Top Fifty Films of the 40s — Number Nineteen

19 gaslight

#19 — Gaslight (George Cukor, 1944)

To describe something as a “revelation” is entirely overused in criticism. I get that. I try to avoid the term (though I’ll admit that a quick search of the content of this very page attests that it shows up plenty). There are instances, though, in which it is the most fitting descriptor for my reaction. For me, Ingrid Bergman’s performance in Gaslight is revelatory. Before viewing it, I had plenty of respect for Bergman’s abilities as an actress, though I likely wouldn’t have held her up as someone who demonstrated the remarkable level of range a performer could achieve, hardly a damning complaint in an era that found star power regularly trumping chameleon-like transformations of self. If Bergman’s approach to her roles could sometimes feel a little staid, there was also a surplus of grounded elegance that made everything she did distinctive. Gaslight shatters that assessment, in large part because of how snugly Bergman’s part initially seems to fit right into her usual pocket.

Based on a 1938 play written by Patrick Hamilton, Gaslight casts Bergman as an aspiring opera singer named Paula, who abandons her plans for the stage in order to become a wife in Edwardian England. The man she marries, Gregory Anton (Charles Boyer), convinces her that they should move into the vacant home of Paula’s late aunt, another opera singer who was murdered during Paula’s youth. Already unsettled by a return to the residence scarred by tragedy, Paula’s anxiety grows as strange things begin happening in the house, such as a disappearing picture and gaslights that change their level of brightness with no apparent manipulation. Gregory insists that all of these instances aren’t happening, and are actually falsehoods conjured up by Paula’s faltering mind, an explanation that she increasingly worries is true. This is high drama, and director George Cukor doesn’t back away from the emotional extravagance available to him. If anything, he heightens it, while paradoxically keeping his storytelling lean and measured.

Part of the way Cukor balances the film is by contrasting his clean visuals with performances that have been sent delightfully spinning, which brings me back to Bergman. I’m used to seeing her command the screen with her focused serenity, but Gaslight brings out a grand edginess to her work. She shows how Paula chafes against her own mounting helplessness as self-doubt is stealthily cultivated in her by the man who has previously professed his love. As the film goes on, Bergman is allowed chances to be ferocious in her expression of emotion and the result is equal parts jarring and thrilling. This performance led to the first of three Oscar wins in her career (in seven total nominations), and it’s not difficult to discern what captured the favor of Academy voters. They must be the same qualities that so solidly captured mine.

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