directed by George Cukor
(MGM, 1944)

The next time you think you're going crazy, gather your wits about you, head out, and pick up a copy of the classic Gaslight. This George Cukor masterpiece, which won an Academy Award for Ingrid Bergman, is a beautifully lit, brilliantly paced piece of black-and-white cinema that features landmark performances by several of its stars.

Cukor, four years before, had collaborated with Katharine Hepburn in her Academy Award-nominated role in The Philadelphia Story (Jimmy Stewart would win for his performance in the same movie). His reputation as "a woman's director" firmly in place (though men didn't do so badly under his direction, either), Cukor and Bergman's work in Gaslight is something no film buff should miss.

She was coming off 1942's Casablanca and 1943's For Whom the Bell Tolls, a powerhouse on the screen and a face made for the lighting and cameras of movies. But nowhere would she appear more vulnerable, more emotional, than as Gaslight's Paula Alquist.

Paula, charmed though her life seems when we meet her, has seen great tragedy: As a girl, Paula found her Aunt Alice murdered, fled the London townhome they shared and never returned. Studying music in Italy, she falls in love with her accompanist, Gregory Anton (Charles Boyer), marries him and returns to the London home she's feared for years.

She thinks her love for Gregory will charm away the darkness -- but very soon she becomes forgetful. She doesn't remember where she's put things. Household items disappear. And, when Gregory goes out at night, the gaslights in Paula's room flicker and dim. Her sense of her own sanity begins to waver with the flickering gaslights.

Follow the plot, based on a play by Patrick Hamilton and adapted by John Van Druten, on your own. But even though Gaslight can stand up to repeated viewings on the strength of Bergman's performance alone, she's surrounded by a cast that, whether malevolent or kind, matches her brilliance.

Boyer, of course, is known for his Gregory Anton, a husband who may have more of a past -- and a darker past -- than his wife suspects. The great Joseph Cotten gets to play the good, charming guy for once, instead of the villain.

But Angela Lansbury manages to, in several scenes, crush both of those men -- and it was only her debut. If you know her only from TV's Murder, She Wrote, Lansbury's maid, Nancy, will be a revelation. She's brazen and tarty, and a complete natural in her first screen role. And her talent was quickly noticed -- she'd follow with National Velvet and a great Sybil Vane in The Picture of Dorian Gray, a role she'd actually won before Gaslight filmed.

Not to be missed, though, is an inanimate member of the cast -- the fantastic lighting. The movie begins in the sunshine and quickly deteriorates into shadow -- there's virtually no real daytime at all in the second half of the movie. Add the threatening darkness, and it's no wonder Paula feels she's slowly going insane.

[ by Jen Kopf ]
Rambles: 4 August 2001

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