Year of Release: 1944 Directed by George Cukor. Starring Ingrid Bergman, Charles Boyer, Joseph Cotton, Angela Lansbury, Barbara Everest, and Dame May Whitty.
Gaslight won Ingrid Bergman her first Oscar in 1944, one year after her performances in Casablanca and For Whom the Bell Tolls. And Bergman’s performance is well deserving of the award she won. She captures a wide range of emotions very convincingly, running the gamut from uncertain fear to carefree delight to nervous mental instability and finally to strong willed resolution.
Bergman plays Paula Alquist, the niece of renowned opera singer Alice Alquist. The opening scene shows the police unable to solve the mystery of her aunt’s murder and Paula’s consequent trauma. She is sent away from London, and she studies abroad for several years and marries the charming Gregory Anton. (Charles Boyer) In order to please him, she offers that they move into her aunt’s old home, which was bequeathed to her.
As soon as they arrive back in London, Gregory is no longer the charming devoted lover he once was. He insists Paula is losing her mind, and he is hiding her things and deliberately misplacing objects to make her think so. All of this begins when Paula discovers a letter from Sergis Bower among her aunt’s belongings.
From Gregory’s reaction on Paula’s discovery of the letter, it is fairly clear that Sergis Bower and Gergory Anton are the same person. And it is no spoiler to say that he murdered Paula’s aunt, and he is trying to drive Paula out of her mind. The real mystery is his motive for the murder and for deceiving his wife. Additionally his method for making his wife lose her sanity, while partially hinted at, is kept hidden until the end of the movie.
There is nothing in Gaslight that most twenty-first century viewers will not have seen in countless other mysteries on television, on film, or in books. The movie follows the standard rules and procedures for most mysteries. I do not know whether or not it would have been considered groundbreaking in 1944. Important clues are obvious as soon as they are introduced. For instance, the detective picks up a note from Gregory and the viewer knows his handwriting will be identical to the note from Sergis Bower. When the detective draws up a possible plan to explain Gregory’s plot, it is correct without any editing. At the very beginning of the film, the camera focuses on the street gaslight after the murder. The house gaslight, as the title suggests, also plays an important role in Gregory’s plot.
The film would have been even more suspenseful had more of Gregory’s plot been kept secret, and if he had seemed kinder and more genuine. If there were a real possibility that Paula was losing her mind, the viewer would be as unsure as Paula and the mystery would have been much more successful, and much harder to solve.
Although the details are somewhat obvious, Cukor makes the most of the mystery and maintains a decent level of suspense. The early hints all reoccur at the proper moment towards the end as the mystery is solved. A friendly older lady on a train informs Paula of a murder mystery she is reading. Naturally, there are many similarities between her story and the film. There is also a nice twist when Gregory’s plot is twice used to undo him.
Despite the somewhat predictable elements, good performances from a cast headed by Ingrid Bergman and George Cukor’s sold directing create an atmosphere of suspense that makes a mostly successful mystery thriller.
Content Advisory: Some menace and suspense. Not rated.
Suggested Audience: Kids and up with discernment.
Personal Recommendation: B+