Classic Woman-centric Movie Review: “Gaslight” (1944)

Hello, Persephoneers! Let’s ring out 2012 with a nice suspense film that we all know and love: “Gaslight,” made in 1944. The film stars Ingrid Bergman, Charles Boyer, Joseph Cotton, and Angela Lansbury and was directed by George Cukor.

Screencap from Gaslight; Gregory sits while Paula reads a letter
Bergman and Boyer in “Gaslight.” Via

Young Paula Alquist (Bergman) was sent to Italy after the murder of her aunt, Alice Alquist, who interrupted an intruder who was stealing her jewelry. Paula has been studying voice and has been trying to forget that night, until she meets Gregory Anton (Boyer). The two soon fall in love and marry, and they return to London to live in her aunt’s old house. After the discovery of a letter to a Sergius Bauer while packing up her aunt’s furnishings, Gregory grows angry. He blames his reaction on the stress of the new marriage and the move, and things seemingly go on as normal.

Then strange things began to occur. A brooch, kept securely in Paula’s purse while she and Gregory are touring the Tower of London, mysteriously disappears. At night, Paula can hear strange footsteps in the attic and the gaslights dim. When she tells her husband about this, he denies noticing it. Soon Paula believes that she is beginning to go mad, and as she unravels, Gregory keeps her from seeing her friends and from leaving the house. The maid, Nancy (Lansbury), who is disrespectful of Paula, seems to be assisting Gregory in whatever he is doing. It takes the curiosity of Inspector Brian Cameron (Cotton) of Scotland Yard, whom Paula and Gregory met at the Tower of London, to look into the murder of her aunt, connect the dots, and ultimately save Paula’s life and sanity.

Paula in an evening gown and Nancy in a maid outfit
Bergman and Lansbury. Via

“Gaslight” touches on two main subjects: the fear of insanity and imprisonment and the reality of how limited Victorian women’s rights really were. At the time the play takes place, it took very little to have someone committed to an asylum as a sane person. All someone needed was an asylum to take the supposed patient and signatures from two doctors certifying the patient as insane. There was a genuine fear of this; there were stories of perfectly sane people, particularly women, who had been committed to asylums as insane so that others could gain control of their money or property. This also figures into the plots of Victorian sensation novels The Woman in White and Lady Audley’s Secret. Gregory seems to take things a step further by treating Paula as if she were insane, and she slowly begins to doubt her own feelings and perceptions. Had Paula been seen by two doctors, there is little to no doubt that she would be certified as insane and committed to an asylum, leaving her husband fully in charge of her money and property.

Of course, this leads us to the rights of Victorian wives. Many times, any property or money that the wife brought into the marriage became her husband’s to do with as he wished. The husband had final say in all household matters, which left some wives almost powerless and with little recourse. It was extremely difficult for a woman to obtain a divorce, and if she were able to divorce her husband, her life would become even more difficult than it had been during her marriage. She could be denied access to her children, and of course, since divorce was considered to be shameful in polite society, she would lose whatever protection her family and friends might afford her as well. Gregory does whatever he can to exert control over Paula’s life by confining her to the house and not allowing her to receive visitors, and this isolation and lack of contact with the outside world only help his efforts to drive Paula to the edge.

Cameron’s efforts to discover the truth behind what is happening in Paula’s house finally bring Paula help, but in the end it’s her own will to survive that saves her. Paula knows deep down that she’s experiencing everything that her husband dismisses as her own imagination, and in the end she’s vindicated when she finally figures out what’s going on. Paula’s story is much like that of abuse victims, whose abusers convince them that the abuse is their fault when it really isn’t. This is also where the term gaslighting comes from. In the moment of truth, when they can finally absolve themselves of anything and put the blame squarely on the abuser, they are somehow vindicated and can begin the process of healing. Perhaps this is why the film still speaks volumes today.

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