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Gaslight

Gregory questions Paula's behaviour

Gaslight

Richard Lippe   |   May 2020

In a recent Sunday edition of The New York Times,1 J. Hoberman wrote a short review of a newly released Blu-ray version of Gaslight that features both George Cukor’s 1944 film and Thorwold Dickinson’s 1940 version.  The piece is titled Gaslight Hasn’t Lost Its Glow.”  Upon reading the piece, the title of the review becomes somewhat curious.  While acknowledging that Ingrid Bergman is ‘a great actress’, Hoberman goes on to dismiss the Cukor film as a vehicle for her talents.  In contrast, he asserts that “…the Dickinson film is superior to the Hollywood version in nearly every way: more ecomonical (running half an hour shorter), more brutal (opening with the murder of an elderly woman and the killer ransacking her flat), and a lot nastier.”  His high regard for Dickinson’s film is based on slight grounds.  The implication seems to be that the director is treating the material as a hardy piece of working class British entertainment.  For Hoberman, MGM gave Gaslight pretensions.

The following is an attempt to reclaim Cukor’s film and its many merits.

Gaslight is a product of the1940s Hollywood cinema and its fascination with Freudian psychoanalysis, film noir and the Gothic melodrama. It belongs to a body of work that includes Suspicion, Undercurrent, The Secret Behind the Door and Sleep, My Love.  My discussion of the film is primarily centred on it stylistics although I will address how it relates to Cukor’s oeuvre. Gaslight, a project that wouldn’t seem to appeal to the director given its almost relentless persecution of its heroine, isn’t in fact unique to his career. His concentration on heterosexual relations in which the male protagonist is revealed to be either highly neurotic and/or psychotic begins with A Woman’s Face and includes A Double Life and Edward, My Son. These brooding films are, to a greater or lesser degree, expressionistic melodramas.  Rather than dealing with physical violence, the films concentrate on pyschological abuse.

Based on Patrick Hamilton’s highly successful play Angel Street, Gaslight has a superb script by John Van Druten, Walter Reisch and John L. Balderston. In addition to making  explicit the psychoanalytic aspects of the material, the script features an extended prologue that provides a graceful entry into the narrative proper. The prologue begins with Paula Alquist/Ingrid Bergman, as an adolescent, being taken away from a  house in London’s Thornton Square in which her opera singer aunt, Alice Alquist has just been murdered. She is next seen as a young adult living in Italy, studying opera with the intention of following in her aunt’s footsteps.  In this sequence, the viewer is introduced to pianist Gregory Anton/Charles Boyer, who, working as an accompanist, has been secretly courting Paula and proposes marriage. In the prologue’s final sequence, Paula and Gregory, on their honeymoon, are seen in an intimate setting in which Gregory tells Paula that he has always had a dream of living in a grand house in London. Paula, despite her misgivings, grants Gregory his wish, telling him she now feels capable of coping with her past because of his presence and support.

The honeymoon site is on a languid Italian lake and they are shown inhabiting a suite that gives them access to a portico. The scene begins with a deep focus shot in which Gregory steps out onto the portico while Paula, in the background, is seen in bed. It is clearly evident that the actors are on a studio set. The set itself appears to be highly artificial, an almost seemingly airless space and, while the characters are enacting a supposedly romantic moment in which they express their commitment to each other, the overall look and feel of the scene suggests the decadence of a Henry Fuseli painting. As in their earlier scenes together, Paula is radiant and particularly so in the initial shot as she emerges from their bedroom. In contrast, Gregory no longer appears tense and suspicious as he did in their pre-marital scenes; instead, he projects confidence and gives the impression of spontaneity although, in actuality, his demeanour conveys caution and calculation. In addition to indicating the centrality of Bergman’s character in the prologue, it establishes her youthful innocence, vulnerability and desire to escape the horrors of the past through leading a ‘normal’ life which to her means romance, marriage and security. Through the brief  reference to the house in Thornton Square, an intimation of Gregory’s actual nature and oppositions such as night/day and health/sickness, the prologue concisely creates an unsettling mood.  The tensions in the prologue are achieved through a subtle combining of the Hollywood realist cinema, artifice, and expressionism.

