A spellbinding thriller about love, terror, and mental turmoil
Other films come and go, but “Gaslight” remains on my Top Ten Favorite Films list ever since I first saw it decades ago. Even after you know its twists and turns, this suspenseful love story gone awry is so gripping it still keeps you glued to your seat. I first thought the allure of the film came solely from the astonishing performance by its leading lady Ingrid Bergman. A few screenings later I noticed the brilliance of leading man Charles Boyer, and I thought this film stood out because these two were so believable and had such exciting chemistry. Then there are also the spot-on performances of Joseph Cotten, Dame May Whitty, Angela Lansbury, and Barbara Everest. When I paid close attention to the compelling story and tight script, I thought that might be the power behind this classic. After focusing on the mind-blowing direction of George Cukor and the incomparable set design, I’ve ultimately come to realize “Gaslight” is a shining, rare film in which all of its elements masterfully blend in a seamless fashion, simply creating first-class entertainment. Might sound simple, but it’s not. This film is a rich example of the best of classic cinema. “Gaslight” was nominated for seven Academy Awards (including Best Picture), and won two. If you want to get lost in electrifying entertainment, this film will do it.
Set in Victorian London, “Gaslight" follows “Paula Alquist”, whose famous opera singing aunt was mysteriously murdered in her home at 9 Thornton Square. Our film opens just after her murder, as fourteen year old “Paula”, raised by her aunt, leaves the house to begin her own operatic career in Italy. “Paula” is swept off her feet by the piano player at her lessons, and the two have a whirlwind romance leading to marriage. They move back to 9 Thornton Square, and little by little “Paula” seems to slowly be losing her mind, forgetting things, imagining things, misplacing things, becoming paranoid and even fearful of her maid, “Nancy”. At the same time, “Paula’s” fatherly acting husband, “Gregory”, starts to have some unexpected outbursts. Something is amiss, and our minds scramble to figure out what's going on. The majority of “Gaslight” takes place inside the house, which becomes a claustrophobic setting for anxiety, intrigue, and superlative suspense.
The man behind this fantastic film is none other than legendary director George Cukor. He manages to infuse “Gaslight” with just enough uneasiness and alarm to keep the film riveting, while remaining plausible. In fact, to this day "gaslight" has become an expression - which I'll talk about in the READ AFTER VIEWING SECTION below. Through his use of creative camera angles and movements, shadows, ceilings, flickering gas lamps, and knowing the perfect spot to place the camera, Cukor creates an authentically vivid and fearsome world. His work here is inseparable from the film’s greatness. He was a crackerjack at adapting theatrical plays into films, such as "Dinner at Eight,", "Romeo and Juliet", "The Philadelphia Story", "My Fair Lady", and "Born Yesterday”. “Gaslight” is further proof of that expertise, as this film is based on a 1938 British play by Patrick Hamilton titled “Gas Light” (called "Angel Street” in the US production). A 1940 British film version starring Anton Walbrook and Diana Wynyard was made prior to this Hollywood interpretation. I’ve written about George Cukor in five previous posts, “Camille”, “Born Yesterday”, “The Philadelphia Story”, “Gone With the Wind”, and “The Wizard of Oz”, where you can find out more about him and his stellar career.
German interior designer Paul Huldschinsky was brought onboard to work with Art Director Cedric Gibbons (who I wrote about in more detail in my “The Good Earth” post). Huldschinsky was a Jewish refugee that fled Germany after briefly being interned at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp in 1938. Not being able to get work successfully as an interior designer in the US, Cukor hired him for his flair with traditional bourgeois aesthetics. “Gaslight” was Huldschinsky's first film, and the lavish sets with their overstuffed props beautifully emulate the period while reinforcing an ominous feeling. For their work, Huldschinsky and Gibbons (along with William Ferrari and Edwin B. Willis), won that year’s Best Art Direction Academy Award.
