Gaslight

Standard

This Catch Up is written by Telaina Eriksen

Year of Release: 1944

Rating: NR (It’s G/PG but would be creepy for little kids)

Currently Streaming on Netflix? No—available OnDemand and on BluRay and DVD

Spoilers? No more than that awesome, melodramatic, classic trailer linked up above

 

This movie and its 1940 predecessor (which I have never seen) are the reason we have the phrase “gaslighting.” Gaslighting “is a form of mental abuse in which information is twisted/spun, selectively omitted to favor the abuser, or false information is presented with the intent of making victims doubt their own memory, perception and sanity.” This movie is an ideal to watch if you ever wonder how anyone could “let” themselves be abused or have ever asked “why on earth would a woman STAY with her abuser?”

Ingrid Bergman stars as Paula Alquist who, at 10 years old, discovers her aunt’s murdered body in their home. Paula, who for obvious reasons now loathes the house, (we call this PTSD in the 21st century) is shipped off to Italy to study music. There she meets an older pianist and falls in love. She marries him, sacrificing her promising musical career. Paula has had no mother and no father in her life for almost a decade, and all she wants is to be loved and have a family. Paula equates all of England with her aunt’s traumatic murder, but that is exactly where her new husband Gregory Anton (Charles Boyer) wants them to move. Paula expresses her displeasure but wants to please her love and they do move to England. Arriving, Paula is in for the first of many ugly surprises, as Gregory insists they move into her aunt’s home since she owns it through inheritance.

Ensconced in England, in a house with horrible memories, Gregory begins his attack on Paula’s psyche. He moves objects. He talks to her like an invalid. Things go missing. Paintings move. Gas lights in the bedroom dim and brighten. There are strange noises in the house. Gregory leaves and returns at strange hours. He enlists the aid of a maid (a very young and smoking hot Angela Lansbury) as an ally, telling her in his charming way that his wife doesn’t know what is for her own good. In addition Gregory hires an almost deaf housekeeper who never hears the sounds Paula hears. Gregory bullies Paula consistently through the guise of love until Paula questions her own sanity. He slowly and systematically cuts her off from family friends and others who might be concerned for her welfare and then as coup d’état, tells the housekeeper and maid not to let anyone in the house or to let Paula leave it, for her own “good.”

Luckily for Paula, Brian Cameron, Scotland Yard detective, (Joseph Cotten) was a big fan of Paula’s aunt, who was a prima donna he saw perform when he was a child. He has taken a special interest in Paula and notices that Gregory seems shady at best. Brian has always wondered who killed Paula’s aunt, and Gregory looks a little familiar to him.

As the movie reaches its climax, Paula confronts Gregory. (I believe this scene was probably crucial in getting Ingrid Bergman her Academy Award for this role.) She is so angry and cutting—it is a beautiful to behold and the viewer wishes every woman (or man) who has been abused by a master manipulator, someone who took their love and trust and goodwill and turned it on them to make them question their sanity and their competence as a human being, would get a chance to face their abuser in the same manner.

What I find so interesting about this movie (in addition to its overall strong script and all-around solid acting performances) is that domestic violence and abuse was not exactly front and center in 1944. Certainly there wasn’t the information we have available about it now, nor the social services. (We still don’t have enough social services but we have many more than were available in the 1940s.) Yet, this movie captures perfectly what can happen when one person with a trusting heart, and one person with malicious intent (or a lot of issues) can do to just the average person who trusts them.

Even if the psychology of violence and abuse doesn’t interest you, you are sure to enjoy the performances of Bergman, Lansbury, Boyer and Cotten. This classic continued to hold up well, even over 60 years later.

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