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Gaslight (1944)

“Gaslighting” is a word that gets thrown around a lot nowadays. We hear it so often, we know exactly what it means, even when it’s used more casually than it should be. But since we’re so used to hearing this word, sometimes we don’t stop to wonder - where exactly did it come from?

In 1938, Patrick Hamilton (Hangover Square, Rope, Angel Street) wrote a play called Gas Light. It was such a cultural phenomenon that in 1940 it had already been adapted into film in the U.K., and by 1944 it was adapted into a movie again in the United States, and has been adapted and imitated multiple times since then. The impact of such a highly successful story is expected to still be felt in the present day, and that is why the term “gaslighting” is popular even now. Thanks to Patrick Hamilton, we have a handy-dandy word to describe this very specific type of mental abuse and manipulation.

For this article, I’ll be reviewing the 1944 version of Gaslight. Coincidentally, this film was also the first ever role played by Angela Lansbury marking her film debut. Thanks to this movie, she got her start in Hollywood, and was able to grace all of us with her presence and on-screen talents for many many decades to come.


Now, just in time for the spooky season, let’s dive into what may possibly be the definitive psychological thriller.


The story of Gaslight begins when renowned opera singer Alice Alquist is murdered in her London home. The murderer is never caught, and Alice’s young niece Paula is left to travel to Italy to stay with her aunt’s old teacher, the only person left in the world who could care for her. While in Italy, she meets and falls in love with Gregory Anton, her accompanist. The two are caught up in a whirlwind romance and shortly decide to be married. Gregory tells his bride that he would like to live in London, and ends up buying the very same house in which Paula and her aunt used to live.


Here is where the story picks up and becomes what we know of as “gaslighting.” When Paula seems to be misplacing and forgetting small things, Gregory starts to convince her that she is in fact losing her mind, and by doing so legitimately causes damage to her sanity. The whole movie is a long, long buildup until the final reveal (which I won’t spoil here because you should watch the movie for yourself), and every single second is worth it. The truth of the matter is much more sinister than anyone could realize, least of all Paula.


The legendary Ingrid Bergman (Casablanca, Anastasia 1956, Joan of Arc, Spellbound) is our starlet for this story, playing Paula Alquist Anton. Paula is a deeply emotionally scarred person after the murder of her aunt, but is trying to find happiness nonetheless. In the beginning of the story, Bergman does a marvelous job showing us how someone who is relieved to finally feel good and content in her life again is willing to make a lot of concessions for the person who has caused this joy. It’s because of him, so she should move back to London with him even though she’d rather never return to the scene of that great tragedy, right? She should believe him implicitly when he starts to tell her that she’s unwell, right? Without him she might never have felt cheerful again at all, so she has to give him the benefit of the doubt. Later on in the film, when Paula does start to actually lose her mind, Bergman does such a genuine portrayal of the absolute mental anguish Paula is in at this point, that it gives me a headache to watch it. Yet I cannot tear my eyes from the screen. The feeling of not knowing what’s really real at any given point in time must be agonizing, and Bergman makes us believe that she truly is in agony.

Charles Boyer (How to Steal a Million, Barefoot in the Park, The Lost Horizon) plays the incredibly suave and deft Gregory Anton. At times he’s as dashing and loving as any prince charming, but at others he becomes downright creepy. Boyer portrays the many sides to this character very well indeed, keeping his performance steady no matter what kind of mood Gregory hopes to convey to Paula.


Angela Lansbury (Murder She Wrote, Beauty and the Beast, Anastasia 1997, Nanny McPhee) plays the newly hired maid, Nancy Oliver. Nancy thinks her new employers are certainly very, very strange, especially her mistress, but it’s not her job to question them, her job is simply to wait on them. Mr. Anton seems to take a fancy to her, and she’s more than glad to have caught his eye. In her debut role, Angela Lansbury is already great. She’s snarky, she’s sarcastic, she’s clearly uncouth while trying to act refined in order to please her employers, and she’s a young girl who'd rather be out having fun with her many boyfriends than working. But she knows she has to pay the bills, so she does the job and makes sure to do it well. This was a fantastic first part for Miss Lansbury to play, and is not the kind of character we’re used to seeing from her nowadays.


Joseph Cotten (Citizen Kane; The Third Man; Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte) plays one Inspector Brian Cameron of Scotland Yard. After a chance meeting with Paula, he is struck by how closely she resembles her aunt Alice – he was a huge fan of Alice in his youth. The encounter prompts him to reopen the cold case of Alice’s murder in the hopes that he might finally be able to solve it. Cotten is terrific as a truly classic police investigator. He’s charming, clever, determined, and heroic. Not to mention he truly cares about both Alice and Paula, and wants to see justice be served.


Elizabeth Tompkins, the cook in the Anton household, is played by Barbara Everest (Jane Eyre, The Uninvited, The Phantom Fiend). Kindly and well-mannered though quite hard-of-hearing, Elizabeth learns just as quickly as Nancy not to comment on or question her employers’ strange behavior. But Elizabeth proves to have a heart of gold when later on in the story, she uses her quick wits to protect Paula from coming to further harm. Everest does a great job in making such a simple role memorable and enjoyable.


After the success of the British play and subsequent Thorald Dickenson (Queen of Spades, Next of Kin, Men of Two Worlds) directed film, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer wanted to make their own version of the story. George Cukor (My Fair Lady, The Philadelphia Story, Travels With My Aunt) was chosen to direct, and that choice has stood the test of time as the best they could have made. The whole movie is a steady buildup leading to the final climactic scene. The tension rises with each sequence, and every single thing that happens only adds to Paula’s distress. Truly one of the all-time greatest thrillers, Cukor deserves to be remembered for this masterpiece (as well as for bringing Angela Lansbury onto the scene). Gaslight was such a smash-hit success that in 1944 it made $4.6 million at the box office, and the 1944 version is usually regarded as the definitive one, even though it takes many liberties from the original versions.


I highly recommend this movie to everyone really, but especially if you’re looking for a good unsettling movie to watch this Halloween season. It should go without saying that this isn’t really a movie that kids would enjoy. There’s no action, it’s all dialogue, so younger kids would have a hard time sitting through it. But you and your older ones are sure to enjoy such spectacular performances and such a thrilling tale with a satisfying conclusion after everything that composes the story’s escalation. Gaslight holds up to this day as one of the great classics of moviemaking, and if you haven’t yet seen many classics, then this could certainly be the place to start.



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