Welcome to the latest edition of Silver Screams! Every month, I’ll guide you through a look at a classic old Hollywood horror film or hidden gem. We’ll explore its history and juicy behind-the-scenes secrets, as well as its legacy and influence on modern horror. As we examine the theme of liars, deceivers, traitors, and tricksters throughout the month of April, it seemed a perfect time to dive into a film that tackles manipulation like no other, Gaslight (1944).
The cultural impact of Gaslight cannot be understated. Even if you’ve never heard of the film, you’ve definitely heard of the concept of “gaslighting.” It’s a form of psychological abuse in which the victim is manipulated into doubting their sanity and perception of reality. It’s disturbingly common in emotionally abusive situations, but we wouldn’t have the term if it weren’t for the film. Gaslight not only popularized the term but it also clearly depicted what gaslighting looks like and remains a blueprint example to this day.
The influence of Gaslight has unfortunately lessened the impact of some of the film’s mystery. But despite the diminished intrigue, it remains a deliciously spooky, engaging and effective chiller. It’s a film that still works wonderfully when the audience is well versed in its concept.
Murder and Deception
Gaslight is based on Patrick Hamilton’s 1938 play, which was subsequently adapted into a 1940 British film. It follows Paula (Ingrid Bergman), a young opera singer living abroad in Italy. When Paula was a child, she lived in London in the care of her aunt — the famous opera star Alice Alquist. One night, Paula awoke to discover her aunt had been murdered. Now an adult, Paula has found solace from her trauma in the arms of Gregory Anton (Charles Boyer). She marries him after only two weeks, and on his insistence, reluctantly moves back to London. They move into the same house where Alice was murdered. Paula does her best to bring life and joy into the home, but forces beyond her control have other plans.
Gaslight is an atmospherically unique film, far more akin to film noir than other period thrillers. The Victorian set story stands apart from its gothic peers with its urban locale. Crumbling manors on misty moors are undeniably spooky settings, but Gaslight makes it clear that a London townhouse surrounded by foggy, cobblestone streets can be just as frightening. In fact, there is something uniquely isolating in the terror of Gaslight. The film perfectly captures the feeling that unknown, private horrors could be hiding behind every dimly lit window of urban life.
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“The film perfectly captures the feeling that unknown, private horrors could be hiding behind every dimly lit window of urban life.”
As Paula’s new husband grows colder and more distant, she begins to experience strange phenomena. She habitually loses her belongings and finds items in her possession that she has no memory of acquiring. And at night, she hears mysterious noises from the closed-off upper floors and witnesses the gaslights dim — something neither her husband nor their servants will acknowledge. Soon, Paula begins to doubt her own sanity.
Gaslight makes it clear from the get-go that Gregory is not to be trusted. His shift from loving to cold and cruel is subtle, but undeniable as soon as he and Paula return to London. The story remains mostly from Paula’s point of view, with a few shifts to an industrious Scotland Yard detective (Joseph Cotten). Our attachment to Paula pushes us to believe her sanity over her husband’s manipulation. What we don’t know is why Gregory is intent on driving his wife mad, and that mystery is enough to keep even a modern audience engaged.
A Director’s Touch
Gaslight was directed by George Cukor, who was known as an “actor’s director” and a “women’s director.” His string of hits usually centered on female characters, showcasing the chops of some of the strongest actresses of the 30s and 40s. His genre focus was drama and comedy, so it would seem an odd choice that he would delve into the territory of noirish thrillers here. Yet Cukor’s directorial touch suits the film perfectly. He has a knack for haunting atmosphere that makes one wish he had ventured more into horror during his career. His focus on actors means that the characters in Gaslight shine in a way that is unexpectedly fresh and immediate.
Ingrid Bergman is especially effective as Paula. Bergman was a powerful actress who radiated strength and conviction in every role. So it would seem an odd fit for her to play a heroine who slips further and further into nervousness and paranoia. In fact, Bergman didn’t think the role suited her at all, but Cukor knew the unexpected casting would make for a better film. “To reduce someone like that to a scared, jittering creature is interesting and dramatic,” he later recalled, “It would have been dangerous to cast the kind of actress you’d expect to go mad, the kind you know from the first moment you’re in for a big mad scene.” Luckily, Bergman eventually agreed to take on the part, and her inner fire makes her slow breakdown all the more disturbing. She won a well deserved Oscar for the role — the first of her career.
The entire cast is excellent, but Angela Lansbury is particularly memorable as the Antons’ housemaid. Lansbury was only seventeen and had never acted before, but she steals every scene she’s in. She exudes confidence, attitude, and unexpected menace. It’s a testament to Lansbury’s incredible range. Her performance was so impressive, it earned her a Best Supporting Actress nomination for a relatively small part. Charles Boyer embodies a truly loathsome villain. The role was a departure for the French star, who had previously only been cast as a romantic lead. Boyer was interested in moving on to more diverse and challenging roles however, and he saw Gaslight as the path to a new stage in his career.
The incredible actors of Gaslight work in perfect tandem with the ghostly atmosphere, noirish cinematography, and impeccable set design to create a masterwork of suspense. The big budget of a full-scale MGM production can be seen everywhere on the screen, giving the claustrophobic townhouse an authentic feel and enriching it with incredible detail. It makes the setting all the more tangible — and more terrifying as it closes in around Paula. Much of this can be credited to set dresser Paul Huldschinsky, who was handpicked from obscurity for the task by Cukor himself. Huldschinsky stepped up with impressive attention to detail that gave Gaslight its oppressive, frightening mood.
Gaslight has sadly been relegated to the status of a “concept originator” and nothing more. Increased awareness of gaslighting and psychological abuse is incredibly important, and if the film itself is lost in the conversation, it’s understandable. But Gaslight is a worthwhile story and effective thriller that deserves to be seen. Some fans prefer the lesser known 1940 version. And while it has its strengths, Cukor’s take is rich in unmatched atmosphere and stellar performances. It’s frightening, tragic, and ultimately satisfying. It’s a genre bender, falling somewhere between urban gothic horror and period noir. Ultimately, it’s a tightly constructed psychological thriller in every way. Give it a watch, and enjoy a mystery that works just as well today as it did in 1944. Until next month, classy fiends, enjoy those Silver Screams!
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