“Gaslight” stars Charles Boyer as “Gregory Anton/Sergis Bauer”. He is outstanding as “Paula’s” husband. With his French accent and suave demeanor, Boyer manages to seduce “Paula” and the viewer. Watch him early in the film on the balcony of the Hotel Del Lago with “Paula”. He brings an irresistible sweetness and romance. It’s no wonder she falls for him. I’ll have a bit more to say about his performance after you watch the film. Boyer was the perfect choice for this role, as he had become one of the screen’s great lovers, known for portraying sophisticated, often unattainable romantic leads. Born in France, Charles Boyer aspired to become a theatre actor at a very young age. After studying acting at the Paris Conservatory, he became one of the most popular romantic leading men on the 1920’s Paris stage while beginning to appear in silent French films in 1920. His deep sensual voice was an asset with the coming of sound films, and he made his way to Hollywood in 1929 under contract to MGM, where he appeared in foreign-language versions of MGM films for European audiences. As his English improved, Charles Boyer began to appear in English speaking films, including a small pivotal role in the Jean Harlow vehicle, “Red Headed Woman” in 1932. His breakthrough came with the 1935 film, “Private Worlds”, opposite Claudette Colbert, and he became one of Hollywood’s top matinee idols, starring opposite such giant stars as Katharine Hepburn, Marlene Dietrich, Jean Arthur, Bette Davis, and Olivia de Havilland.
Boyer also appeared opposite Greta Garbo in 1927’s “Conquest”, as “Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte”, and earned the first of four Best Actor Academy Award nominations, earning his second nomination the following year for “Algiers”. His superb performance in “Gaslight” earned him a third nomination, and his fourth and final came with the 1961 film, “Fanny”. Among his other classic films are "The Garden of Allah", "Love Affair", "Hold Back the Dawn", "Tales of Manhattan", "Casino Royale", "All This, and Heaven Too”, and “Mayerling”. After “Gaslight” (which is his most remembered role), he worked two more times with Ingrid Bergman (Arch of Triumph” in 1948, and in his final film, “A Matter of Time” in 1976). Boyer’s film career spanned over fifty years with around 90 credits, which includes a few television appearances (including one on "Four Star Playhouse” in 1957, for which he earned an Emmy Award nomination, plus a cameo appearance on an episode of the classic TV sitcom, “I Love Lucy”). Boyer also appeared on stage, and earned a special Tony Award in 1953 for his performance in “Don Juan in Hell”. In the 1930s, Boyer founded the French Research Foundation in order to present truer representations of French culture in Hollywood movies. In 1943, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awarded him an honorary award for his Foundation, and its progressive cultural achievement as a source of reference for the Motion Picture Industry. In 1934, Boyer married English film actress Pat Peterson. They had one son (born during the filming of “Gaslight”) who tragically died from a gunshot wound to the head in 1965. It is still not known if it was suicide or Russian roulette. Neither Pat nor Charles ever recovered. Pat died in 1978 from a brain tumor, and two days later Charles Boyer committed suicide by overdose. He was 78 years old.
Ingrid Bergman gives an astounding performance as “Paula Alquist Anton”, the woman slowly going crazy. Her portrayal stands out as one of cinema’s greatest. Bergman delicately displays a myriad of truthful emotions scurrying beneath the surface, ranging from love and confusion, to fear and despair. I’ve seen “Gaslight” twice in a movie theater, the last time being at the TCM Film Festival on a giant screen at the Chinese Theater in Hollywood. In response to Bergman's performance, immediately after the film ended the person I was with exclaimed, “Wow! Now that’s a movie star!”. While the nuances of her work can be seen watching the film on TV, when enlarged on the big screen they emotionally overwhelm.