Aside from the extended prologue, another addition to Cukor’s Gaslight is the sequence  in which Paula and Gregory visit the Tower of London which enriches the narrative and elaborates on the film’s thematic. Before leaving the house, Gregory presents Paula with a brooch he claims was his mother’s; when Paula discovers that the clasp is broken, Gregory takes the brooch and places it in her handbag, instructing her not to forget about it when they return home. Later Paula finds the brooch is missing. These scenes dealing with the brooch suggest more than Paula merely being irresponsible; she, in fact, has no idea how she lost it.  Furthermore, in addition to providing for the introduction of Brian Cameron/Joseph Cotten, who, on seeing Paula, is visibly struck by her resemblance to Alice Alquist, the sequence has Gregory inadvertently reveal his obsession with precious jewels. As he stands transfixed in front of a display case featuring the Crown jewels, Paula, at that very moment, realizes the brooch is no longer in her handbag.

Cukor gradually builds the emotional and psychological dynamic of the relationship.  A sequence I want to analyze in greater detail occurs forty-three minutes into the film and its running time is approximately fifteen minutes.  It concerns Gregory’s discovering that a small painting has been taken down from the parlour wall and Paula’s eventual admission, after an initial protest, that she is responsible for the painting’s removal as Gregory adamantly claims. The sequence reinforces the notion that Paula’s memory is failing and, more crucially, that she is becoming mentally unstable.  It is, in fact, exemplary of découpage filmmaking as montage, mise-en-scène, performance and narrative exposition are seamlessly integrated to produce a tour-de-force sequence.

To begin, the spatial movement within the sequence is in itself carefully structured.  It opens with a shot of the street in front of the Alquist house and features a man and a woman with an organ grinder; as they pass the house, the camera cranes up to the second story window where Paula is seen peering out from behind a lace curtain.  In the next shot Paula moves from the window to the fireplace where she stokes the coals as Gregory, nearby, seemingly is asleep in a chair. Paula’s attempt to tend the fire prompts Gregory to react; he tells her that she should ring for a servant. As the sequence continues, the action moves to various points within the parlour culminating in Gregory’s command that Paula, who is now positioned within a corner of the room, go and retrieve the missing painting. In response, she obediently goes directly from the parlour to the landing and ascends the stairs. After another confrontation between the two regarding her behaviour and health, Gregory leads her up the stairs to the third floor landing and confines Paula to her bedroom. In the course of these events, the action has moved from the sunlit street to the shadowy third story stair landing and Paula’s bedroom, which is directly below the attic space Gregory occupies at night as he searches for the missing jewels.

Preceding the above-mentioned sequence, Paula and Gregory are seen in medium to close shots. The tension found in these framings is heightened when the maid, Nancy/Angela Lansbury, enters their space. Nancy is introduced in a slightly low-angled medium close shot and the low angle frame is used in other shots featuring her, Gregory and Paula. In these deep focus three-shot images, Paula is in the foreground and separated from Gregory and Nancy who engage in dialogue which pointedly suggests familiarity and functions to make Paula feel both uncomfortable and excluded.  The unease these scenes produce is alleviated with Nancy’s departure and a shifting of the action into an area that is both more spacious and better lit.  Gregory, while playing the piano, announces casually that he is taking Paula to the theatre that evening. Her ecstatic response leads to long shots in which she dances and sings with abandon as Gregory continues to play the piano.  Paula’s reaction to the liberation from the house that Gregory has offered is stopped abruptly when he notices the missing painting. Under Gregory’s interrogation, Paula is progressively backed closer to a wall as she is being forced to acknowledge a now empty space where the painting had hung. Cukor dramatically constricts space through the use of extreme close ups of Gregory’s and Paula’s faces; he alternates shots of Gregory questioning her with images of a desperate Paula attempting to defend herself. These unsettling close ups are followed by the scenes in which Gregory calls in the servants, forcing them to swear on a Bible that they didn’t remove the painting. Gregory indulges his cruelty in his treatment of Paula and it is made clear, through Boyer’s performance, that he finds humiliating her a pleasurable experience.

