Gaslight: the light of the mind

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Like many of the pies in which David O. Selznick had his fat little fingers, George Cukor’s 1944  Gaslight  has a touch of Victorian melodrama about it. But with a little studio polish, melodrama can make the silver screen sparkle.

Subsequent to the film’s success the movie-going vernacular has picked up the verb ‘to gaslight’, meaning to trick or deceive for personal gain. This ‘gaslighting’, while it drives the story, also creates a palimpsest of illusions, on which the tension turns.

The first trick of the light is Gregory Anton (Charles Boyer), who seduces Paula Alquist (Ingrid Bergman), the daughter of a murdered opera singer. The clue to Boyer’s character is his accent and appearance. On the surface throaty, urbane and rakish, he is also continental, and therefore suspicious.

He charms Bergman into returning to her London home, the dust-lined reliquary of her mother’s foreshortened life. He even puts a smile on the face of his flame, while planting the suspicion in her mind that she is ‘fragile’, forgetful and ultimately congenitally insane (lending a whole new meaning to the word ‘charm’).

Bergman’s ‘self-discovered’ insanity is pitted against Boyer’s grounded and commanding authority. Only planted clues suggest that Boyer’s suave appearance, Bergman’s alleged madness, and the flickering gaslight that she ‘imagines’ each evening as her husband disappears to ‘work’, allow the viewer to question the balance of reality and illusion.

The main body of the film takes place from the claustrophobic and solipsistic perspective of Bergman as she struggles against her husband’s manipulation. It is this internal psychology that the film creates with such fantastic and dramatic effect, and which shows the golden age of Hollywood at its most unsparing and beguiling.

The film feels like a product, perfectly assembled, ready for public consumption. It feels consummately artificial. Small things like the choice of the nosy neighbour and the acerbic maid, Nancy (Angela Lansbury), are like the parts of a machine chosen for their economy. But, in particular, the lead performances are, at times, borderline expressionist – over the top and exaggerated but startlingly and sometimes chillingly effective. Bergman, who looks like she could switch off her madness effortlessly and settle down with a pink gin, still manages to strike a raw nerve at her most hysterical.

Because the film is built inside a spectacle of illusion and deception, this artificiality, its melodrama, and bottom-line thinking, lends itself to the drama – Bergman’s world is deceptive, as is the film. And there is an implicit disorientation and questioning of reality at the heart of the whole production. In some ways, despite differences of style and period, it is not so far removed from psychological fright-fests like  RepulsionSisters, and any number of David Lynch films (with the difference that these films deny the viewer any kind of relief from the insanity).

But for  Gaslight  it takes the dogged intervention of a detective who refuses to close the file on the original murder to turn ‘reality’ on its head and out the truth. This makes the film a socially acceptable – and, crucially, financially viable – flirtation with self-abandonment. And perhaps because the market anchors it towards psychological reassurance, sanity, justice and so on, while suggesting their opposites, it strikes a more polyphonic and eerie note.

The play on which the film is based may not be a work of high art, but mauled by the grubby hands of cinema, it becomes popular art at its best.

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