Friday, September 07, 2018

"Gaslight" (1944)

Before I actually discuss this movie, let's all take a moment to appreciate how NICE Joseph Cotten looks in a tuxedo, shall we?

Goodness, he just looks ravishing, doesn't he?  Heavens above.

Look how smug he gets, though -- he KNOWS he's a walking, talking ice cream sundae.

And this is the face he makes when he reads the bit where I just called him an ice cream sundae.

Yes, well, time to discuss the movie.  Thank you for letting me get that out of my system.

Gaslight is a beautiful, terrifying study in the power of suggestion over an impressionable mind.  It's also a stark warning against marrying someone you barely know.  And it's a fascinating look at emotional abuse as well.

And yet, it's thoroughly enjoyable.  In fact, it's one of the movies that made me a firm Joseph Cotten fan!

His cute hat didn't hurt any ;-)

Right, I'm supposed to be reviewing the movie.  Just so you know, I WILL SPOIL THINGS.  I will mark where the major spoilage about the ending begins.

It all begins when Paula Alquist (Ingrid Bergman) leaves London following her aunt's mysterious death.  Paula is an orphan, and she's been raised by her aunt, Alice Alquist, a famous opera singer.  Ingrid Bergman is positively luminous in this film -- they light her in soft, glowing tones throughout that emphasize her innocence and sweetness.

We next catch up with Paula in Italy, where she's been taking voice lessons with her aunt's old teacher.  Paula's singing has suffered lately, and she confesses she's in love.  That makes her too happy to sing tragic opera songs.

Who is she in love with?  Her music teacher's new accompanist, Gregory Anton (Charles Boyer).  Though they've only known each other two weeks, Anton convinces Paula to run away and marry him.  Paula is naive, innocent, sweet, and assumes everyone is as guileless as she is.  She's rapturously infatuated with this older man and sees no reason at all why she shouldn't marry him.

But she wants to take a few days to think about it, and takes a train to visit the coast alone.  On the train, she meets a chatty old Englishwoman named Miss Thwaites (Dame May Whitty) who is obsessed with murder mysteries.  She lives just down the way from the house in London where Paula grew up, though she doesn't recognize Paula, which is a little weird, since we later learn that Paula looks EXACTLY like her aunt.  But maybe Miss Thwaites never saw the famous opera singer and only knows about her because she was murdered.  Anyway, Paula doesn't want to discuss the murder, though she doesn't disclose her relationship to the victim.

Anton meets Paula, intruding on her week alone with no invitation.  And he does this in the creepiest way possible, reaching out from behind and grabbing her arm.

Paula freaks out a little bit, and who wouldn't?

But she's pleased to see him, once she gets over the surprise of his being there.  They promptly get married.

On their honeymoon, Anton tells Paula that he's always longed to live in London.  In a nice town house on a private street, though of course they're much too poor to live anywhere so nice.  But he'd be happy in a small London flat as long as he has Paula with him.

Paula confesses she owns a nice town house in London, inherited from her aunt.  Anton is surprised.  Well, Paula believes he's surprised, but the audience can tell he's obviously faking.  In fact, the only downside to this movie is how Paula's naivete stretches one's credulity throughout the first half of the film.  She simply believes every single thing Anton ever says.  But because she's luminous and sweet, you just can't dislike her for being so gullible.  I can't, anyway.

Off to London they go, and of course, who is hanging around their house but nosy Miss Thwaites.  Woman needs a nicer hobby than haunting murder scenes.  She's positively in a tizzy over findign out this place is going to be lived in again.  She's waited years and years to get a glimpse inside.

And when she finds out she's actually met the person who lives there?  I thought she'd float right off the ground.

Look at how he almost pushes her inside the creepy, dark interior.  If this shot isn't a perfect visual demonstration of what's going to happen in this movie, I don't know what is.

Paula loves being around some of her aunt's things again, but the furniture in the sitting room disturbs her.

They bring back vivid memories of coming down the stairs as a little girl and finding her aunt dead, strangled in front of her portrait.