While the film doesn’t solicit viewer identification with Bergman’s Paula through an emphasis on subjective shots, it enhances the sequence’s intense emotional experience by having Bergman and Boyer exploit the theatricality inherent in the material. Yet Cukor exercises control over the actors so that their performances and the material itself doesn’t become merely melodramatic as occurs in the earlier film version

Nancy questions Paula's leaving the house

As characters, neither Paula nor Gregory can be taken as ‘ordinary’ people – Paula because of the traumatic events involving her and her aunt’s death and Gregory because he is a psychopath. Nevertheless, both characters, and particularly in their identity as a heterosexual couple, function to define gender roles under patriarchy. In contrast, in Dickinson’s Gaslight, Walbrook plays Gregory as mentally unhinged from his first on screen appearance.  In contrast, in Cukor’s version, Boyer’s interpretation is much more restrained, making it possible to read Gregory’s behaviour, at least in many scenes, as ‘typical’ of a Victorian patriarch. This is the case in the above-discussed sequence. Gregory has established himself in the house as the person who controls its women. Paula is treated as a child-woman, in need of paternal guidance and direction. Nancy, in contrast, is treated as a young woman who arouses his sexual interest or so he conveys when dealing with her, and Elizabeth, an older woman, has her domestic duties to perform. Given these divisions, Paula and Nancy are cast as rivals: Paula is made to feel as if she lacks the allure and sexuality that Nancy possesses. Gregory exploits this situation as a sex-class issue, suggesting that Paula is too much a ‘lady’ and lacks Nancy’s sexual playfulness.  Whereas Gregory is the master of the house, Paula adopts the role of the submissive wife, feeling compelled to honor and reinforce her husband’s image as the dominant figure. The presentation of Gregory and Paula as socially gendered subjects within a marriage conveys both the ‘natural’ and the monstrous.

In George Cukor,2 James Bernardoni says, “…in Gaslight (1944), a woman is driven to the brink of insanity as much by her own masochistic attachment to her husband as by the latter’s deliberate attempts to drive her insane to serve his own nefarious ends.”  Arguably, the film doesn’t support this notion of a ‘masochistic attachment’ on Paula’s part, an idea that seems completely at odds with the director’s films and heterosexual relations.  She is a victim, not a co-participant in performance rituals of domination and submission.  Initially, Paula treats her relationship with Gregory as a romantic adventure. She keeps the relationship with him a secret from Maestro Guardi, a father figure, until they are about to marry.  As noted, the next role Paula takes on is that of an obedient wife. Yet Paula’s gender role-playing is countered in various ways. For example, when first seen together, it is clear that Paula is the more active partner; she displays an energy and vitality that Gregory lacks.  In the ‘missing painting’ sequence, Paula is highly physical, passionately kissing Gregory when he tells her that they are going out for the evening. That Gregory lacks interest in a sexual relationship with her is suggested in the shot of Paula, alone, lying on her bed listening to the noises she hears coming from above. As Paula lies there in fear and doubting her sanity, Gregory pursues the elusive jewels which, on a symbolic level, are the object of his desire and the means to claim his potency.  In Gaslight‘s climactic sequence, the denouncement in which Paula forcefully vents her pent up anger at Gregory for his betrayal and abuse is particularly cathartic. She reclaims her identity as a person and liberates herself from his unremitting cruelty.

