During the 2017 holiday season, I got a great deal on the Best of Warner Bros. 100 Film Collection. Diane and I haven’t seen most of these movies, but we are committed to watching one a week and writing a short review.
More frequently recently, I have noticed an uptick in the term “gaslighting”. Until seeing 1944’s movie “Gaslight” I wasn’t a hundred percent sure of its meaning. Now, after seeing the movie from which the term is derived (well, you could probably argue it comes from the play the movie was based on), I understand completely.
“Gaslight” stars Ingrid Bergman (previously seen in “Casablanca”) and Charles Boyer (whom we knew of only from I Love Lucy). The film begins with the murder of a world-famous opera singer, Alice Alquist, whose body is discovered by her only living relative and niece, Paula (Bergman). Paula moves from her London home with her aunt to stay with a family friend in Italy. She stays in Italy for ten years before she meets and falls in love with the mysterious Gregory (Boyer). After two weeks of courtship, they elope and, at his suggestion, move back to her aunt’s home in London which she inherited and left abandoned.
Other cast members joining Bergman and Boyer include Joseph Cotton. We previously saw him in “Citizen Kane” as one of my standout favorites. He also co-starred with Audrey Hepburn in the stage version of “The Philadelphia Story”, another movie we have watched on this list. Cotton’s Mid-Atlantic/Virginian accent does him no favors in “Gaslight” as a man who supposedly works at Scotland Yard. We also get Dame May Whitty who plays yet another old British woman though, unlike in “Mrs. Minniver”, she’s a pleasant, albeit nosy, old British woman. And finally, we have a very young Angela Lansbury as an uncouth maid. In our household, Dame Lansbury is best known for her voicework in Disney’s animated “Beauty and the Beast” as well as reruns of Murder, She Wrote.
“Gaslight” is an odd movie to watch. It works well enough as a thriller and the acting is very good, but it suffers from predictability and several plot holes. As you may have guessed despite not seeing the film, Gregory (Boyer) murdered Paula’s aunt and wanted to return to the scene of his crime as Paula’s new husband to search for jewels that were never recovered. To keep her under his control, Gregory immediately begins a campaign of psychological warfare to break down Paula’s belief in reality and in herself. He does this so he can eventually send her away to an asylum while he controls her estate and the home in which the jewels are presumably still hidden.
Despite Charles Boyer’s ability to mesmerize even me with his odd obsession with the locations of paintings and brooches, the plot was silly at best. It is never clear if Boyer loved Paula’s aunt or how she got the jewels from him in the first place. The fact that he spends six or more months going upstairs to search for the jewels in secret and only finds them when most convenient to the plot only adds more to the silliness. The movie would’ve been a lot better if a) a rewrite with a focus on logical consistency, b) add some actual red herrings so it felt more like a mystery, c) announce that Gregory is the villain early on and let the movie focus on the horror of psychological drama when inflicted by someone who knows what they are doing when inflicting it.
Outside of being an excellent example of exactly what the term “gaslighting” means, I thought “Gaslight” was forgettable when it easily could have been the opposite. Bergman’s Paula has zero agency, so the only real star here is Charles Boyer’s Gregory. More insight into his character or his motivation (beyond “derp I love diamonds”) could have made this a psychological thriller worth rewatching. Sadly, we get “Scooby Doo if written by a psychology grad student” instead.