Monday, January 9, 2017

Short Take: Gaslight (1944)

The 1944 film Gaslight, directed by George Cukor, is a tense, atmospheric psychological thriller. In Victorian London, a woman (Ingrid Bergman) moves into an inherited townhouse with her new husband (Charles Boyer). The marriage is not a happy one. The husband slowly and systematically undertakes a campaign to drive the wife mad. He isolates her socially, humiliates her in front of others, and has her constantly doubting her memories and perceptions. But the plotting isn't clever. There's not much mystery to the husband's motives; an alert viewer should have them figured out before the picture is a third over. The two lead performances are what make the picture work. Boyer is sinister perfection as the diabolical husband, and Bergman is powerfully sympathetic as the increasingly neurotic and distraught wife. (She won her first Oscar for the role.) The picture's suspense comes from watching how the husband's mind games play out, and waiting for the wife to finally turn the tables on him. Cukor's direction keeps the pacing taut. He also does a fine job of integrating the lavish production values with the story: the overfurnished sets give a claustrophobic feel to the proceedings, and the foggy nighttime exteriors are strikingly moody. The picture is not quite Old Hollywood at its best, but it's very entertaining. The cast includes Joseph Cotten as the Scotland Yard detective who suspects things are deeply amiss with the couple, and a teenage Angela Lansbury as an insolent Cockney maid. Dame May Whitty plays the busybody neighbor who's always trying to make friends with the wife. Her frustrated efforts start to feel like a running gag, and there's an amusing payoff at the film's end. The script, which is loosely based on the play by Patrick Hamilton, is credited to John Van Druten, Walter Reisch, and John L. Balderston. Joseph Ruttenberg provided the handsome black-and-white cinematography. Cedric Gibbons, William Ferrari, Edwin B. Willis, and Paul Huldschinsky won the film's second Oscar for their sets. The original play was the basis for a 1940 British picture directed by Thorold Dickinson, and starring Anton Walbrook and Diana Wynyard.

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