The third sequence I want to analyze in part occurs after Gregory and Paula’s outing to Lady Dalroy’s party. It begins with Paula, in her bedroom with Elizabeth, noticing that the gaslight is going down and hearing noises coming from the space above the ceiling. The sequence is more subjective than the previously discussed sequences and, correspondingly, it is more expressionistic in lighting and mise-en-scène.  Aside from Bergman’s extraordinary performance, its mise-en-scènce points to the extent to which the house itself functions as a character within the film as Gregory usurps it for his own ends.  The sequence is bracketed with scenes featuring Cameron who has become increasingly certain that Gregory is Sergius Bauer, the man who was involved with Alice Alquist at the time of her death. The sequence, consisting of twelve shots, begins with a dissolve from a medium close up of Cameron who is outside the house, trying to figure out where Gregory disappears to on his nightly outings, and ends with a fade out.

The shot breakdown is as follows:

  1. Paula’s bedroom: close, low-angled framing of a chandelier; the camera tracks left to reveal Paula’s shadow projected onto the wall/ceiling and a second chandelier which has one gas jet lit; the camera cranes back and down to show Paula intently looking at the lit chandelier/ceiling area.
  2. close up of the second chandelier as the gas flame begins to flicker and dim.
  3. close up of Paula’s face; she backs toward a wall as the camera tracks towards her.
  4. Paula, in three quarter length, standing against a wall/corner area; she begins to scream and runs to the right as the camera reframes her; Paula opens the bedroom door and runs onto the landing; the camera is now stationary; Paula, in deep focus, is seen leaning over the banister railing screaming Elizabeth’s name.

In the first four shots, music and muffled noises accompany the images; the music/noise stops as Paula flings open the bedroom door.

  1. extreme close up of Paula’s face in semi-profile; high contrast lighting; Paula continues to repeatedly scream out Elizabeth’s name.
  2. high angled camera positioned slightly above Paula; she looks down the stairwell; Elizabeth, in deep focus, is seen climbing the stairs.
  3. mid-distance low-angled framing of Paula on landing; the ceiling is visible; Elizabeth enters the frame from the left.
  4. low angle, close two shot of Paula and Elizabeth; the ceiling is visible; the camera turns left slightly as Paula leads Elizabeth towards the bedroom door.
  5. Paula’s bedroom: mid-distance, eye level two-shot; camera reframes Elizabeth as she moves to the left and then into the back plane of the image; Paula follows her .
  6. mid-distance, eye level two shot; Paula moves left as camera reframes and then tracks back as  both Paula and Elizabeth move from one area of the room to another.
  7. low angle, close up two-shot; as Paula begins to step out of her dress, the camera cranes down and back slightly, the room’s ceiling is visible; camera moves to the right as Elizabeth and Paula walk to the armoire; the chandelier and the lit jet are visible.
  8. close up two shot; Paula is on the left of frame with lit gas jet visible, with the armoire seen in the background – Elizabeth is in shadowed area; as the two women recede into the frame, the camera cranes back and down; the music and noises reappear. Fade out.

As the above twelve shot description indicates, this sequence is highly cinematic, boldly integrating sound and image. The most remarkable moment in the sequence is Paula’s scream for Elizabeth’s help.  Paula begins the scream and simultaneously rushes to the bedroom door as the camera frames her movement, but instead of cutting as Paula leaves the room, Cukor continues the shot with a stationary camera recording Paula, letting the full force of her scream take place in a long distance shot.  He then cuts to an extreme close up of Paula which employs high contrast lighting and positions Bergman’s face in the frame on an oblique angle which produces a strong visual tension. In this tight shot, Paula’s repeated screams of Elizabeth’s name become extremely intimate and painful, intensifying the force of Paula’s desperation. Those two shots display Cukor’s sensitivity to the character, Bergman’s performance and illustrate his ability to fully utilize sound and image to dramatic effect.

The sequence begins with a low angle shot of a chandelier on the bedroom ceiling and the concluding low angle shot prominently includes the image of a chandelier bearing down on Paula as she is being led to the background space of the frame; in the final two shot, the camera is positioned initially close to the actors at a low angle but as the shot concludes, the camera is pulled back and down to be followed by a fade out.  In turn, the low angle shots are counterpointed by the vertiginous high angle shot as Paula looks down the stairwell. These perspective changes contribute to the viewer’s sense of disturbance and disorientation. In six of the twelve shots, the ceiling either dominates or is partially seen in the frame. These images tend to reinforce the oppression Paula is experiencing and enhance the sinister nature of the bedroom.