The quality that separates Bergman from all others is how she radiates a natural beauty and warmth from within, and those qualities bring a humanness to “Paula” as she fights not to crumble from the world around her. It is truly a tour-de-force performance. I don’t think any other actress could pull it off with so much heart, deep honest emotion, and underlying strength. The scene during the piano recital is extraordinary. Panicked over a missing watch, with almost no dialogue, Bergman displays a wealth of shifting and mesmerizing emotions. Her artistry is truly something to behold. After seeing the play on Broadway, and hearing that Boyer would be her costar, Bergman was desperate to get this part. At the time, she was signed to a contract with David O’Selznick who didn’t want her to do it because Boyer insisted on top billing. Selznick felt he’d worked too hard to get Bergman star status, and that top billing was a matter of prestige. Being someone focused on work and not ego, Bergman pleaded, and finally was given the part with second billing. To prepare for the role she visited a mental asylum and ended up studying one particular patient who displayed spells of dementia. For her performance, Bergman earned her first of three Academy Awards (out of seven nominations). In some ways “Paula” is similar to Bergman. Bergman also lost both parents at an early age (by the time she was thirteen) and was raised by her aunt, and like "Paula" she carried an inner strength even when vulnerable. Bergman gave many tremendous performances in her career, but I find this to be her most spellbinding. I have previously written about Ingrid Bergman (one of my absolute favorite actresses) in two previous posts, “Notorious” and “Casablanca”, and you can read more about her life and career by clicking on those posts.
Joseph Cotten plays “Brian Cameron”, an Inspector from Scotland Yard. He gives a finely understated and truthful performance as the person who suspects something is peculiar at 9 Thornton Square. With his tall slender frame and deep voice, Cotten became one of Hollywood’s leading actors of the 1940s, known for giving subdued, articulate, and compelling performances such as this one. Joseph Cotten began in theater, and continued to work there his entire career. In 1934 he met and befriended actor, director, writer, and soon to become legend, Orson Welles. The two worked together in radio and theater, and in 1938 Welles directed Cotten's film debut, the silent short film “Too Much Johnson” (which Welles intended to use in a play, but never finished the film). In 1939 Cotten had a breakthrough in the original Broadway production of “The Philadelphia Story”,opposite Katharine Hepburn (I wrote about the film version HERE). After that, Welles cast Cotten in his 1941 masterpiece, “Citizen Kane”, which launched many careers, and made a leading man out of Cotten. His next important film came the following year, "The Magnificent Ambersons” (also directed by Welles), followed by another Welles film,“Journey into Fear” (written by Cotten), and then Alfred Hitchcock’s “Shadow of a Doubt” (Hitchcock’s personal favorite of all his own films). This began the height of Cotten's film career, which included other 1940’s classics such as "Since You Went Away", "The Third Man", "Portrait of Jennie", "The Farmer's Daughter”, and "Duel in the Sun”. He also worked again with Bergman and Hitchcock in the 1949 film, “Under Capricorn”. Cotten worked in mostly lesser films through the 1950s, with a few notable exceptions such as “Niagara” opposite Marilyn Monroe, and an uncredited part in the 1958 Welles’ classic, “Touch of Evil”. He also began to appear on television in the 1950s, and continued to do so until his retirement. Some of his later notable films include "Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte", "A Delicate Balance", "Soylent Green", "Airport '77", and "Heaven's Gate”. Cotten’s final appearance was in 1981’s “The Survivor”. After suffering a stroke in 1981, he retired from acting. After being widowed once, he married actress Patricia Medina, to whom he remained married until his death. Joesph Cotten died in 1994 at the age of 88.
