31 Days of Oscar: “Gaslight (1944)”

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The thing with classic thrillers is that time has usually done them no favors. What once might’ve been truly suspenseful and nerve-racking to some extent, probably can’t affect any type of audience member in that same way. Too many other films, some even infinitely better, have come and gone and done so much more for the genre, that classic films can only really be just that. A classic film from a long time ago, that even if it’s not as effective, should still be given at least one goes around.

The Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer film “Gaslight”, based on the play “Gas Light” by Patrick Hamilton, may not be all that suspenseful or mysterious, at least not for me as I’ve seen it enough times, but it still manages to pull out feelings one wouldn’t think possible. I certainly wasn’t prepared for all that I felt, but because of this, I find that I enjoyed this film even more. I’ve never not liked this film, but I honestly I think my increased love of this film comes from what I’m doing right now. I can’t look at films the same way, even if they’re just fluffy summer popcorn films. It also helps too, that Turner Classic Movies (TCM) was the network showing this film once more, and that I managed to make time to see it once again. I’ve yet to tire from it in any way, which must mean this film, even after this many viewings and decades, can still achieve something special.

Mind Games

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Manipulation only works if you know the person who’ll be on the receiving end of said malicious practice. Knowing everything about them allows for the manipulator to have greater control over all variables, and work their mark until the desired endgame is achieved. That’s certainly what it seems after watching this film, and even if I’m not completely certain, it makes sense on several levels.

This film takes manipulation and lies to a level I don’t think I’ve seen, enjoyed and hated, since Emily Thorne and Victoria Grayson. While it shouldn’t be surprising that all of this is orchestrated by one man, for his own gain, it somehow still came across as such. With my having seen this film about three or four other times, one would think I’d know exactly how cruel Charles Boyer’s character gets. I forgot, which is not only a recurring theme with some of my 31 Days of Oscar films, but also is helpful because I can go in and view this film like it’s the first time.

What got me most, wasn’t the way I responded emotionally, which was pretty surprising all on its own, but how vile the overall scheme was. This long term deception was persistent and, of course, intentional, but the thing is, this film really goes out of its way to demonstrate how. It’s not enough to just showcase Ingrid Bergman’s Paula being tormented and slowly driven insane, or at the least believing she really is, but the examples used become more and more sinister. It’s not enough that every little thing that Bergman does or thinks is automatically in question, but now an element of danger starts to creep in a bit. Is she a danger to herself and potentially others? Boyer doesn’t let her go anywhere or see anyone, but is it really just because he doesn’t want anyone asking questions, even though all he’s doing is giving people reason to ask questions? I know the answer to this question and several others, but even knowing them, I feel like somehow I’m missing something. Amazingly, the writers managed to create mystery around this character beyond the obvious, and because of this, there may be different interpretations to what goes on in this film.

There are two moments in this film that really surprised me. The first involves a small picture that’s not in the place it should be. Where did it go? Who moved it? Because Bergman is pretty susceptible to suggestion at this point, it doesn’t take long for Boyer to not only blame Bergman, but fully convince her that she’s responsible. After some cruel back and forth, and a reveal that Boyer’s quite cold to his wife when he should be trying to comfort her, the film moves on, to the next moment that surprised me. This one involves Bergman going out to an event on her own. Or, it would be a solo event, but Boyer, after devious and careful thinking, tags along as he knows it’s too risky. Why did he have to have a moment of clarity? At this event, not only is it the biggest event Bergman’s been to, where so many people can witness her, but it’s where she has an episode. It doesn’t go well at all, but what’s most important, is the thing that sets the episode in motion is something that logic should’ve told Bergman wasn’t possibly her fault. Boyer’s pocket watch is missing, but he’s the one who dressed himself. Now, perhaps this is intentional on the part of the writers, but I can’t be too sure. We never see Bergman trying to really think through what’s going on. Granted, this could be where the writers are having fun with us. They’ve created a character that’s so fragile, that there’s really no need to think about what’s happening. It’s all in her mind and thus can’t be trusted. Or, and I don’t think in this case I’m nitpicking, they just overlooked logic. The ending of the film really makes this point clear.

Now, the reason I mentioned these two events, wasn’t to spoil anything, but to draw attention to why this film still works. It all comes down to creativity. Creativity from the writers and creativity from Boyer’s character, which, yes, is courtesy of the writers, but I’m sure you get my point. The two moments really showcase the increased level of deceit, the lengths that Boyer went to. Sure, after the public event he’s outraged, but it’s an act. One he carries quite well. Everything just escalates and the writers knew the best way to showcase this, and through that, could get under your skin. This is where the emotional aspects I mentioned come into play. While watching each moment get progressively worse, I’d become more and more pissed off. How could I not? These two really did it for me, and somehow opened up the possibility that Bergman would not escape Boyer’s desired outcome. I find the fact that I can be this moved to be nothing short of brilliant. The writing worked out for the best and gave me so much to find fascinating. As much as you’ll probably hate what’s being done to Bergman, you’ll likely find it impossible to look away and you’ll even somewhat enjoy the torment.

Give And Take

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Paula only wants to love her husband and be loved, but all he wants, is to take what doesn’t belong to him. Sadly, obviously, she doesn’t know this and you must endure the torment she goes through, which only makes her more sympathetic as the film goes on.

With this film, not only is it about the specific instances of psychological manipulation, but the performances needed to be there. When you go in you might not know how this film relies on the performances, but it becomes clear rather quickly. On that, both Bergman and Boyer deliver! He’s this cunning and evil person pretending, rather badly, to be a good person. Even when he says her name, “Paula”, it just comes off as creepy. His face even manages to always convey some level of evil. It’s a little unsettling, but also brilliant. The reason he can pull this off, he seems attentive and looks like he cares about his wife. Well, except for the instances when he plainly doesn’t or when he loses his temper and only comes off as a controlling asshole. While he is definitely this, it’s all Bergman’s character’s fault. She’s that naïve. It’s why she’s so easily controlled and manipulated. It’s a variable he knows about and exploits so well.

But while Bergman’s a bit naïve and only seems to have one thing on her mind, it’s not easy to fault her. Not fully. She wants to be a good wife, that’s clear. But, that’s part of the problem, not just for her in the story, but also about figuring out who Bergman’s playing. It’s rightly easy to sympathize with her, and seeing her transform from this lively person to this terrified individual, is sad. Deeply sad. From an emotional standpoint, all I could do was feel for her. I wanted to walk in and give her a hug and comfort her. The only problem, I now realize, I’d probably be just another person kept away from her and forming my own questions about what’s going on with her and her husband. Setting this aside, and bringing back the logic issue I discovered while watching this, I can’ t fully figure out if this is all happening to her so easily because of her naiveté, or because of the time she lives in. At this time, the woman’s role was drastically different. While there are a few examples of Bergman’s character taking on this posture, I can’t be too certain if that’s in fact why she never fully questions anything. She just accepts it. Yes, it’s because Boyer’s got so much control over her, but at first, that’s not really how things play out. At least, that’s not how I see it. So, while Bergman delivers with a strong performance, and really goes through a full and satisfying character arc, I find that there’s some room for interpretation. It’s different than the interpretation other films leave open to the audience, but it’s no less crucial as it dictates how you view her overall.

Originally released: May 4, 1944

Director: George Cukor

Writters: John Van Druten, Walter Reisch and John L. Balderston

Starring: Charles Boyer, Ingrid Bergman, Joseph Cotton, Dame May Whitty, Angela Landsbury and Barbara Everest

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