The sequence is overwhelmingly defined by Paula’s almost palpable sense of terror caused by inexplicable experiences she is being subjected to within her bedroom and a fear that she is, as Gregory has claimed, losing her mind. Additionally, the sequence is exemplary in its ability to make the viewer identity with Paula (we, like Paula, hear the noises coming from above the bedroom ceiling) and simultaneously position the viewer as an observer who is privy to watching Paula experience her most intimate fears.

In discussing Gaslight, I have placed an emphasis on stylistics and its importance in illustrating the thematic of the material. As Cukor consistently maintains in interviews, he felt that the style of a film was to an extent dictated by the material itself which is centred on Paula’s persecution.  Consequently, the film’s visuals are geared to (re) produce those pressures, but sparingly through the use of subjective shots.  Rather, there is a more rigorous use of editing and a more violent punctuation of the narrative through extreme juxtapositions. For instance, in the scene in which Gregory and Paula return home from the Tower of London and he asks Paula to give back the brooch, the set up and cutting is as visually radical as that found in Hitchcock’s work.  The confrontation between Gregory and Paula over the now missing brooch is introduced by the cutting from a long shot to a close up: as the two are about to enter the house, there is a cut to Nancy, standing on the second floor, hearing the door open and looking down the stairwell – Nancy’s look results in a disturbing high angle shot; the next shot is a close up of Paula, now in the house, groping through her bag searching for the brooch.  The two shots are jarring not only in regard to the extremes in distances but also in the switch in orientation from Nancy and her position in control to that of Paula and her panic.

As in numerous Cukor films, Gaslight features a heterosexual couple in which gender signifiers are complex. The film, as Robin Wood points out in discussing Bergman’s popular star image as embodying health and vitality, pairs her with Boyer, who possesses characteristics such as beauty and sensuality which are associated with the feminine.3 While Boyer and Bergman enact respectively traditional gender roles within the narrative, the film, because of the casting, produces tensions in their relationship because of the disjunction between actor(s) and role. Although it is Paula who is supposedly the hysteric, a trait aligned commonly to women, it is, in fact, Gregory who appears the more hysterical, as in his excessive outburst when Paula’s claims that she would welcome a visit from Miss Thwaites/Dame May Whitty.

In addition to Ingrid Bergman winning an AcademyAward for her performance, Charles Boyer was also nominated for an Oscar.  Throughout the film, his portrayal of Gregory Aton is carefully measured in the use of his physical presence and behaviour.  The performance is essentially interiorized, projecting cunning and rigidity.  It is only in the final moments of the film, when Gregory is about to be taken away, that Boyer’s face relaxes and he looks humanized.  His performance is as crucial to the film’s effectiveness as that of Bergman’s.

Gaslight illustrates the subversive potential of the 1940’s melodrama in its lucid presentation of gender relations. Unlike the Dickinson’s version in which the Anton Walbrook’s character and his madness is at the film’s centre, Cukor aligns himself with Paula, her torment and victory over male oppression.  The film produces both a rigorous working through of the ideological conflicts existing between men and women under patriarchy and provides a resolution to the material that unconditionally celebrates a woman’s liberation.

J. Hoberman, ‘Gaslight’ Hasn’t Lost Its Glow’ The New York Times, (Sunday, August 25, 2019), 9.

 

James Bernardoni, George Cukor:A Critical Study and Filmography (McFarland & Company, Inc., Jefferson, North Carolina, and London, 1985) 45.

 

Robin Wood, Hitchcock’s Films Revisited (New York: Columbia University Press, 1989) 307.

Richard Lippe

Editor

Richard Lippe teaches at York University and wrote the Preface to Robin Wood on the Horror Film: Collected Essays and Reviews, Wayne State Press 2018.

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