Gaslight (1944)

It’s a coincidence that memsaab reviewed Woh Kaun Thi? just after I’d seen Gaslight and decided to review it. The films are worlds apart (and yes, Raj Khosla fan though I am, I must acknowledge that George Cukor is better at this!) There is, however, an interesting similarity: a central character who seems to be steadily going insane.
That said, this is a great film, very watchable and with the beautiful Ingrid Bergman in a superb, Oscar-winning performance.

Ingrid Bergman in Gaslight

The film opens in 1875, in London’s fog-shrouded Thornton Square, where opera diva Alice Alquist has been strangled. Her teenaged niece Paula (Ingrid Bergman), who used to live with Alice, is tramautised by the incident, and is being sent off to Italy to learn music from Alice’s old mentor.

Paula leaves Thornton Square after Alice's death

Zoom forward to 1885. Paula isn’t much of a singer, and is anyway madly in love with pianist Gregory Anton (Charles Boyer). They finally elope, and once married, discuss where they’ll stay. Paula suggests Paris, but Gregory’s keen on London. Although she’s still haunted by what happened in London, Paula loves Gregory so much, she acquiesces. The house at 9, Thornton Square, had been left to her by Alice, so that’s where they’ll stay.

Paula and Gregory on their honeymoon

In Thornton Square, they see the relics of the past: Alice’s portrait, depicting her as an empress in one of her popular opera roles; an embroidered glove; the piano; and Alice’s book of music. Flipping through the musical notes, Paula comes across a letter to Alice from a Sergius Bauer, begging Alice to meet him. Paula begins to read out the letter to Gregory, but he snatches it away from her and is obviously quite upset.

Gregory snatches the Bauer letter from Paula

Paula herself gets quite upset when she sees the place where, as a girl, she’d discovered Alice’s corpse. Seeing her anguish, Gregory decides that everything that reminds Paula of Alice will be locked in the attic, and it’ll be boarded up.
Gregory also sets about finding domestic help for them. He hires a hard-of-hearing cook, Elizabeth (Barbara Everest), and a cocky housemaid, Nancy (the 18-year old Angela Lansbury, in her debut role). Gregory tells Nancy that she’s to take her orders only from him, because Paula is “inclined to be highly-strung”.

Gregory hires Nancy as the housemaid

As the days pass, Gregory, in fact, tries (successfully) to convince Paula that she isn’t well enough to go anywhere. Meanwhile, their snoopy but good-hearted neighbour Bessie Thwaite (Dame May Whitty, as charmingly irritating as she was in Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes) wonders aloud why Mrs Anton is never to be seen out of doors.

Bessie Thwaite meets the Antons

Paula is ecstatic when Gregory plans a trip to the Tower of London—and presents her with a brooch just as they’re stepping out of the house. At the Tower, the Kohinoor (and the other Crown jewels) fascinate Gregory, before Paula suddenly discovers that the brooch is missing. A frantic search ensues, but it’s gone. Paula doesn’t tell Gregory at the time, but when she confesses, he accuses her of being absent-minded and confused.

Paula tells Gregory of the loss of the brooch

While at the Tower, Paula encounters a stranger, who tips his hat to her. This is Brian Cameron (Joseph Cotten), an officer at Scotland Yard who had once been a fan of Alice’s. He is curious about Paula—she is the spitting image of Alice—and tries to find out more at the Yard, but to no avail. There were no suspects and no motive, he’s told. Case closed.

Brian Cameron gets curious

In the meantime, strange things are happening at 9, Thornton Square. Paula is shut inside the house all day, with only the increasingly insolent Nancy for company. Gregory goes off every evening to practise his music in a studio down the road; and while he’s gone, the gaslight dims (as if someone had turned on a light somewhere else in the house—although Elizabeth and Nancy deny it), and then Paula hears weird sounds, footsteps, and the like. Nobody else appears to notice any of this.

Paula thinks she sees the gaslight dim...

One day, a picture disappears from their drawing room, and when the two servants disclaim all knowledge, Gregory turns to Paula. She denies having taken down the picture, but soon after, pulls it out from the staircase landing and hands it to Gregory.
As if that’s not bad enough, a while later, Paula insists on going to a musical performance at the house of Lord and Lady Dalroy. Gregory tries to dissuade her, saying she’s ill—he even writes a note to the Dalroys, begging off. But Paula refuses to take no for an answer, and they go.
At the Dalroys, Gregory notices another guest:

Cameron at the Dalroys'

While they’re listening to the performer, Gregory tells Paula his pocket watch has gone missing. He insists that he’d brought it with him to the soiree, and does a quick search of Paula’s bag. Voila!

Gregory finds his watch in Paula's bag

Paula has a very awkward breakdown right there, and they leave in a hurry. This, says Gregory (the ever-loving husband!), is the reason he never takes Paula out anywhere: she’s swiftly losing her mind, and who knows when and where she’ll do something that’ll embarrass them both?

So what exactly is going on? Is Paula really going mad? Where do Alice Alquist and her long-ago murder fit in? Will Cameron be able to unravel the mystery?

What I liked about this film:
Just about everything. It’s gripping, well shot, and has some truly unforgettable characterisation. But, most vividly recalled:
The atmosphere. The fog, the lamplighter walking along lighting the street lamps, the horse-drawn hackneys clip-clopping and clacking by: everything is very like I imagine 19th century London to be. Also rather gloomy and forbidding, both inside the house and outside—which just heightens the suspense.

