in Oscars Fortnight

Gaslight (1944)

The 17th Academy Awards (1945)
Nominations: 7
Wins: 2

Gaslight is undoubtedly most famous for the phrase it coined that has gained more prominence in the past few years as disinformation and manipulation have become a bigger cultural force (fun stuff!). So much so that there was even an SNL sketch parodying the film from earlier this year, which falls into the category of “I’m not really sure who this is for” SNL sketches. Anyways, it’s not the first origin point of the phrase “gaslighting”, since George Cukor’s 1944 film is based on Patrick Hamilton’s 1938 play Gas Light as well as the 1940 British film adaptation that this Gaslight added Hollywood production values to. Still, it has remained perhaps the most famous iteration of this material due to Ingrid Bergman’s Oscar-winning performance of the story’s gaslit heroin, while the film itself also remains subtly unsettling.

Gaslight begins at the scene of the murder of Alice Alquist, a famous opera singer who was killed in her London flat. We then see her niece Paula (played by Ingrid Bergman) who has been living with Alice escorted by police out of the building with some sort of trauma-induced future awaiting her. We then cut to years later, where Paula is living in Italy and training to be an opera singer just like her aunt. There, she has met a mysterious pianist named Gregory Anton (Charles Boyer) and after expressing some attraction to each other, the two indulge a whirlwind romance and get married before Gregory expresses an interest in moving to London. Paula is a little hesitant considering the anguished memories of her aunt’s murder there, but is eventually persuaded to and the two move into her aunt’s old townhouse.

After moving in, Gregory starts playing little mind games with Paula, first making her believe that she lost a brooch when she’s certain she was carrying it in her purse the entire time. The most key of these manipulations is that the gas in her home that is lighting its lamps is being turned down at random times when she knows no one else is in the house to turn it down. This causes Paula to believe she is losing her mind, which results in her spending more time locked in her home, which spurs the curiosity of Inspector Brian Cameron (Joseph Cotton), who also can’t help but feel that he’s seen Gregory before. With the help of Paula, Cameron figures out that Gregory was once living under another name and may indeed be the man who killed Paula’s aunt all those years ago.

First off, it is a pretty odd casting choice to have Charles Boyer (a Frenchman), Ingrid Bergman (a Swede), and Joseph Cotton (an American) playing the main characters in this decidedly London-set story. However, the fact that all of them are all quite good in Gaslight makes this a little easier to accept. Bergman’s performance is especially captivating, which makes it absolutely deserved that Bergman won the Best Actress Oscar this year for her performance (though she did win over another iconic performance, Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity). Bergman to me has always felt like one of the more sincere and genuine performers of Hollywood’s golden age, so having her play a character in such a vulnerable emotional state is a great fit, as she adds a nice human element to this material that could easily veer into pulpy territory.

Considering the presence of murder and noir-y male manipulation, it is a little surprising that Hitchcock didn’t direct this movie, though maybe he passed on it because he’d recently done similarly gothic material with Rebecca a few years earlier. Either way, it’s not the kind of film that I would necessarily think would be a great fit for George Cukor, even though he’s been a filmmaker I’ve found myself more and more taken with in recent years. I even reviewed another one of his films for last year’s Oscar Fortnight, though My Fair Lady felt like a film where his cinematic restraint made the material fall a little flat. With Gaslight, that’s much less the case, as you get the kind of performances and knack for knowing what to do with a good script that Cukor always had, but at the same time it’s also a pretty visually accomplished film.

The film’s one other Oscar was for art direction, and you do have to admire both the London streets that the film has recreated as well as the spooky aura of Aunt Alice’s townhouse. Additionally, the use of London fog throughout the movie adds another layer of eerieness, which if you want to get all high-minded could be seen as a metaphor for the fog of lies that Paula is seeing her own reality through. It’s a great marriage of style and subject matter, even if the marriage at the heart of the film is far from that, and a still-resonant parable for the lies terrible people tell to the ones who trust them.