Speaking of that portrait, let's take a closer look at it.  Because her aunt obviously looks exactly like Paula.  I have this theory about that, and why Paula never knew her parents and was raised by her aunt.  My theory (which I haven't looked around to see if anyone else has already come up with) is that Paula is actually Alice Alquist's daughter, the illegitimate love-child of the opera singer and the unnamed royal gentleman who gave Alice all those jewels people still talk about.  They say he used to attend all her performances and watch from seclusion in his box.  Sounds like an obsessed secret lover to me.

Anyway, that's my theory.

Anton lovingly suggests moving everything of her aunt's up to the top floor and boarding it up so Paula will never have to think about or see it again.  Cuz having a boarded-up door at the top of the stairs wouldn't be disturbing or weird.

They've barely finished moving the furniture out before Anton starts messing with Paula's head.  He gives her a broach he says belonged to his mother, then warns her not to wear it because it has a broken clasp.  He tells her she's always losing things and forgetting about it, which she doesn't believe.  Why didn't he fix the clasp before giving her the brooch?  She never wonders that.

And when she loses the broach at the Tower of London while on a tour, she begins to believe he's right, that she does lose things and forget all about it.  Look at this amazing shot -- we see Paula's shadow on the left, Anton staring at it as we see her search frantically through her bag.  The bars from the window behind her imprison her shadow, showing us visually what Anton is beginning to do to her.  He's set next to a suit of armor, equating him with a guard and tormentor, but also possibly suggesting that he is empty inside.

As they leave the Tower, they run into a charming man with an American accent (Joseph Cotten) who's there sightseeing with his niece and nephew.

When he sees Paula, he's transfixed, as if he's seeing a ghost.

As the Antons pass, he lifts his hat, and Paula courteously acknowledges him with a smile and nod.

Off they go to visit the crown jewels.

Paula's still worried about having to confess she lost the brooch.  Anton is mesmerized by the jewels.

Honestly, this whole scene, I had only one thing running through my head as they focused on Anton's face:

(I don't even like Moriarty, but yeah, that's all I could think of.)

When they get home, Paula must confess about the brooch.

Anton is all condescending and tells her a bunch of lies about how she's always making things up and forgetting it, losing things, and so on.

He fires her maid and hires Nancy (Angela Lansbury), who looks down on Paula and flirts with Anton shamelessly.

And here's where the title comes in.  Anton leaves every evening, saying he has to go work on his symphony at the office he's rented elsewhere.  After he leaves, the gas-powered lights in Paula's bedroom and boudoir mysteriously dim even though the maid and the cook swear they haven't turned on more lights elsewhere in the house, which would cause the light in her room to dim.  Nancy never sees the lights dim, it only happens when Paula's alone.  And then soon after the lights dim, she hears noises overhead.  But no one else hears them.

Paula begins to believe she's going mad.  She gets to the point where she's afraid to even leave the house for fear that she might lose her way, or that her husband might get angry that she went somewhere.  Nancy feeds on this insecurity, always asking snide things about "Will the master like it if you do this," or "What should I tell the master if he asks where you've gone."

Meanwhile, that nice-looking man with the American accent (that is never explained, he just lives in London and works in London and is an American, and I'm cool with that, so you can be cool with that too, okay?) finds out where the woman he saw lives.  He met her aunt, Alice Alquist, years ago, and she was very kind to him, so he thinks he'd like to tell the niece about meeting her aunt.  The day he goes there to call on her, he sees Paula attempt to leave the house and then flee back inside.  Naturally, he thinks this is really weird.  Also naturally, Miss Thwaite is hanging around the garden nearby, ostensibly feeding birds, but actually stalking the house.  She's more than happy to tell this nice young man all about the weird behavior of Mr. and Mrs. Anton.

It turns out that this nice man has a name: Brian Cameron.  And he has a job: he's a detective with Scotland Yard.  Yay!  He wants to re-open the Alice Alquist murder case, which was never solved.  His superiors tell him not to waste his time.

Yeah, whatever, he's totally going to do some investigating.

Paula becomes a prisoner in her own home.  Look at how they frame this, with layers of bars between her and the audience.  The curtains, the window frames, the iron railing outside -- all keeping her in.

