On first blush, George Cukor’s Gaslight isn’t a horror film. But it is if you’re a woman. The term commonly pops up today but most don’t know the movie it’s most popularly associated with, now released on a dazzling Blu-ray from Warner Archive. Gaslight is a well-acted bit of terror that would go on to inspire countless “misbelieved female” films like Rosemary’s Baby (1968).
Paula Alquist (Ingrid Bergman) has recently lost her aunt in an unsolved murder. She hastily marries the charming Gregory Anton (Charles Boyer) and returns to her aunt’s home. But as the two’s marriage goes on Paula starts to wonder if she’s losing her mind or if her new husband has a hand in her mental deterioration?
Gaslight is sold as a Gothic suspense film, in the same league as other ’40s features like Dragonwyck (1946) and The Lodger (also 1944). These were women’s pictures but heavily swathed in mysterious, murder, and fog to entice male audiences as well. But Gaslight is different in what it represents, both in 1944 and today. We’re introduced to Paula as a traumatized young woman, left alone in the world after her opera singer aunt is viciously murdered.
Ingrid Bergman is perfect casting and would become synonymous with terrorized women drawn to madness by the patriarchy. It would be five more years before Bergman would meet the man who nearly toppled her career, Roberto Rosselini, but it’s so ironic that Bergman would regularly play women forced to test their love for a man (see 1946’s Notorious). Her Paul appears to grow up wonderfully in spite of her circumstances, but ends up quickly falling in love with a man below her station. (Ladies, if classic films taught us anything it’s that men, regardless of wealth, are not to be trusted.)
Like Cary Grant’s Johnny Aysgarth in Suspicion (1941), Charles Boyer’s Gregory is an opportunist. Where he diverges from Grant is in his malice. There’s an interesting air of ambiguity that runs through the script, giving the audience just enough doubt and (at times) almost putting Gaslight into the genre of haunted house film. The two marry and have good chemistry, but Gregory starts putting the bug in people’s ears that Paula has a weak constitution. He goes through the typical stops on the road to emotional abuse: isolating Paula from her family, acting shocked when she gets upset, and “reminding” her of perceived faults, particularly her penchant for forgetting or misplacing things.
There’s a sense of interiority and claustrophobia that permeates the movie, even when characters finally leave their house. Because Gregory is constantly looking at Paula for the possibility of a slip-up the audience feels her mounting anxiety. When she finally decides to go out on her own, just hearing the maid Nancy (Angela Lansbury at her coolest) ask what she should tell Gregory is enough to force her back inside. Watching this movie as a woman, the terror of wondering what her husband will do is all that’s needed. Even in the smaller sequences, when Gregory feigns frustration there’s a lingering sense of anger that Boyer lets hide behind his eyes.
Because this is a woman’s picture there, of course, is a love interest. Joseph Cotten’s Brian Cameron isn’t just a good man with an interest in Paula, he’s also the male justification to prove Paula’s point. The script emphasizes that Gregory controls Paula and she doubts herself because she’s a woman. When Brian arrives, a man who believes her, it takes on an added credence. It’s not right, but it remains a timely trope. Cotten otherwise is fine. I can’t say I’m ever enamored by his performance but he’s a solid straight man to Boyer’s foreign elegance.
As with most Warner Archive Blu-rays this is a must-own. If you want to examine the horror field in a new way that remains, sadly, fresh and relevant you need to own Gaslight!
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.