Dame May Whitty plays “Miss Bessie Thwaites”, “Paula’s” nosy neighbor. Whitty provides much of the humor in the film, offering “Paula” “diggy” biscuits, and ending many of her scenes with the exclamation, “Well!”. “Bessie’s” brother nicknamed her “Bloodthirsty Bessie” for her penchant for murder and gossip, and she is itching to know the goings-on inside 9 Thornton Square. English born May Whitty began a theater career in 1882, and soon became one of Britain’s leading stage actress. In 1918 she was named Dame Commander of the British Empire (the first actress given that honor) by King George for her charitable service during WWI. She appeared in three British silent films, beginning in 1914. After appearing in one British sound film in 1936, she appeared in her first Hollywood film, "Night Must Fall" in 1937, reprising a role she originated on stage. At the age of 72, it was her film breakthrough and earned her the first of two Best Supporting Actress Academy Award nominations (her second was for the classic 1942 film, “Mrs. Miniver”). She appeared in over thirty films before her death, including other classics such as “Conquest” (playing mother to Boyer’s “Napoleon”), "Stage Door Canteen", "A Bill of Divorcement”, "Madame Curie”, "Green Dolphin Street”, and two by Hitchcock - “The Lady Vanishes” and “Suspicion”. With her distinct humor and style, Whitty is always a delight to watch. She was married once, to stage and screen actor Ben Webster, until his death in 1947. Dame May Whitty died the following year, in 1948 at the age of 82.
And the last, but certainly not least actor I’ll mention from "Gaslight" is Angela Lansbury who plays the maid, “Nancy Oliver”. Lansbury makes this supporting role interesting, evocative, and highly memorable. The brazen “Nancy” is an outspoken, pushy tart of a girl who flirts with every man within close proximity, including “George”. Lansbury also endows “Nancy” with a disguised harshness - just enough to not be obvious, but enough to make “Paula” nervous. A surprising performance in its own right, it’s even more impressive given that it was seventeen year old Lansbury’s very first film. “Gaslight” earned her the first of three Best Supporting Academy Award nominations, and was the start of an award winning stage, film, and television career that spans nearly eighty years. Born in London to a politician and and Irish actress, Angela Lansbury practically had performing in her blood. When she was nine years old her father died and she found solace in playacting, and later studied acting and music. After her mother remarried, the family moved to New York to escape the German bombings during WWII. Angela went to drama school and appeared in school plays. Not soon after, her mother moved to Los Angeles, and she soon followed. Angela happened to meet writer John van Druten at a party. He had recently co-written the screenplay for “Gaslight”, and suggested her for the part of “Nancy” to George Cukor. Angela was given the part and a contract with MGM, and overnight she began her professional career. She credits the comfortableness, ease, and support she found from her costars and Cukor as the ideal environment from which to begin a film career.
“Gaslight” was followed by parts in several prestigious films - “National Velvet” in 1944, “The Picture of Dorian Gray” in 1945 (for which she received her second Oscar nomination), and the Judy Garland musical, “The Harvey Girls” in 1946. Lansbury continued to work under contract, mostly in lesser films, often playing older women (she looked older than her age), and often as a villain. She rarely got film roles that showed her incredible talents, so she decided to leave MGM in 1952. She took to television for much of the 1950s, and with a lull in her career, headed to Broadway in 1957 with the show “Hotel Paradiso”, which began a legendary Broadway career. Her film career found a boost the first half of the 1960s, and she appeared in a dozen or so films, including "The Long, Hot Summer " and "The Manchurian Candidate" (for which she received her third Oscar nomination). In 1966 she had a massive success starring in the Broadway musical “Mame”, which showcased her talents like never before, made her a musical-comedy star, and earned her a Tony Award. Lansbury found a new home on Broadway, and appeared in shows such as "Dear World", "Gypsy", "The King and I", "Sweeney Todd", "A Little Night Music", and "Blithe Spirit”. She would win five Tony Awards (with seven nominations), and become a Broadway legend. She continued to make films, including "Death on the Nile", "The Mirror Crack'd", "The Pirates of Penzance", and Walt Disney's "Bedknobs and Broomsticks”.
