Saturday, April 5, 2014

Gaslight (1944)

Director: George Cukor                                    Writers: Walter Reisch & John L. Balderston
Film Score: Bronislau Kaper                             Cinematography: Joseph Ruttenberg
Starring: Ingrid Bergman, Charles Boyer, Joseph Cotton and Angela Lansbury

Yet another turn of the century gothic murder mystery. But this is a good one. It’s based on the 1938 play Gas Light by British playwright Patrick Hamilton. In the United States the title was changed to Angel Street in 1941 and featured Vincent Price and Judith Evelyn in the lead roles, with Leo G. Carroll as the police detective. In between, however, a British film version was produced under the title Gaslight and starring Anton Walbrook, Diana Wynyard and Frank Pettingell. The film, though unable to escape its low-budget pedigree, manages a good deal of suspense and many feel the characterization by Wynyard is superior to the U.S. version. When MGM bought the rights to the play, in typical American bully fashion, the studio demanded that the British version not only be pulled out of circulation but that all prints, including the negative, be destroyed. Fortunately for all of us, that didn’t happen. The U.S. version of Gaslight stars Ingrid Bergman, Charles Boyer and Joseph Cotton.

Ingrid Bergman plays a young woman living in London whose aunt has been murdered. The police can find no clues and so, to protect herself, she moves to Italy to study singing with her aunt’s teacher. There she meets a pianist, Charles Boyer, and falls in love. She would like to live in Paris, but he tells her his dream is to live in a little English house. The last thing Bergman wants to do is move back to the scene of the crime, but she trusts Boyer and wants to make him happy so they go. Their neighbor is the nosy Dame May Whitty but she hasn’t much to discover, as Boyer doesn’t want Bergman to leave the house. He’s also quite suspicious in other ways, ripping out of Bergman’s hand a letter written to the aunt and hiring the low class but beautiful Angela Lansbury as the house maid. Then one day, when he takes Bergman out in order to make her think she lost the brooch her gave her, Boyer sees Joseph Cotton who takes off his had and bows to her. Despite Boyer’s suspicions, though, it’s clear she doesn’t know who he is.

Once Boyer’s dark side is revealed the audience witnesses a systematic campaign by him to drive her mad, but with no understanding of what the motive is. Cotton, it turns out, had met the aunt years before and tipped his hat to Bergman because she looked so much like her. His interest now piqued, he begins to investigate the murder anew. Ingrid Bergman does a tremendous job as the woman in peril and, though the story is very different, brings to mind Charlotte Perkins Gillman’s “The Yellow Wall-Paper.” It is also similar, again in a very different way, to the overt torture she would undergo a year later in Hitchcock’s Notorious. Unlike the British version, Charles Boyer’s role is more subdued and, while less obvious that he is manipulating Bergman, it makes the film that much more suspenseful. Cotton, incongruous as the British (?) Scotland Yard man, is probably the least impressive, and one imagines a Brit like George Sanders doing a much better job.

The film also has an impressive supporting cast. Angela Lansbury is wonderful in her screen debut, a year before she would co-star in The Picture of Dorian Gray. In this film it’s difficult to know if she’s working for Boyer or not which, again, adds another element of suspense. The great Halliwell Hobbes has only a brief role at the beginning of the film as, one guesses, the family solicitor. And Dame May Whitty as the neighbor, in a very Hitchcockian fashion, is a devotee of murder mysteries and is titillated by the fact that she lives across the street from the house where an unsolved murder took place. The film earned seven Academy Award nominations and won Ingrid Bergman the first of her three best actress Oscars. The film also won for best art direction. Gaslight is not a very unique film, following on the coattails of similar films like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and The Lodger, but earned its reputation from the bravura performance by Ingrid Bergman and is well worth seeking out.

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