British dramatist Patrick Hamilton’s influential play Gaslight was adapted into film twice. I watched the later American version rather than the earlier British one because I love me some Joseph Cotten. Here he plays a detective of Scotland Yard, but he hangs onto his American accent because he’s Joseph fucking Cotten and no one’s going to tell him to talk like some fancy pants British prat. Apparently the British version of Gaslight is more understated, but I really dug the gothic, grand guignol atmosphere of this one, directed by George Cukor. Also known as Murder in Thorton Square, Gaslight is an effective little psychological thriller that’s perfect for a rainy evening. Also, Joseph Cotten.
At her home in Thornton Square, London, opera singer Alice Alquist is murdered. The killer was frightened off by Alice’s niece, Paula (Ingrid Bergman), who was being raised by her following her mother’s death. Fast forward a decade and adult Paula is madly in love with composer Gregory Anton (Charles Boyer). He’s a real suave sonsabitch, with cruel eyes hiding behind a charming smile. Despite her fear of her aunt’s apartment, Anton convinces Paula they should move back in there. I mean, it’s swank as hell and comes fully furnished.
Paula begins going through her aunt’s belongings. She comes across a letter from a Sergius Bauer, dated two days before her murder. Who was this Bauer and why is Anton so pissed off about the letter?
The aunt’s things are collected and put in the attic, which they then board up. Shortly after, Anton begins isolating Paula from the outside world. He keeps insisting that she’s not well, overly forgetful, and hallucinating. She claims that she hears strange noises at night, like footsteps, and the gas lights in the bedroom dim for no reason. He scoffs at her statements and continues to insist she is not well.
Enter Joseph Cotten as Brian Cameron. He sees Paula one day and is stricken with how much she looks like her aunt. Brian was a huge fan of hers, so he wonders what her niece is doing back in the apartment. He starts investigating Anton and uncovers a methodical attempt to drive Paula insane. This helped coin the term “gaslighting,” which means to psychologically abuse someone and forcing them to doubt their own reality. I used to date a girl who did that!
Gaslight’s noir aspects have been pointed out before by critic Emanuel Levy. He talks about the film’s “noir visual vocabulary” and how the house is a “symbol of sheltered security” that becomes a “trap of terror.” Right on. The bedroom scenes in which Paula slowly loses her mind are particularly steeped in shadows. When the gaslight dims, they close in on her, trapping her and causing an incredibly tense feeling of claustrophobia.
Ingrid Bergman won an Oscar for her role as Paula. Her depiction of subtle and over-the-top madness is truly amazing. You really feel for her every time Anton continues his manipulative game. She gets her revenge in the end – another remarkably dark and tense scene.
I really love little murder mysteries like Gaslight. They’re the perfect rainy evening movies and this one has got to be one of the best. I’ll probably watch the British one soon. Also, Joseph Cotten.