REVIEW: Gaslight [1944]

“Good morning daffodils”

Here is a film that I just don’t think aged well with the years. George Cukor’s Oscar nominated Gaslight has the feel of something that was fresh and unique back when released in 1944, today, however, it feels as though it was from a bygone era, complete with acting that somehow has become laughable where it once showed brilliance. A slow burning plot is laid out, showing us the systemic destruction of a woman’s mind. Our lead Paula found the body of her dead aunt/caretaker when she was young. Now grown up, she has married a man in a whirlwind romance and decides to move back to the place of the murder with him. In that house, her mind begins to wander and frighten from sounds she hears at night and the dimming gaslights surrounding her. It appears she is also losing her mind and possibly stealing artifacts from around the house for no apparent reason and her husband’s temper creeps out more and more as the time passes. The handling of the degenerative process concerning Paula is done well, but I feel that having seen so many movies like this one over the years ruined my experience. I pegged the conclusion and twist about fifteen minutes into the story and I have to say it was written on the wall quite loudly. Being, what could be, the first of its kind, that revelation at the end might have really stunned some people, now it just means we have to sit through some monotonous exposition and character progression before seeing what we all knew in the beginning was eventually going to happen.

It’s not even like we are on the cusp of sound evading film either, it happened almost two decades previous, but the acting almost comes across as too broad. Especially with lead actor Charles Boyer, who plays Paula’s new husband Gregory Anton. He gives us shades of villainous facial expressions right from the get-go and never shows the audience anything to make us wonder if maybe he wasn’t pure evil. With his role as it is, there can be no confusion of his motives and that, to me, takes away a huge part of this film. All suspense about what is happening is thrown out the window as soon as Paula discovers a letter from the past addressed to her deceased aunt. That moment seals Gaslight’s fate. From there on, the only suspense was whether Paula’s forced nervous breakdown would become real, making her fabricated insanity a reality.

As far as Paula is concerned, I do believe Ingrid Bergman does a good job. Was the performance worthy of a Best Actress Oscar? I’d lean more towards no, but then I haven’t seen any other film from that year, so for all I know she was the best. Her feigned waif persona comes across a little heavy-handed at the start, almost playing right into the fact that she was being lied to in order to think she was crazy. It felt like she knew her craziness was faked and had to play it up to make it appear more believable. This would have been a brilliant move if she knew what her husband was doing and was subverting his work to trick him, but that is not the case. It was just a somewhat hammy performance. I will say that towards the end, where the truth is slowly being revealed, she steps it up a bit and shines. Half a performance, though, does not a best of the year award make.

The film is not without its charm either. Its conclusion is fun to watch and see what is truly going on with Boyer’s role. A big part of that revelation is laid on the back of Joseph Cotten. Now here is a man that could act. I have never seen him in a role that wasn’t believable or restrained in the realm of reality. He is the best part of the film and never misses a step. We are also treated to some comic relief from characters played by Dame May Whitty, a neighbor, and the couple’s live-in maid Angela Lansbury. In her first ever screen performance, Lansbury shows a lot of spunk and sarcastic wit. I also really enjoyed the atmosphere. Every foggy evening outside was beautifully shot and allowed the world without electricity to become a character of its own. As a whole, though, the film ultimately was too by-the-numbers and obvious to uncover its motives. I know this is all easy to say when so much has probably been lifted from it over the years, but that is where I’m coming from. One of the many hindrances to seeing old films today means I can never view them fresh or without the back catalog of cinema I have already seen being recalled to memory.

Gaslight 6/10 | ★ ★ ½


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