George Cukor’s slightly creaky but undeniably spirited psychological thriller is quite a bit more “potboiler” than it is willing to admit until the Guignol denouement where the old fuss-and-stuff middle-of-the-road “please Knight me now” respectability of the diction and mise-en-scene pounces right into the ditch where it belongs. A B-picture in A-picture threads, it’s only when it unstitches its chest-caving corset that Gaslight finally has room to breathe. Which is to say: Gaslight is a little over-determined and too dignified in its prestige-pic wax to embrace the deliriously illicit trashiness at its core. (De Palma has essentially remade the film three dozen times, and while that statement may be hyperbole, how does one tackle De Palma without exaggeration?). Old Hollywood smut can be oh-so-gallant in its strewn-from-the-gutter and out-on-the-edge charisma when it just smacks some of that musty old regal upbringing right out of its properly-dictioned self. Yet Gaslight, while often killer, spent a little too much time in finishing school, dotting its I’s and crossing its T’s, and not enough time out on the streets learning how to play in the dirt where its heart truly lies.
If that dethrones the film from its masterpiece status, let me now clarify that the film was dethroned years ago when scholars discovered the species of sublimity that people like Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur were concocting around this time. That said, Gaslight’s starlight is, if out of focus, never likely to disappear into the night sky; superficial though it may actually be in the grand scheme of things (and never proud enough to revel in superficiality at that), there’s a real corker of a pitch-black beach read in here that smacks you right in the head when it finally uncorks itself for the climax. Until then, unfortunately, the screenplay by John Van Druten, Walter Reisch, and John L Balderston lays the Victorian gauze on like a thick-caked, death-scented chemical skin peel, but for quite a while, it achieves only a simulacrum of real skin-crawling acid.
The “hook” – Victorian woman Paula Alquist (Ingrid Bergman) marries dapper dandy Gregory Anton (Charles Boyer) who turns out to be a killer – desperately begs for a sense of psychologically probing, subjective framing and mise-en-scene that the film never actually locates out of the rubble of its bourgeois airs. Anton, having murdered Alquist’s aunt when Paula was just a girl, ensconces himself – newly married to an adult Paula – in the old house auntie dearest left her, all for the secret reason of searching for the aunt’s diamonds Anton never found all those years ago. In order to search without suspicion (the footsteps in the attic cause quite a stir in the innocent, genteel Paula’s mind), he drives her stir crazy, impressing that old chestnut of female hysteria onto her mind by systematically negotiating her insanity and convincing her that she is seeing and hearing nonsense flourishes that are, in reality, his own paternalistic incantations.
Credit to where credit is due: Gaslight is, for 1944, eerily prescient about the modernist Liberal shift in patriarchic culture, with the old bylaws of physical, corporeal violence (“punishment”, for Michel Foucault) negotiated into a seemingly more benign but deeply insidious and malignantly festering form of psychological coercion (“discipline”). The film’s most elegant shot transcends mere London fog creeping in: a top-hat skulks into the bottom of the frame, peeking up with sinister intent toward the house resided in by the central couple. Yet the hat belongs not to a killer but Joseph Cotton’s detective character, with the film cheekily and cannily realizing that the old school “corporeal invader” variant of male violence is hopelessly mired in the past, no match for the insidious modern paternalism of psychological warfare and patriarchic systems that don’t invade the system but actually construct it. Cotton approaches like Jack the Ripper himself, but the film plays on the assumption that the classical stalker is a man from without or “unknown”, that the villain is a lone, depoliticized individual that affronts an otherwise benevolent male culture. In reality, the film intimates, the enemy of women is not the foreign “other” (Cotton’s character is American) but the “known” male, the respectable “embodiment of the system” kind, the male who achieves something far more sinister than a slasher ever could: he makes women unknown to their own selves. His prey isn’t merely their body but their very sense of self, and he has the domesticated moorings of respectability to conduct his magic act of manipulating the female mind to his liking. He doesn’t skulk around the margins of the system. Rather, the “system” belongs to him.
That said, the film hardly textures its pencil-sketch in, wholeheartedly failing to collapse the categories of subjectivity and objectivity or instill any real doubt about Paula’s mental sanity or Gregory’s true intentions. (Boyer is permitted to whole hog his mustache-twirling blur of Snidely Whiplash and Dick Dastardly; you’re always in search of a train track for him to tie his spouse to). For a work that obviously wishes to haunt the space between inverse home invasion thriller and mind-corroding objectivity-solvent, it’s distressing that there is essentially no feasible alternative for the viewer besides believing that Bergman’s Alquist is wholeheartedly of sound heart and mind throughout. Which scores a social or political coup (since it rejects any ambiguity around the “hysterical woman” sub-genre of Victorian fiction), but the obviousness of the narrative is more equivocal as far as cinematic success is concerned; the steadily mounting fear curdles into a procession of leaden scenes of paternalistic oppression rather than a slowly-burning, ever-kindling white hot flare of nasty male abuse. Plus, even as a “social issue” film, the morality is tempered and mediated by the film’s inability to negotiate how Cotton’s intruding angel of a police detective also treats Bergman as an object to weaponize to prove his own male competency; the film is ultimately unable to fully consider his benign appearance as just another, more benevolent, form of sexism still tainted with malignancy.
Still, Gaslight is hard to deny when it’s firing on all cylinders, typically when Bergman is allowed to go all out on the edge with her neurotic impulse of a performance and cinematographer Joseph Ruttenberg brackets film noir and literary horror for a visual tapestry that is, if not exactly iridescent, certainly evocative. Little moments of genius abound, like the deep-focus shot where Bergman almost walks out of her house and then convinces herself to remain dormant inside, prey to acts of self-policing taught to her by her husband. (The camera positioned outside the house, the deep-focus captures every plane of the apartment hallway and stresses and focuses the trek from the back of the house to the front as Bergman’s volition is heartbreakingly keeled into submissiveness at the last second). Ruttenberg negotiating the relationship between lighting and character is also a highlight; specifically wonderful is the camera’s application of soft-focus on Bergman’s face to convey not gentile mystique (as typical in romances) but a spectral loss of physical tactility as she begins to un-know her own mind. Elsewhere, the camera floats down to a panicked Bergman from the ceiling (her husband stamping about upstairs) like a phantom, only marshaling her mind against itself all the more.
Coupled with an astute understanding of the shifts in the patriarchy over time (crucially emphasizing a change in form of sexism rather than a lessening of sexism), Gaslight is all aces until it isn’t. Which, unfortunately, is too often, with the first half especially lacking in ferociousness as the film’s ill-advised classicism stamps down and buttons up the film’s psychotic impulses. Wonder abounds, especially the finale where Bergman reclaims her voice and appropriates her “madness” for her own purposes in a temper-tantrum of empowering feminine rage. But the effect of the spikes is to throw the lulls into stark relief, to rouse the film from a somnambulist’s fatigue rather than to ignite a fire in its eyes. Still groggy even at its best, the film is – while certainly “quite good” – decidedly less than the sum of its parts.