They repeatedly have shown her against or behind bars of some sort, like I mentioned in the Tower of London. Even at the very beginning, when she ran into Anton's arms to meet him secretly after her music lesson, they hide behind this decorative fence:

And when they looked at the Crown Jewels, bars again:

Anyway, Anton continues leaving the house at night.

Poor Paula keeps hearing strange noises above her room.

The gaslight continues to dim every evening, and she slowly succumbs to the belief that she is going mad.

I love this shot, as if the lamp in her room is about to attack her.

Paula decides to make one last attempt at living a normal life. She gets an invitation to a musical evening thrown by a friend of her aunt's who was very kind to Paula when she was young.  She decides to attend, whether or not Anton will go with her.

Just for a few minutes, we see her bright, determined, strong.  Not shrinking or afraid, but making her own decisions.

Unbeknownst to Paula, Brian Cameron is responsible for getting her that invitation.  He's convinced something bad is going on in her house, but he can't get inside to investigate, so he draws her out instead.  Then he gets a seat where he can watch her and her husband.

He is quite suspicious of what he sees.

Anton turns around and sees Brian watching them.  He remembers Brian from that day at the Tower.  Now he's suspicious.  And he has something new to mess with Paula's head about.

In the middle of the performance, he convinces Paula she's stolen his watch.

Paula breaks down entirely.

Brian is adorably alarmed.

Anton takes Paula home immediately.  Then he accuses her of knowing Brian and concealing their friendship -- or is it a love affair?

Finally, he tells Paula that she's going mad, and that her mother went mad and died in an asylum.

Paula believes him.

Brian has a policeman friend of his patrolling the beat outside the Antons' house, to keep an eye on thing.  They compare notes and do some sleuthing.

Anton leaves as usual, to go "work," and Paula has a breakdown.  She leans so far over the stairs, calling for help, that it looks like she's going to fall.

If you don't want the ending SPOILED, you should skip to the bottom of this post now, okay?

Brian charms his way into the house a day or two later.

Paula hides behind a bannister, imprisoning herself behind bars this time because she's afraid she's going mad.

Brian sees her, convinces her to let him talk to her.  He tells her that he met her aunt when he was a little boy, and she gave him a present.

He shows Paula the gift, and she believes him.  Light and hope come back into her face as she has an actual conversation with someone besides her husband and their servants for the first time since arriving in London.

She even smiles.

But then she breaks down, weeping.  She's terrified of everything, especially her own mind.

Brian gently gets her to confess her fears, and reassures her that he doesn't think she's mad.

He looks up the stairs at that ominously boarded-off door.

And he finds her proof of things that show her she's not imagining things.

But Brian leaves, and when Anton returns, he convinces Paula that she imagined that a man came to their house, that she's truly mad.

Paula believes him.  Again.

Just as she's collapsing under the weight of her "madness," Brian returns.  And this is where the movie ratchets up from fascinating to AWESOME.  But if you haven't stopped reading yet, and you reeeeeeeeally don't want the ending SPOILED, quit reading now.

There's a big fight and a chase and some other excitement that culminates with the solution to why the gaslight dims and why she hears noise in the closed-off room above her bedroom.  And Brian arrests Anton and ties him up.  But Paula wants to speak to him alone, and Brian lets her.

She locks herself in with her tormentor, again willingly imprisoning herself.

But she's not afraid of Anton anymore.  She no longer believes his lies.  In fact, she has learned that they're not even legally married.  He has no power over her anymore, though he doesn't realize that yet.

She does a bit of Lady Macbeth with a knife, and messes with Anton's head like he has messed with hers, pretending she's actually mad.  And while Ingrid Bergman has had little to do for most of the movie but look beautiful and tragic and frightened, she bursts forth here in blazing glory and fury, a woman released and triumphant.

It all ends with Anton getting hauled away for her aunt's murder while Brian asks if he can come talk to Paula sometimes, to help her work through her trauma.

And nosy Miss Thwaite gets the last word, which made Cowboy and I bust up laughing and was the most perfect ending possible.

This has been my entry for the Joseph Cotten Blogathon hosted by Maddy Loves Her Classic Films and In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood, which Maddy and Crystal kindly let me join at the last minute.  Thank you both!