In the 1980s she began to work in television more steadily, and in 1984 she played what is possibly her most famous role, as "Jessica Fletcher” on the hit TV series, "Murder, She Wrote”. That show ran for twelve seasons, earning her an Emmy Award nomination every year. Lansbury earned seventeen career Emmy nominations (including those for “Murder She Wrote”), and was awarded a Hall of Fame Emmy Award in 1996. In 1991 she was the voice of “Mrs. Potts” in the Walt Disney animated classic, “Beauty and the Beast” - another of her most famous roles. In the film, Lansbury sings the title song, and she and the cast of the film were all nominated for an Album of the Year Grammy Award. She’s amassed well over 100 film and TV credits, and her more recent films include "The Grinch” and "Mary Poppins Returns”. In addition to her awards and nominations already mentioned, she received an honorary Academy Award in 2014 for her body of work, won six Golden Globes (out of fifteen nominations), a 1997 Screen Actors Guild Lifetime Achievement Award, and a 2003 BAFTA Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2014, she was made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire. She was married twice, to actors Richard Cromwell and Peter Shaw. She has a stepson and two children of her own. Her actor/director son, Anthony Pullen Shaw, directed sixty eight episodes of “Murder She Wrote”. As of the writing of this post, Angela Lansbury is 95 years old. I’ve been lucky enough to see her on stage three times (“Gypsy”, “Sweeney Todd”, and “Blythe Spirit”), and witness first hand her powerful stage presence. I’ve also had the thrill of meeting her twice, and both times she was friendly and very sweet. When "Beauty and the Beast" came up in our conversation, she said with a disappointed smile that it's the role for which she'll be most remembered.
I’ll have more to say about “Gaslight” and its performances in the TO READ AFTER VIEWING section, and I HIGHLY recommend first time viewers DO NOT read that section until after you’ve seen the film. It will contain spoilers and reduce the fun of watching the film for the first time.
In addition to the Best Art Direction and Best Actress Oscar wins, and its nominations for Boyer, Lansbury, and Best Picture, “Gaslight” was also nominated for Best Screenplay (John L. Balderston, Walter Reisch, and John Van Druten), and Best Cinematography (Joseph Ruttenberg).
Transport yourself to another time and place. This week’s film is sheer entertainment from start to finish. Not only is it suspenseful, but it is filled with emotion. Enjoy “Gaslight”!
This blog is a weekly series on all types of classic films from the silent era through the 1970s. It is designed to entertain and inform movie novices and lovers through watching one recommended classic film a week. The intent is that a love and deepened knowledge of cinema will evolve, along with a familiarity of important stars, directors, writers, the studio system, and a deeper understanding of cinema. I highly recommend visiting (or revisiting) the HOME page, which explains it all and provides a place where you can subscribe and get email notifications each Tuesday of every subsequently recommended film. At the bottom of the Home page you can also find a list of all films currently on this site. Please share this blog, and subscribe so you can see which classic films will be revealed each week. Thanks so much for reading!
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TO READ AFTER VIEWING (contains spoilers):
Once you know “Sergis Bauer’s” secrets, you can fully appreciate the skill of Charles Boyer’s acting. When I first watched the film, I remember being shocked as I realized “Bauer” was behind everything. I truly believed his love for “Paula” was genuine. As one watches the film subsequent times, you begin to notice subtleties in Boyer’s performance, and see he has been plotting since even before he appears on-screen. His pauses, his rapture when he looks at the crown jewels, the quick giggle when he suggests they move to London - all take on new, maniacal meanings. Boyer walks a fine line at being charming, seductive, and criminal, without exposing the character’s truth immediately, and he does it to perfection.
I would like to say something about the film I never thought about until I rewatched it just before writing this post. Never in a million years could I have imagined “Gaslight” would become a portrait of the use of power in today’s world. The play “Gas Light”, the 1940 film and this version in particular, had such impact they coined the verb “gaslighting”, defined by Wikipedia as: “a form of psychological manipulation in which a person or a group covertly sows seeds of doubt in a targeted individual or group, making them question their own memory, perception, or judgement”. In this world of fake news feeds, doctored videos, and irrelevant truths, gaslighting has become a prime tactic for control and power. Realizing this, and seeing the film through somewhat larger eyes, it made the scene in which “Paula” realizes her life, actions, and feelings were based on lies even more poignantly tragic.