Synopsis: In late 1800’s London, a creepy husband gaslights his wife. (Streaming on HBO Max and Amazon Prime.)
I know how gaslighting works. It involves manipulating and lying to a person so that they question their sanity. The perpetrator might say things like: It was just a joke (Lie)or I was trying to help (Bigger lie) or That’s not what happened (Biggest Lie).
The origin of the verb goes back to Gaslight, a play staged in London in 1938. A villainous husband wants his wife out of the way and proceeds to make her think she’s going mad. One of the things that he says she is imagining is the sound of footsteps above her bedroom at night. And every time she hears footsteps, the gaslights in her room dim. Who cares? I thought. But this is because I live in the 21st Century and didn’t know the mechanics of old timey light delivery. (But I also don’t understand how the current electrical grid works either.)
Frighteningly, the highly flammable gas is waiting in pipes to accidentally blow up the house, or –when it works right– light the house when the gas on a lamp fixture is switched on and then lit. Apparently, there is a temporary disruption of gas flow to a lit lamp which causes it to dim when another lamp in the house is lit. Got it?
So… the 1944 film directed by George Cukor, Gaslight begins in late 1800’s London where there is a fashionable “fog” hanging over the city from all of the coal soot. But at least the people gathered outside in ritzy Thornton Square can make out the figure of a young teenaged girl who is being escorted to a carriage from house #9. An onlooker glances at the newspaper in his hand with the headline, “Thornton Square Murder Unsolved.” A famous opera diva was strangled in the home she shared with her niece, Paula.
We see Paula in the carriage being advised by her officious-looking companion that she will be going to live in Italy with a guardian and it’s best she forget about the past. Oh, good! Psychological crisis averted.
Skip ahead ten years and Paula has become the beautiful Swedish actress Ingrid Bergman (Casablanca – so memorable as Ilse). Accompanied by a pianist, she’s singing like a lark for her guardian/singing teacher. At the end of the lesson, she confides that she is distracted by a romance and needs to quit her lessons. Sounds as good an excuse as any.
Paula runs outside into the arms of her not-yet-lover of two weeks; the pianist. You might be imaging a charming young man. Don’t. The pianist, Gregory Anton (Charles Boyer, delightful in Barefoot in the Park) is an unctuous creep who looks to be about a quarter of a century her senior and speaks with a generic Continental accent. He wants to get married, but she tells him she must go off to Italy to think on it, since he is basically a stranger and what does she know of love. I was worried for her because she had a look on her face that said: I’m not just naive, but dumb too. Before you know it, they are (old) man and wife.
I get that the movie was made during World War II which prevented the production from filming in bombarded London or Hitler-aligned Italy, but I feel like MGM studios could’ve done better than staging their Italian hotel honeymoon to look like the entrance of an Olive Garden restaurant with a flooded parking lot. In between canoodling (which looks pretty unsavory), Creep hubby declares that he would love to live in London. She confides that she has a place in the city. You know, the murder house.
They arrive in London and enter her old house. Everything is exactly as it was. I get that Airbnb had not yet been invented, but if she wasn’t going to rent the place over the past ten years, at least she could’ve had someone sweep it out. The place is chockful of Victorian bric-a-brac. Paula leads Creep to the parlor where there is broken glass and smashed furniture. She directs his view to a portrait of her aunt that hangs over the fireplace, telling him she found her strangled aunt on the floor just beneath it. I half expected to see a chalk outline of the body still there.
Ackkk! Paula screams and runs to the movie camera, I have to get out of here! Creep shouts, Wait! We can get new furniture! Paula turns to Creep, looking chastened, and agrees to stay in the murder house.
Creep gets right to donning a smoking jacket, having a cig and bossing the servants around. There is Elizabeth, the cook (Barbara Everest), who seems pleasant enough. The maid, Nancy (played splendidly by a teenaged Angela Lansbury, aka Mrs. Potts of Beauty and the Beast fame) is another story. She is bold as brass: leveling Paula with challenging looks, trying to gossip with the cook about their employers, flirting with Creep and lingering outside to ply her tartly wiles to the local beat cop. It’s a wonder she has any time for her actual job.
Creep relentlessly gaslights his wife. He tells her she forgets things, misplaces things and imagines things. Do I? she whispers. One time, Creep gives her a cheap looking brooch that he says belonged to his mother. He wastes no time in hiding it and asking to see it again. She panics when she can’t find it. Tsk tsk, he sighs. On another occasion he sends her to her room!
Foolishly, Paula somehow thinks that they are happy newlyweds. She tells her husband that she wants to show him London and they head to the Tower of London. Creep enjoys a guide’s talk on the executions that took place there. Then they go to see the Crown Jewels which are displayed in what looks like a medieval prison cell. As Creep fixates on the bejeweled crowns, scepters and orbs he seems to be getting himself aroused talking about their beauty. It becomes clear to us that he cannot love any person. He is a gem-sexual.
This explains why Creep wants to drive his wife mad and straight to Bedlam Insane Asylum. You see, the murdered aunt was rumored to have secreted jewels from admirers around her home. He wants her out of the way so he can tear through the house night and day looking for glittering, polished stones.
Poor Paula. Her husband relentlessly gaslights her, insisting she’s a kleptomaniac (but it’s all her stuff anyway!) and telling her that she is too ill to leave the house. She’s starting to go insane. But help may be on the way…
When Paula and Creep were walking the Tower of London grounds, she caught the eye of a strapping American who was chaperoning his young niece and nephew. He is struck by how much she resembles the slain opera diva. The man, Brian Cameron (Joseph Cotten, a frequent actor in Orson Wells’ films including Citizen Kane) just happens to work for Scotland Yard.
By the time that Mr. American is reviewing the old case files and planning a meeting with Paula, Creep’s gaslighting has reduced the woman to a pale version of her former self. Every night she is tormented by the dimming gaslights in her room as she hears footsteps in the attic above.
One night she flees her room and shrieks for the cook, Elizabeth! Elizabeth! at the top of her lungs. Unfazed, the cook calls up from the bottom of the stairs that she is on her way. As though your employer screaming for their bedtime tray of four pieces of fruit and a glass of milk is a normal thing. It is not. (Turns out the cook is hard of hearing.)
Even though the patriarchy was strong when the movie was set and filmed, Paula may find a way to exercise some agency and solve the mystery of the dimming gas lights and the gaslighting, treacherous husband.
As for Ingrid Bergman, she flexed some thespian muscle when she won an Academy Award for her performance. Personally, I wouldn’t mind seeing a remake with gender blind casting. And the update could include a disclaimer, assuring viewers that not all gem-sexuals are gaslighters too.
P.S. The term gaslighting was first seen in academic articles by the early 1960’s. For more info on the phenomenon click here.
Movie Loon’s Movie Review Shortcut:
Cut to the Chase: The film is nearly eighty years old, so parts are dated: the clearly not “outdoor” scenes, and theater-y feel. But let’s not age-shame the film. It’s a classic, thanks to its psychological suspense and stellar performances by Bergman, Boyer and Lansbury.
Humor Highlight: Bergman’s tour de force monologue to Boyer in which she reminds him that she is insane.