I see Joseph Cotten STILL hasn't gotten over being called a walking, talking ice cream sundae, though.

I'm sorry, Joseph.  It's just TRUE!  I could eat you up with a spoon in that outfit.


  1. Ok, I'm convinced, lol. I need to see this, probably fits better a bit into fall, but I think I'll order it from the library now and watch it with my sister(s). It reminds me of Spellbound although it seems more interesting/complex.

    1. Livia, yeah, it's got great atmosphere for fall viewing! And I like it WAAAAAAAAAAAY better than Spellbound, FWIW.

  2. Gaslight is lush and moody, and you certainly did it justice.

    I love your theory about Paula's heritage as much as I love those yummy pictures of Jo in his tux.

    1. Caftan Woman, thanks! And yeah, he just... should have worn that tux for the whole movie.

  3. LOL. Love it! Thanks so much for joining us to celebrate Joseph Cotten with such a fine review. love his character in this so much, and I love that Ingrid's character finds a friend in him.

    Your love for this film is evident. I think this is a very good film indeed, but my favourite version is the 1940 British film starring Anton Walbrook.

    Joseph sure does look delicious in this film ;-)

    1. Glad you enjoyed it, Maddy! I really thought I was going to write a quick review of this and NOT take a hundred screencaps, but... it's so beautifully shot. Joseph Cotten and Ingrid Bergman are basically just gorgeous in every single scene, and I got carried away :-)

      I haven't seen the 1940 version! What do you like better about it?

    2. I love the screenshots you took! I prefer the 1940 version because of the performance of Anton Walbrook, and also for the atmosphere and period detail.

    3. Maddy, gotcha! I'll keep an eye out for that version.

  4. "The power of suggestion over an impressionable mind" . . .

    *immediately sticks on Do Not Watch List*

    (I love how you made Joseph Cotten smile by calling him an ice cream sundae, though <3)

    1. Jessica, yeah, prolly you should steer clear. You would Not Like It.


    2. *solemn nods* Yep. Not my thing.

  5. The ending of this movie is so awesome! This was my first Cotten film and I’ve been a fan ever since. Have you read his autobiography? It’s a must-read. I LOLed at the Sherlock reference! And I really like your theory!

    1. Phyl, yes, it's a GREAT ending. One of the most satisfying, really.

      I haven't read his autobiography! But I now will. Just found a cheap copy online, and it'll be here soon!

      Glad you enjoyed this AND that you like my theory!

  6. This was such a fun read. I couldn't stop laughing at your drooling over Cotten -- mainly because I can totally relate! I love this film, especially when Cotten's character starts investigating. I always feel so relieved that someone is looking out for Paula, even if she doesn't realize it herself until the end of the film.

    1. Michaela, he's just drool-worthy, that's all there is to it.

      And yes, it's such a relief when he shows up and starts looking into things because otherwise the whole story would get too depressing and awful. We need that hint of hope.

  7. Hi, very nice review with great screenshots. Bergman looks absolutely luminous here. I agree btw about your theory about Paula's parentage. This is exactly what happened quite often back then, pass an illegitimate child off as a distant relative.
    I can believe Paula's utter naiveté simply because she is a very young woman in Victorian England. She would be quite naive.

    I also love Lansbury as slutty maid. There was a time when she was actually sexy.

    1. Thanks, Margot! I really felt like there were clues leading that direction as far as Paula's parentage, but sometimes I just make stuff up in my head, so I'm glad to hear it makes sense to others too.

      My husband watched this with me a couple weeks ago, and he said today that it wasn't until he read my review that I realized that the maid was Angela Lansbury. He'd read her name in the opening credits, then forgotten she was in it, and totally didn't recognize her. Cracked me up! She was just great in the role.

  8. This movie hit too close to home for me when I first watched it. I was entirely creeped out by Boyer's performance, that I barely paid any attention to Joseph Cotten. I think a re-watch is in order.

    1. Brittaney, I can see how this would be really hard to watch if you or someone you know had ever been victimized like this. If you can stomach watching it again, it really is well done! And Cotten is extremely sweet and watchable in it.


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