London in the 1880s, according to Gaslight
The acting. Ingrid Bergman is splendid, acting the lovestruck bride as convincingly as she does the self-doubting, nervous woman who has seemingly lost the ability to think straight. Her trauma is palpable.
And if Bergman’s good, so is Charles Boyer. He’s very good as the husband who’s part-impatient, part-overprotective, charming one moment and contemptuous the next, a man who’ll flirt with the housemaid in the presence of his wife, and then justify the flirting.

What I didn’t like:
The fact that the culprit becomes fairly obvious early on in the film. It becomes more of a whydunit than a whodunit.
Joseph Cotten is supposed to be Scotland Yard, so it’s jarring to hear an American accent. Why not a Brit actor here, I wonder?

But still, a great film and a must-see for any noir fan.

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18 thoughts on “Gaslight (1944)

  1. Hah, I love this film and should have watched it again instead of Woh Kaun Thi :-) (as much as I love Raj Khosla too)…I didn’t mind that it was a whydunit instead of a whodunit, since it was still completely mysterious. We should do more Bolly-Holly film parallel posts, although there is no Hollywood equivalent for a lot of Hindi cinema!

  2. “We should do more Bolly-Holly film parallel posts”

    That’s a very interesting idea :). But yes, you’re so right – a lot of Bollywood (the overwhelming majority of its films, I think) just have no equivalent. Come to think of it, other than that one little similarity, there’s nothing common between Woh Kaun Thi and Gaslight. Though I did read somewhere that Woh Kaun Thi began as a Guru Dutt story inspired by Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White. Apparently when Guru Dutt gave it up – and then died – Raj Khosla, who used to be his assistant, decided to take it up.

  3. Ah, very interesting. I’ve read The Woman In White, and it doesn’t have much in common with Woh Kaun Thi but I can see how it would have inspired it. I wonder what Guru Dutt would have done with it!

  4. Ohh my god. Ingrid Bergman.

    @dustedoff: brilliant idea on the holly-bolly parallel posts. Do I see a new “genre” emerging? :-)

    @dustedoff & memsaab: How about you do a holly-bolly film and for the right film, a holly-bolly-comic? You know..a multi-“lingual”, multi-city, simultaneous, parallel, together, at the same time :-) together..

  5. I love this film – so Gothic-romance-horror and both Bergman and Boyer were awesome. After this movie I was inclined to hate Boyer for ever (very very kiddish, I know!) until I saw some of his other work. And Cotten was Scotland Yard? Thought he was an American reporter – but I am probably confusing with the earlier version of Gaslight.

  6. memsaab: I do think Guru Dutt would possibly have done a more believable job with it. I liked the way the handled other crime stories, like Baazi and Aar Paar. Not quite the same as Woh Kaun Thi, I know, but not the dark and brooding Pyaasa or Kaagaz ke Phool either. That man was so amazingly versatile.

    The Comic Project: Not that is a challenge! I was reading memsaab’s Amar Shakti post, and wondering which Hollywood movie would possibly fit the bill, but couldn’t think of anything I’ve seen in the recent past. And a holly-bolly comic?! Wow, that’s really going to take some doing!

    bollyviewer: Yup, I hated Boyer too. Must see some more redeeming work of his. Any suggestions?

  7. You can try Love Affair (it was remade as the Cary Grant-Deborah Kerr starrer An Affair To Remember), Algiers and All This, and Heaven Too – he was great in these though the last one was rather sad.

  8. Ingrid Bergman was so lovely – my favourite Bergman starrers used to be Notorious and Spellbound, but this one’s been added to the list. She’s absolutely superb in it: not just beautiful, but such a very good actress too.

  9. bergman is so great!
    I loved this movie!
    I like the story line of damsel in distress, saved by…. whoever!
    And don’t forget the piles of money they have and lovely clothes and jewels and diamonds
    o, that reminds of what prof. higgins promises eliza if she stays with him and takes music lessons.
    ;-)

  10. Yes, this was a great film – and I’ve always had a soft spot for Ingrid Bergman: so absolutely superb.
    Long time since I last saw My Fair Lady… mainly because I’m not much of a Rex Harrison fan. But yes, Jeremy Brett never ceases to amaze me – I always thought of him only as Sherlock Holmes, and then to see a younger avatar dancing down the street was a revelation!

  11. Dear DG,

    Have you seen Gaslight yet? I can’t begin to try and guess the number of times I have watched it. Let me know. Has anyone seen Rage in Heaven? I cannot find that movie anywhere. If anyone knows where I can find it,please let me know.

    Jennifer

  12. I have finally seen ‘Gaslight’! I didn’t even realise that Jennifer had asked me if I’d seen it yet. I suspect that, like her, I will end up watching this one many times over.
    After reading this review, I really wanted to see it, but I forgot to look for it until I came across your recent review of ‘Love Affair’, started thinking about how much I liked Charles Boyer etc etc.
    Anyway, I loved this movie! It’s so fantastic… the acting is superb, it has unforgettable characters and it is such a gripping watch. Ingrid Bergman is absolutely beautiful in this (as always), and her acting is magnificent – she was so glorious at the end (I bet you know what scene I’m referring to, so I won’t spoil it for anyone else) – she sent shivers right down my spine at that part. Perfection. She so embodied what the character of Paula was going through that you couldn’t help but feel her pain. And of course, Charles Boyer was tremendous too. Everyone in this was really good, I thought… I loved it. Such a satisfying watch.
    Thanks for recommending it – I already want to see it again!

  13. I’m so glad you liked Gaslight! It is a superb film, well worth watching again and again.

    My latest discovery, also a sort-of noir (but with a horror/pschyological twist to it) is the absolutely brilliant The Innocents, starring Deborah Kerr as a governess in 19th century England. Very creepy, very well made and unforgettable – it’s been a couple of days since I saw it, and I’m still shook up!

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