It’s strange to be this far along in my film education and find there are directors of multiple classic features of whom I am ignorant. That sounds both arrogant and foolish simultaneously, but I suppose there is much to know and not all of it of value. One such thing is the identity of George Cukor, the director of many noteworthy films (and parts of even more noteworthy films) including Gaslight (1944). Apparently, he was renowned for his ability to elicit strong female performances. He is also the director of The Philadelphia Story (1940), a milestone in my film viewing career as the first old movie I found thoroughly lovable. It was the summer of 2008, when the plane was high, the journey long, and everything seemed possible. Everything but…now wait a second, where did I put that laptop? It was here just a minute ago… Oh, there it is, it was hiding under my fingers.
Paula Alquist (Ingrid Bergman), the niece of a murdered prima donna of the singing variety, is sent off to Italy to learn the vocal craft from a master. There, she meets a piano player, Gregory Anton (Charles Boyer), and they fall in love. Anton always dreamed of living in England on one of those cute squares and as chance would have it, Paula inherited just such a house. Once there, Paula begins to act peculiarly. She starts to forget things and lose things and is afraid of her maid (Angela Lansbury). Then she begins to hear things and has become so strange that she cannot be trusted to go out or to meet with people. Brian Cameron (Joseph Cotten), an assistant to the commissioner of Scotland Yard, who is unaccountably American, has some attraction to Paula who he sees when she is still sane enough to visit tourist attractions. Cameron sticks his nose into the old Alquist case and he thinks he smells something fishy.
Gaslight is a lovely movie, very similar to some other Ingrid Bergman movies I’ve written of recently. Bergman has a tough time with her spouses. They’re either trying to drive her mad (Gaslight), entrust her to people who drive her mad (Under Capricorn (1949) (review)), or kill her outright (Notorious (1946) (review)). She’s quite the victim and in two of them finds her own strength (with the help of a man) and overcomes adversity. Gaslight is a psychological drama on the verge of melodrama, maybe one notch below a Sherlock Holmes story. Written by John Van Druten, Walter Reisch, and John L. Balderston (adapted from a play by Patrick Hamilton), it isn’t intricate so much as it is unrelenting and it isn’t clever so much as it sticks to one big idea. It’s the hedgehog of movies.
That big idea has gotten some traction lately as the namesake of the phenomenon, “gaslighting”, that is being proposed as a social phenomenon to subjugate women (if unintentionally). The theory is that women are often told that they are over-reacting or crazy or foolish when it is really the accuser who has done something wrong. Whatever the merits of the theory, and I believe them to be plausible but not exhaustive, it is the reason I sought out the movie. If someone is going to be talking about a movie, then I may as well have seen it.
Gaslight is available on Amazon, but I just went to the library. It isn’t that I wouldn’t recommend owning the movie, but it isn’t so obscure as to be interesting, so popular as to be canonical, or so great as to be edifying. It’s worthy of making its way into your library bag as the light-viewing portion of your borrowed public bounty.
People like to complain about all the adaptations and sequels, but it isn’t a new phenomenon. I was combing through Wikipedia one day and formulated half of a theory that adaptations were more prevalent in years of economic performance. That’s sensible because studios are less likely to take risks and viewers are less likely to spend their money on something they don’t know much about. I’m not saying 1944 was a bad economic year, but it’s an adaptation and I didn’t want the thought to go undocumented.