It’s not every day that you have a film that came out in 1944 that ends up defining a whole segment of abusive behavior, but when you watch Gaslight, you completely understand how it could fill that role. I assume you know, but gaslighting someone is when you manipulate someone so that they begin to question their own sanity, and George Cukor (director of My Fair Lady, The Philadelphia Story, Born Yesterday, and many other films) takes that technique to the extreme in this movie.
Ingrid Bergman won an Oscar for Best Actress (and the movie was nominated for Best Picture) for her turn as Paula, the woman in question. Despondent when her aunt, who raised her, dies, Paula flees as a teenager to Italy, where she tries to escape her past and does so successfully for 10 years. Then she meets a man who falls instantly in love with her. They marry in a matter of weeks, and he convinces her to return to her childhood home in London. There he quickly begins to pick her apart bit by bit, and Cukor does an excellent job of illustrating the technique.
For example, Gregory (the husband, played by Charles Boyer, mentions to Paula that “she’s always losing things,” despite the fact that she’s never lost things. He says “she’s always forgetting things,” and again, this flies in the face of what she recalls. But when other people are making these observations, it plays into our own insecurities, and we begin to believe other people must be right, since we’re all too ready to believe the worst about ourselves.
I don’t want to give away too much of the movie, since it really is a fantastic film, and if you haven’t seen it you should, but into all of this background is layered the murder mystery of Paula’s aunt. It all plays together wonderfully (and dreadfully). You can’t help but feel so sorry for Bergman as she’s manipulated time and time again. It would be very easy to begin to be frustrated with a main character who is taken advantage of so seemingly easily, but Cukor does a good job establishing why that would be the case. The murder of her aunt really affected her as a child, she’s a woman in London at the turn of the century (so she’s already viewed by society as subservient to her husband), and the abuse doesn’t start all at once. It comes layer on layer in a steady stream. Gregory mixes it up as well, sometimes behaving beastly, and then suddenly switching to being effusively nice, all while telling his wife that he’s always nice.
The movie isn’t available for streaming on any of the platforms, but you can buy it digitally for all of $5. I had mentioned it to Daniela a few weeks ago, and she remembered it enough that she asked to watch it, and she really enjoyed it. It’s another excellent example of just how good old movies can be, and why dismissing something just because it’s in black and white is a huge mistake. (Especially when you consider this was done in 1944, well after colorized movies were a thing. I would love to see some more black and white films done today. The way the shadows and lights work on the screen is just different than color. Black and white photography is still a big thing. Why not the same for films?)
In any case, I give it a 9/10, even after having seen it three or four times. I do think it’s a bit slow paced in a couple of areas, but that’s simply a factor of thriller/suspense movies having come a long way since 1944. This was one of the movies my family had up at our cabin in Utah. My grandmother curated the collection, and it’s because of those VHS tapes that I ended up being introduced to many fantastic movies. I’m glad I can do the same for Daniela now.
If you haven’t seen this movie, you should really check it out. And if you haven’t seen it for a while, you should watch it again.
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