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Review: George Cukor’s Gaslight

It’s rather like watching zee Frenchman kick zee puppy poodle for an hour and a half.

Eric Henderson



Photo: Warner Bros.

George Cukor’s Gaslight won Ingrid Bergman her first Academy Award for best actress in 1944, and it’s a shame they couldn’t wait a couple more years for her more subtly shaded and good-humored riff on the same character—a callously used woman at the mercy of both her ghoulish husband as well as her would-be gallant liberator—in Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece Notorious. Of course, it’s easy to see why they couldn’t wait. Bergman’s portrayal of Paula Alquist, a woman slowly succumbing to the cruelty and isolation inflicted upon her fragile psyche by her husband Gregory Anton (Charles Boyer), gives her the chance to suffer gloriously for the film’s duration. Whether cowering against knick-knack covered walls, trembling with fear of the housemaids (specifically a Cockney tart played by a surprisingly slatternly Angela Lansbury), or crying out in anguish at a social piano concert, Bergman is a diva in full martyr effect. Though it was certainly the ne plus ultra of big-screen chillers in its day, nowadays Gaslight is just another one of the myriad overly-dignified and genteel Hollywood melodramas that stole spots on the AFI’s list of 100 most thrilling films from the far more illicit and gleeful likes of The Fury and Assault on Precinct 13. It may sound flippant to compare these diverse films, but for all the passion Cukor and Bergman attempt to stuff into the creaky domestic premise, Gaslight ultimately adds up to very little in the psychological mind-fuck department, and now pales in comparison to the tightly-wound ferocity of Carpenter and De Palma. Part of the problem is that the scenario of the film (Anton is attempting to locate Paula’s murdered aunt’s precious jewelry in the attic) is all but spelled out right from the get go. What with Cukor being content to let Boyer portray Anton as Hollywood cinema’s world-class prick of all time, the audience is left with little to do but watch Paula assume that her husband is right when he insists she is losing her mind. There is no subtlety, and it’s rather like watching zee Frenchman kick zee puppy poodle for an hour and a half. There’s also an unconvincing attempt to turn the sanity tables on Anton in the final act, where his passion for precious stones is meant to mirror Paula’s need for marital understanding even at the cost of her mind. Mind you, Gaslight is an expertly directed and evenly paced slow burn (and Dame May Whitty is a stitch, though underused, as a nosy neighbor lady), but its lack of a sound moral and psychological center renders it totally transitory and forgettable.

Cast: Charles Boyer, Ingrid Bergman, Joseph Cotten, Dame May Whitty, Angela Lansbury, Barbara Everest Director: George Cukor Screenwriter: John Van Druten, Walter Reish, John L. Balderston Distributor: Warner Bros. Running Time: 113 min Rating: NR Year: 1944 Buy: Video

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