something isn’t right, to which her husband repeatedly insists it is her own imagination. What starts as the simple misplacement of items soon turns into Paula experiencing extreme paranoia, causing her to become a recluse while she endures the consistent assertion from her husband that she is losing her grip on sanity. The film follows Paula’s slow descent into madness to which any effort from her to justify she isn’t crazy is not only rebuffed by her husband, but he also is escalating, seemingly encouraging, her to lose her touch with reality.
The true genius with this film is how the suspense and adrenaline within the plot never ceases or offers an opportunity of relief for the viewer. This is a true achievement (and somewhat of a surprising precursor) from director George Cukor, who 20 years later would go on to direct and win his Oscar for My Fair Lady. As a result, the viewer essentially experiences the sense of dread and melancholy that Paula experiences, to which her descent is additionally the audience’s as well. This is further achieved with the ambiguity applied to the film, especially with the other actors that surround Bergman’s character. Technically all the characters outside of Bergman are one dimensional, or even stock characters, yet the ambiguity imbedded into their performances allow for them stand as their own well-rounded entities, to which we never truly know their motivations until they are revealed. This is especially achieved by the then-unknown and the now-legendary Angela Lansbury, whose mere stare is capable of evoking tremendous discomfort to Bergman’s character. Yet from the context of the audience watching Lansbury’s performance, they aren’t sure if her stare is built upon disdain or curiosity. It is moments of uncertainty, such as this, that allows for the audience to experience the very paranoia Bergman’s Paula experiences. Yet the true foil character to Bergman was Charles Boyer, who eliminated all notion of being one of “cinema’s great lovers” and instead provided a chilling performance that recanted that very perception of him. Boyer is revolting in his performance to which the very sight of him insinuates a further descent into madness for Bergman to endure. However like Lansbury’s performance, there is enough ambiguity in his performance that one wonders if his actions may potentially be justified. It is with these components that the film viewer is compelled to wait and see the film’s conclusion for such questions to be answered.
The Performance: Ingrid Bergman won her first Best Actress Oscar for this performance and there is no doubt that she deserved it, to which a suggestion otherwise would indeed be “crazy.” Bergman’s performance within Gaslight provides perhaps one of the most profound character progressions ever to have graced the silver screen. Bergman is astonishing by how she introduces her character as an awe-struck lover; a character-type that would have been synonymous with film at the time. Yet what Bergman was able to do was implement that notion of happiness and use it to create a foundational basis for the character, which functioned as a relatability for the film viewer and what they were traditionally accustomed to with female actresses and their performances. This further established to film viewers of her character’s happiness and sanity, to which their experience of her is that of elation and the positive prospect of the future. Therefore the film viewer’s experience hinged upon Bergman’s performance, to which their emotional state diminished with her character’s own.
In order for the film viewer to experience her character’s pain and torment, Bergman was sure to utilize realism into her performance rather than have her character spontaneously experience emotional outbursts. Bergman was sure to incorporate genuine mannerisms, many of which she learned when she did her role research for this film by observing patients within a mental institution. Therefore, Bergman’s diminishing mental state was in sync with her diminishing confidence in herself. This transitioned her performance from elation to that of nervous ticks and paranoid mannerisms. What especially was profound in Bergman’s acting was her bursts of courage and empowerment that gave the film viewer the chance to believe her Paula was finally standing up for herself, yet this was quickly eliminated with Charles Boyer’s insistence that her mental stability was beyond her understanding, to which Bergman conveys the most tragic display of defeat in both her body language and facial expressions. The imagery of her head cocked to the side and her eyes pointed in another direction only reinforced her performance of having a nervous breakdown and also the idea that Paula was slowly being driven mad by her husband.
The range of emotions Bergman conveys throughout her performance is additionally tremendous in that many of her scenes with Boyer shift from confusion to humiliation to defeat, sometimes in the course of five minutes. Bergman’s performance is not hysterical but cautiously restrained, to which the performance screams of realism thus allowing the film viewer to easily identify with her. With George Cukor’s careful direction focusing mostly from her vantage, the viewer is dependent upon Bergman’s performance, to which her roller-coaster of emotional sanity is directly felt by the film viewer. This is astonishing for both Bergman and Cukor to achieve, not only for portraying a convincing portrayal of mental instability, but also by having the film’s audience experience the very pain, fright, and distrust she encounters. This undoubtedly is what made Bergman’s performance worthy of her first Oscar win and may also be the pinnacle performance of her career.
Autumn Sonata: 5/5
Murder on the Orient Express: 5/5
Cactus Flower: 5/5
A Woman Called Golda: 4.5/5
For Whom the Bell Tolls: 3.5/5
Joan of Arc: 3/5
The Bells of St. Mary’s: 3/5
Autumn Sonata: 5/5
Murder on the Orient Express: 5/5
Cactus Flower: 5/5
A Woman Called Golda: 4/5
For Whom the Bell Tolls: 4/5
The Bells of St. Mary’s: 2.5/5
Joan of Arc: 2/5
Links for other Ingrid Thursdays can be found here:
A Woman Called Golda
Joan of Arc
Murder on the Orient Express
For Whom the Bell Tolls
The Bells of St. Mary’s