- Ingrid Bergman as Paula Alquist Anton
- Charles Boyer as Gregory Anton
- Joseph Cotten as Brian Cameron
- Angela Lansbury as Nancy Oliver
- May Whitty as Miss Thwaites
A mystery thriller from Hollywood’s Golden Age, Gaslight holds up thanks to strikingly eerie direction, outstanding sets and superb acting, that add up to a film of chills.
It is Victorian times in London and a renowned opera singer Alice Alquist has just been found strangled in her home. Her young niece Paula, who found her body, is sent away to recover from the shock. Years later in Italy, Paula is a vibrant lady who has been training in music, but doesn’t quite have the passion for it. Her thoughts are elsewhere as the suave composer Gregory Anton has taken a shine to her and they have begun a relationship. Before too long, the couple are married and contemplating where to live. Gregory insists on going back to London and while Paula is obviously apprehensive of returning to the house where the horrific events unfolded, she agrees. Once back in the house is when strange happenings begin to happen, especially for Paula. Gregory informs her that she is forgetful and implies that she has been stealing things, of which Paula has no memory of. The new maid Nancy is impertinent and saucy around Gregory, while seemingly holding disdain for the mistress of the house. At night, the gaslights in her room dim mysteriously and she hears noises coming from the locked up attic. It is here that we learn that Gregory is the one orchestrating these events in order to drive Paula over the edge, while he searches for something that remains in secrecy. Little by little, Paula becomes withdrawn, paranoid and terrified of what she will become as her frail hold on events withers away and Gregory’s cruel plan begins to have results. But she may just have an ally in Brian Cameron, an Inspector for Scotland Yard begins to take an interest in Paula, as he smells a rat and isn’t convinced that Paula is going insane. It all boils down to whether or not he can help Paula or she can deduce the sinister plot afoot.
Meticulous craftsmanship is employed in every sense of the word by the great George Cukor, who wrings out the suspense in teasing suggestion as well as getting to the female heart of the story of manipulation. His hand is most definitely sure in his painterly brush strokes to suggest the menace that will engulf Paula slowly and cruelly after a deceptively sunny opening. Cukor’s biggest success is his hold on the tension and threatening shadows of the story, as Paula is slowly slipping into paranoia in accordance to the nefarious plans of Gregory, which he cloaks in significant mystery. All of it leads to a very satisfying conclusion that bubbles with menace and reversal of fortunes. There are a few little foibles in the film, like some dates stretches and leaky plot points, but in the long run, these skirmishes are of the minuscule variety that can be easily forgotten when considering the taut effectiveness of the overall movie. Gaslight is also a splendid evocation of Victorian London with rolling banks of fog and billowing candles is strikingly rendered, plus there are the expressive and well-designed sets to admire. This is the kind of movie where the visuals and story are largely of a stellar standard, in the tradition of MGM, who at the point of this film where churning out pictures of splendor and excellent, of which Gaslight qualifies easily. The cinematography is simply a marvel of spooky atmosphere, with certain shots bringing a flickering and shimmering malice and creepiness to the film in reference to the title. A supremely grand score begins with quiet and haunting notes of encroaching terror and then switches things up to heighten the spiraling descent of Paula.
The great Ingrid Bergman is the star attraction of Gaslight, contributing a thoroughly sensitive and strong portrayal of a woman being driven to near madness by her husband’s schemes. Bergman’s role is an emotional one that she plays wonderfully and that immediately gets you to sympathise with her. Bergman gets across a clarity, radiance and wrenching vulnerability that fit the part admirably, it really isn’t a surprise that she won an Oscar for her tortured and exquisite role here. It has to be one of her finest parts in an illustrious career of greatness. Charles Boyer is nastiness and insidious charm personified, emerging as an oily wolf in sheep’s clothing that is doing everything in his power to convince both his wife and everyone else that she is mad. There is something just very eerie about Boyer and his work here, which is perfectly employed within the character as the niceness of his personality slips into a more cruel being of malevolence and subterfuge. In what is probably what you’d call the hero role, Joseph Cotten makes for a very moral and good-hearted presence as the inspector who could be Paula’s saviour in all of this underhandedness. Angela Lansbury made her debut here at the age of 17 and boy does she have fun with the role of the sassy and rude maid, who sneers and flirts her way through the house with a glint of mystery in her eyes. May Whitty is on delightfully dotty form as the nosy next door neighbour who is always after a bit of scandal or gossip.
Some elements aren’t what they once where, but these are minor things that are papered over in the creeping mystery and excellence of Gaslight. An old-fashioned chiller, it’s a rewarding exercise in tension and ambience.