Gaslight

May 10, 2010 at 9:42 pm (Classics, Movies, PBS) (, , , , , )

Wow.  I said a while back that I wanted to see this, and promptly forgot about it – until Channel 13 aired it Saturday night.  I know, I know, I sound like a commercial for 13 – don’t care.  Love Reel 13.  Well, the “classic” third of it, anyway.

Some spoilers follow, though I don’t think the answer to “is she mad – or is he driving her mad?” is much of a spoiler …

So: Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer, 1944.  Bergman is Paula, who begins the movie being swept away from her home in London following, we learn later, the murder of her aunt, her sole caretaker since she was very small.  Paula discovered the body; the murder was never solved, and now Paula, apparently in her late teens or early 20’s, is being packed off to study voice with (I believe) the same maestro who worked with the aunt, a famous singer.  Very soon her teacher finds that her heart is not in her lessons, though, because she quickly falls in love with her accompanist, Gregory (Charles Boyer): giddy joy isn’t conducive to singing tragic opera.   She tries to take some time on her own to think things through – but he doesn’t give her that space… although she probably wouldn’t have made any other decision if she had been left alone, infatuated as she was. In very short order they are married, and she shows great courage by deciding to ignore the horror that home in London holds for her, because, coincidentally, it’s just what Gregory always wanted.  To London they go, where she does overcome the fear, and even begins to think about taking up her study of music again as she leafs through her aunt’s scores. Among which she finds a letter …

It’s been a very long time since I’ve seen Boyer in anything – did he always look so sinister?  Bergman looked radiant – in the beginning, at least, when her character Paula was young and in love; she glowed.  Hedy Lamarr, Neal Gabler tells us in the intro, was originally intended for the role; she’s Mom’s exemplar of beauty, and a rightly so … But I’m delighted that the part went to Ingrid Bergman.  Gabler spoke about the research she is said to have done for the role, reading on mental illness and visiting hospitals, particularly spending time with one delusional woman who alternated between spells of lucidity and … not.  It showed.  It was believable, and wrenching, and enhanced by makeup – what a performance.  (And she looked stunning in the gowns.)  Boyer … he didn’t just look sinister, he hit all the necessary notes for a truly creepy performance, going in seconds from tender lover to note-perfect pretended nonchalance (“It doesn’t mean anything.  I’m sure it doesn’t mean anything”:  without the repetition it might have been comforting.  The slight added tone of uncertainty with “I’m sure” thoroughly contradicted the words – perfect) to barking commands in a tone that should never be used with human or canine.  And then back again.   It was almost a textbook diagram of how to drive someone mad: subtleties and constant undermining, along with ensuring the absence of a support system.

Instrumental in that last was the impertinent, insubordinate, man-hunting maid gleefully played by a 17-year-old Angela Lansbury in her first role. She was manipulated as much as Paula was; Gregory pulled every string and had them all dancing under his hands like puppets. Even after he accomplished his goal, my guess would be that he would have either continued his manipulations there, or had Paula packed off to an asylum as originally planned so that he could start over with someone new (Nancy?  Or would she be too tough-minded?).  It must be a huge rush to wield that kind of power – not something to be easily given up.

The film was beautiful.  My guess is it was shot in Hollywood, and probably on a soundstage – the only visual flaw I could see was the somewhat cheesy greenscreen-ish effect of Boyer and Bergman walking the grounds of the Tower of London – they were very obviously nowhere near London for that.  (Did they use something like greenscreen then?   Or simply shoot in front of a running film of the background?) Otherwise, it was all gorgeous “Italy” (closely constricted sets, but still lovely – the one glimpse we had of the honeymoon terrace/dock was fairytale) and London fog.  The use of shadow, and of action offscreen, was very good.

One tiny quibble was that the servants knocked on the drawing room door.  In my limited experience with novels and film set in the late-ish 1800’s (this was 1870-something), servants never knock.  Silly Americans.

Memorable quote: “It hurts me when you’re ill and fanciful” – so wrong in so many ways:  she’s causing him pain, she’s ill based on his insistence she is, and fanciful ditto.  False sympathy, carefully phrased to push her a little further along a downward spiral.

The scene at the recital was brilliant.  They were invited to a musical evening, and accepted – and then at the last minute himself decided to cancel.  Regardless, down the stairs in full stunning rig comes Paula, bravely trying to stand up to not only Gregory but Nancy (Lansbury).  And it seems to work – once she makes it clear to him that she feels fine and that this evening means a great deal to her (the hostess was kind to her when she was a child) and that she will go alone if that’s the only way she can go, he changes tacks and reverts to the lover persona – of course he didn’t mean it, he’ll go get dressed.  And his fury is obvious – as is the birth of a new plot while he prepares.   The line “Paula – my watch is gone” was perfect, and for just that to cause poor Paula’s hysteria as it did – well, obviously the woman’s mad, now everyone sees it.  A truly remarkable sequence.

Joseph Cotten played Brian Cameron, an American who met Paula’s aunt once when he was a boy, and now runs into Paula (on that trip to the Tower of London).  He is struck by the strong family resemblance and is prompted to take advantage of a position assisting at Scotland Yard to do some research into the aunt’s murder – and begins to scent something rotten in the present menage.  I think my favorite aspect of this movie was that he doesn’t fall overtly head over heels in love with Paula, and save her for that reason – he worshiped her aunt when he was very young, and goes to work on the cold case on instinct.  The film, happily, does not end with the two about to embark on a happily-ever-after.

In a way, I could have done without the odd little comic relief character of Mrs. Thwaites, played by Dame May Whitty, or I would have liked to have seen her accidentally contribute something more significant, without ever knowing.   Or perhaps rubbing elbows with the murderer, coming within a hair’s-breadth of being killed herself – again, without ever knowing.

All in all, a wonderful, suspenseful movie, brilliantly written and acted – and directed and photographed.  And, in case I didn’t mention it, cast.

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