AFI Silver presented Gaslight as part of a program recognizing Domestic Violence Awareness Month (October). If you've heard of the term "to gaslight," it originated with the 1938 stage play from which this play was adapted. Gaslighting is defined as " to attempt to make (someone) believe that he or she is going insane (as by subjecting that person to a series of experiences that have no rational explanation)" (Merriam-Webster Dictionary). And if anyone is the personification of the gaslighted woman, it is Ingrid Bergman. With merely her eyes, and by changes in posture, Ms. Bergman is magnificent as a woman being continually cowed by the man that she loves. We first see Paula around the age of 12 - and you believe Ms. Bergman IS a child (it helps that she doesn't talk - director George Cukor knows that her voice would reveal her age, and so he lets her tell her story just with the stunned look on her face. We then watch her become a woman who goes from independence to fearful dependence. It's a phenomenal performance, certainly worthy of the Oscar that was given to Ms. Bergman. (She was up against stellar competition: Claudette Colbert in Since You Went Away; Bette Davis in Mr. Skeffington, Greer Garson in Mrs. Parkington; and Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity. Not a decision I want to make!)
Charles Boyer certainly makes a case for citing this film as one about domestic violence. Yes, his goal is to find the jewels that the late Alice Alquist hid somewhere in the house. But Boyer paints a picture of a man who likes the power that his manipulation is providing. When Paula finally rebels against him, Boyer initially cringes as he sees his control ebbing. But then his eyes change - he's discovered a better way to humiliate her; there is triumph, pleasure, and satisfaction in that look. Boyer, like Berman, can do much with just the briefest glint in the eyes. We know there is no reason for him to pull this subterfuge - all he needs to do is tell Paula he would like to prowl through Alice's costumes. But Boyer demonstrates that Anton's actions are about power over Paula and a revenge against Alice for complicating his life. On a personal note, Boyer's wife was pregnant with their only child during the filming of Gaslight. Though it was believed the child would be born after filming ended, Patricia Boyer delivered a few weeks early. The cast celebrated the event with champagne! (TCM articles)
Angela Lansbury, in her first film role (she also appeared as the older sister in National Velvet that same year), was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Supporting Actress. She is marvelous as Nancy Oliver, a servant girl, who has delusions of seducing the master of the house and supplanting her mistress. In the video below, she discusses her experiences on the film, including the celebration of her 18th birthday on the set. Nominated three times for the Oscar (including a nomination for The Manchurian Candidate, which is arguably her finest film performance), Ms Lansbury was not awarded an Academy Award until 2013 when she was (finally) given a Special Oscar. Though her film roles were varied, Ms. Lansbury's greatest impact was felt in the theatre. She currently has 5 Tonys to her credit, with an additional two nominees. She was also nominated 18 times (including TWELVE consecutive nominations for Murder She Wrote) for the Emmy Award. She was married for 54 years to Peter Shaw (until his death in 2003), and has two children. You can see Ms. Lansbury next year, as the Balloon Lady in the remake of Mary Poppins.
Is there anyone who can play dotty canniness like Dame May Whitty? The character of Miss Bessy Thwaites was an invention of the film (she's not in the play or the British film), and she is delightful, though a bit scary as a murder stalker. Sure, she adds a bit of comic relief, but multiple viewings help you realize that SHE is a key factor in Paula's marriage to Gregory. Had she not brought up Alice's murder on the train, would Paula have fallen so readily into Gregory's arms? True, she supplies valuable information to Brian about the goings on in the house, but on many levels it is disturbing that she knows so much ABOUT the Antons' lives.
The original play, Gas Light was produced on the West End in 1938; in 1941, it opened on Broadway as Angel Street, with Vincent Price as the Anton character (called Manningham in the play). I was lucky enough to see an excellent 2007 off-Broadway production by the Irish Repertory Company (you can see a review here). There was also a British film, called Gaslight (1940), starring Anton Walbrook and Diana Wynyard. It is still available for viewing, despite an MGM's efforts to destroy all copies of the film. There have also been six teleplays of the story (see the AFI Catalog for a listing of the tv versions and their casts) and a 1946 radio version in which Ms. Bergman and Mr. Boyer reprized their roles.
Gaslight was nominated for 7 Academy Awards, winning two (the other was for Cedric Gibbons Art Direction). The other nominees were Best Picture, Best Actor (Charles Boyer; this was his third of four nominations. He never won), Best Writing, Best Black and White Cinematography, and of course, Ms. Lansbury's nomination. (Though not costume design. A shame - Irene's costuming work is impressive in the film). In the AFI's 100 Years, 100 Thrills, Gaslight placed at #78.
If you've never seen the film, treat yourself with a viewing (leave the lights on!). In the meantime, we'll leave you with this scene, in which Paula tells Gregory about her Aunt Alice.