Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Review – Gaslight

August 25, 2010

Gaslight – 1944

A house they can call their own in a nice area of London – that is what Gregory Anton (Charles Boyer) claims he has always dreamed of. He speaks of it the way people often speak of their long-held, yet unfulfilled childhood wishes, in a voice that is slow, a bit excited, and slightly high pitched. For a moment, it’s as if he were suddenly a fifteen year old who didn’t yet know that he could not conquer the world. To call Mr. Anton convincing would only be half right, for it is clear that he has indeed fooled Paula Alquist (Ingrid Bergman), a young woman half-heartedly aspiring to become a classical singer. Paula, we learn, is experiencing her first case of true love, and it hit her in record time too – just two weeks. However, as the object of her affection reveals his life-long wish of having a roof over his head, Paula is not looking directly at him. Instead, her gaze has fallen slightly, and her eyes appear to be scanning the ground for an answer to a question that she has not yet been asked. Therefore, she does not see the theatrical body language that would likely make her distrust her husband’s sweet-sounding soliloquy. She doesn’t notice his head tilting upward slightly, his eyes growing ever wider as he speaks, his voice sounding as hopeful as an eager young child’s on his first day of school, just the way a director would choreograph it on stage. To Paula, it must seem as if her husband is picturing the house of his dreams in his head, and to her, that must be a wonderfully romantic thing. Viewers though will be suspicious. The words are too perfect; they sound too rehearsed to be completely spontaneous. The whole scene seems designed to deceive. After all, he knows exactly what having “his dream” fulfilled would entail for Paula, and that fact makes him either the world’s worst boyfriend or something much more sinister.

If you guessed the latter, you are correct, yet before anyone screams at me for revealing the film’s secrets, you should know that what I have just described all takes place within the first fifteen minutes of the film, and by the end of that fifteen minutes, it’s perfectly clear that Mr. Anton is not the man he claims to be. Moreover, it’s soon equally obvious that Paula is in grave danger. A rather pressing question then is why. Just what is the suddenly creepy Mr. Anton after, and why does he so willingly and enthusiastically return to the spot where he may have committed murder ten years earlier?

Viewers wanting answers to those questions have to wait however, for while other films like Gaslight quickly turn into detective stories involving characters like Paula and possibly trusted friends trying to get to the bottom of a mystery, Gaslight takes a rather unexpected but completely fascinating turn. It becomes a psychological thriller, as Anton attempts to convince his young wife that her mental state has taken a turn for the worst and that if there is anyone to distrust, it is she, not her loving, sensitive husband. Perhaps I should have put those two adjectives in quotation marks.

After a rather fast-paced, perhaps too revealing beginning, Gaslight slows down, allowing viewings a fascinating look at an evil genius at work. I use that word genius because imagine for a moment what Anton has to do. He has to convince a perfectly sane woman that she cannot trust herself, no easy feat. To accomplish this, he makes her think her health is deteriorating, which allows him to keep her home, secluded from neighbors and social contacts. Next, he casts doubt on her memory, insisting that she has a pattern of losing things, and what better thing to make her think she has lost than an important family heirloom. And that’s just the start of it. The totality of his scheme is enough to make a completely sane person question her sanity.

Gaslight marked the screen debut of a very young Angela Lansbury, and as Nancy Oliver, one of Anton and Paula’s servants, she is as far from the wise, motherly Jessica Fletcher character she played for so many years on Murder She Wrote. In the film, Nancy pouts, complains about having her plans for a fun evening ruined, has a peculiar interest in police officers, and seems at moments to be openly flirting with Anton. I found myself wondering just how much she knew about Anton’s scheme, which I suppose is what playwright Patrick Hamilton intended.

If there is a persistent theme in Gaslight, it is obsession, the obsession some feel to finish what they started, the obsession others feel to prove to themselves that they can overcome their fears and traumatic experiences, and obsession toward celebrities and fame. In the film, obsession is neither good nor bad; rather, it is the actions that one’s obsession causes one to engage in that matters. Simply put, one is either Gregory Anton or Brian Cameron. Who’s Brian Cameron, you ask? You’ll just have to watch the film to find out. After all, I can’t reveal everything. (on DVD)

4 stars

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