Saturday, September 26, 2020



Director: George Cukor
Screenplay: John Van Druten, Walter Reisch and John L. Balderston based on the play "Gas Light" by Patrick Hamilton

Among other classic movies, "Gaslight" was finally inducted into the National Film Registry last year. Seems fitting, that word's been omnipresent lately. It's 2020 in America, the word is used constantly in today's political climate. Hell, the band that I still can't get my tongue around to not calling them, the Dixie Chicks, released a song called "Gaslighters" earlier this year. It's, not my favorite of theirs but it's The-eh, Chickssss, so it's still pretty good. (That one gonna take some time getting used to.) 

Yet, "Gaslight" is one of those terms that, I feel like gets used a lot, and usually correctly strangely enough, but I don't usually hear too many people talking about, the piece of media that the slang came from. (Hell, come to think of it, when's the last time anybody's used a gaslight? At least in the West?) Which is kind of a shame, 'cause it's actually a pretty great classic noir-era domestic thriller. One of the first great, as Emanuel Levy calls them, "Don't Trust Your Husband" movies, or, at least, one of the first great ones that wasn't Hitchcock's. 

Although, it wasn't George Cukor's film either. Actually, this movie has one the strangest and surrealist behind-the-scenes origins I've ever heard about. For one, it's actually a remake. The original film "Gaslight" which was based on the hit Patrick Hamilton play "Gas Light", which is usually performed in America under different titles, most notably, "Angel Street", was originally a British film. The 1940 film, from director Therold Dickinson and starred Alton Wynbrook and Diana Wynyrd and it was a modest hit. MGM bought the remake rights, and it had a weird clause where all the original prints of the British film, were to be destroyed. 

WAIT, WHAT?!?!?!?!?!!!!!!!!!!

Yeah, they, in order to prevent any confusion or comparison, MGM tried to destroy all copies of the British print, including the negative. They were literally trying to gaslight us into thinking that their "Gaslight" was the only "Gaslight"!!!!

Yeah, it's kinda shocking just how new a concept like film preservation actually is. Could you imagine this happening today, all the "Spider-Man" movies we'd lose every time they tried to reboot it? (Well, I'd probably in favor of that, but still....) Anyway, it didn't work, we still have the British version if you want to watch it, as of this moment, it's available on Youtube, but we're doing the Cukor version, which was originally known in the UK as "The Murder in Thornton Square", (Jees, for a story who's name has become shorthand, it's known by a lot of different names)  'cause it's the one I know best and by most accounts, it's generally accepted that it's the best filmed version of the story.  

It's definitely the most iconic. Ingrid Bergman won her first of three Oscars for this performance and its still listed among her most important signature performances. The movie had seven total nominations and also won for Art Direction, not for Costumes interestingly enough, although I'm fairly positive it would've won if there was a category for it back then. I usually remember Irene's costumes first when thinking of this movie, and not just because they become integral to the plot at one point. (#Spoilers) The costumes were done mainly be Irene Maud, who usually just went by Irene. After starting out as an actress for Mack Sennett, she became one of the biggest costume and fashion designers of the time. She's kinda forgotten as we've basically written the history of Hollywood costume designing as beginning with Edith Head and everybody else for fifty years, but she was one of the biggest and most influential designers for much of the golden age of cinema, creating some of Doris Day, Lana Turner and Ginger Rogers most iconic looks, and Ingrid Bergman's outfits here. 

She also, jumped out a hotel room window one day and killed herself.., apparently had quite a few issues, um, so-eh, that might also be a reason she's kinda forgotten these days.... (Looking into this movie, leads to even disturbing revelations then the film itself at nearly every turn it seems, I swear)

Anyway, the term gaslight, basically means any kind of psychological abusive brainwashing in which one person, in this case the new husband Gregory Anton (Charles Boyer) into doubting the sanity of another, in this case, his wife Paula (Bergman). Anton is actually a thief who murder Paula's aunt, a famous opera singer years ago, but what he was really after, that he didn't get was some precious jewelry that's still hidden somewhere in her old home. When the two have a whirlwind marriage and move into her London apartment, Anton begins to make Paula think she's losing her mind. Hearing footsteps in the attic and seeing the gaslights dim inexplicably every night, not realizing that her husband's the one causing all the ghostly antics. He's also making her believe that she's a kleptomaniac by moving items and stealing things and putting them in her possession. All in an effort to find these mythic jewels. 

Honestly, whenever I think back on the movie, I can't believe this guy went through all this, just for a few expensive pieces of jewelry. Like, even if they are that expensive, as a MaGuffin, just find other jewels that are easier to steal. Or something else that's expensive? There's something diabolical about the logic, but the films works because it's not about the logic of the narrative, it's about how crazy he's driving his wife, who does indeed start to exhibit strange and irregular behavior. She starts acting crazy in front of crowds, she begins to become convinced that the young maid, Nancy (Oscar-nominee Angela Lansbury in her first film role) is somehow working against her. The idea is to literally drive her so mad that she'll be institutionalized, forcing him to have power of attorney over him, and he can just have the free reign to search for the jewels. It almost works until a Scotland Yard officer, Brian Cameron (Joseph Cotton) figures out something's off. Especially at that time though, that nightmarish Hell, of constantly having those around you telling you that you're crazy or hysterical, especially as a woman at that time..., this movie touches on a much more visceral nightmarish fear then I think people might realize now. Arguably, this film drifts more into horror then noir. 

"Gaslight" is one of those great early domestic thrillers, something that probably has more influence over its genre then people realize. I mean, essentially, this is like, the first "Lifetime Movie"; you know, the kind where the wife/girlfriend is afraid or scared of what her husband/boyfriend will do but nowadays I don't see too much talk about the film itself. It's become so synonymous that the term is apart of the lexicon, but the movie still holds up. It's one of George Cukor's best thrillers. I tend to frame Cukor's work mostly with his comedies or musicals but the guy could and did direct nearly every genre. His main objective of course, was to simply focus his narratives more on the women then the men, he was the more feminine director of his time, as opposed to Howard Hawks's more masculine director, at least in my mind. I talked a lot about that theory of mine Canon of FIlm post on "The Philadelphia Story" which definitely makes you understand why "Gaslight" would be a project he'd be able to sink his teeth into, and arguably he led Ingrid Bergman to her best acting performance. That alone makes this a must-watch. It's also just a great classic psychological thriller, one of the best and most influential ones out there. 

It's also one of the few old black & white movies my mother will voluntarily watch, so that's something, although I think a lot of that is just Charles Boyer. (Shrugs) I just thought I'd mention that, apparently he's somebody who has that way with some people, so-eh, yeah, no wonder even Ingrid found herself swindled by him.

No comments: