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Be Driven Mad Watching Gaslight

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Dusty is an avid classic movie fan who wants to share movie stories and evoke conversation about them.

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Cast

Gaslight

1 hr. 54 mins Crime, Drama, Mystery 1944 7.8 stars

Director: George Cukor

Cast: Charles Boyer - Gregory Anton

Ingrid Bergman - Paula Alquist

Joseph Cotten - Brian Cameron

Dame May Whitty - Miss Thwaites

Angela Lansbury - Nancy

Barbara Everest - Elizabeth

Note: Spoiler alert. This review reveals the outcome of the movie

Paula Finds a Letter

Ingrid Bergman reads letter to Charles Boyer

Ingrid Bergman reads letter to Charles Boyer

Synopsis

The opening scene is of Thornton Square, a well-to-do neighborhood in London, on a dark day in the late 19th century. A woman, a famous singer in fact, has been murdered and the funeral has just concluded. The victim’s teenage niece is led out of the house and sent off to Italy to study music. She is Paula Alquist (played by Ingrid Bergman).

During her training in Italy she fell in love with her piano player, Gregory Anton (played by Charles Boyer). Paula took a train to Lake Como and onboard met Miss Thwaites (played by Dame May Whitty) who was a talkative nosey older woman who happened to bring up that she lived on Thornton Square in London and that many years ago it was the scene of a murder. She was of course referring to the murder of Paula’s aunt, though she certainly didn’t realize to whom she was speaking. Paula politely excused herself from the conversation as they arrived at their destination. There Paula met up with Gregory who surprised her by being there. They decided to marry and afterwards they moved to London into Paula’s old house which she had inherited and which made them neighbors to Miss Thwaites. Paula showed Gregory around the old house which had fallen into disrepair over the intervening years. It was difficult for Paula, emotionally, because the memories from that house and the murder that occurred there were still very painful and being there brought those horrible feelings back to the forefront of her heart. Yet she pushed through the inner turmoil and pointed things out to Gregory. One thing in particular that she pointed out was a glass case which held but a single glove, its mate having been given to one of her aunt’s admirers, and unnamed boy, years ago. As Paula was paging through one of her aunt’s music books a letter fell out. It was a somewhat threatening letter written a few days before her aunt’s murder. It was signed Sergius Bauer. When Paula read it aloud to Gregory he exploded in wrath and grabbed the letter out of her hands. He said that he was not happy with the way Paula was torturing herself with these reminiscences and that she should stop immediately.

Miss Thwaites, the nosey neighbor that Paula had met on the train in Italy, tried to find out all she could about the new occupants and of course recognized Paula right away. She asked the housekeeper, Elizabeth (played by Barbara Everest), but learned nothing other than that Elizabeth was hard of hearing. Gregory in the meantime hired an additional maid, Nancy (played by Angela Lansbury).

Gregory gave Paula a brooch, an heirloom that has been in his family for generations but he stated that its clasp was broken and he intended to take if for repair. As Paula watched, he put it in her purse for safekeeping. The two of them then went on a sightseeing tour of the Tower of London. Gregory was particularly fascinated with the crown jewels. While he was admiring them Paula looked in her purse and noticed that the brooch was no longer there. She panicked quietly because Gregory had convinced her that she was in the habit of losing things. As they walked out of the Tower a man saluted her as a sort of a formal means of greeting. He evidently recognized her and thought highly of her, but she didn’t recognize him. His name was Brian Cameron (played by Joseph Cotten). Gregory noticed this attention and grew jealous.

Back at the house Paula admitted to Gregory that she had lost the brooch. She was very apologetic. She was also distraught so she went to her room to rest while Gregory went off to his “office” – a place he had presumably rented away from the house where he would go to work on his music. But, while resting fitfully, Paula notices that the gas lights dimmed and she heard footsteps above the ceiling.

On another occasion Gregory told Paula that he was taking her to the theatre, but then noticed that a small painting was missing from the wall. He blamed Paula and demanded that she find it and return it. She found it in the same place she had found it on previous occasions. Evidently this had happened several times. Their plans to go to the theater that night were then cancelled. And once again Gregory went off to his office and Paula went off to bed, but just as before she noticed that gas light dimming and just as before she heard footsteps in the ceiling above her. She was sure that she was losing her mind.

On another evening Gregory took Paula out to a party of sorts, a private music concert. Paula was convinced that she was feeling better, but during a musical performance Gregory noticed that his pendant watch was missing off its chain. He searched Paula’s purse and found it there. Paula reacted creating a disturbance and the both left hurriedly. Brian was at that party and observed the whole thing. He was an investigator of Scotland Yard and he had suspicions about what was happening in that household.

Back at the house Gregory told Paula that he had researched her background and learned that her mother had gone insane. Paula was unaware of this as since a young child she had been raised by her aunt. Gregory decided that due to her problematic forgetfulness, her lapses of memory, inability to function socially and her evident family history he would commit Paula to an asylum soon.

Brian had planted an officer on the beat on that square who had taken up with Nancy, the maid. He had been informing Brian about the goings on in the house. When Brian knew that Gregory was out he paid a visit to Paula. Elizabeth the housekeeper let him in, but Paula was hesitant to meet strangers. Brian however had a sort of “free ticket” to get into the house. It was he to whom Paula’s aunt had given her glove years ago. During his visit Brian also noticed the gas lights dimming and he also heard the footsteps upstairs. In addition, Paula showed to him the letter she had found from Sergius Bauer. Brian quickly figured out what was happening and informed Paula that she was not going mad, but was being driven mad slowly and systematically. Brian formulated a plan to capture Gregory. He realized that Gregory is the same person as Sergius Bauer and that every time he went to his office he was really going up to the attic from an outside entrance. This was why Paula saw the gaslights go down and why she herd footsteps above. Gregory was in the attic to search for Paula’s aunt’s jewels which had never been found during the murder investigation. When Brian left to prepare to capture Gregory, he told Elizabeth not to mention that he had been to the house, but do everything she could to help Paula.

Gregory came back into the house and confronted Paula again, this time the provocation was the lock on his desk which had been tampered with. Brian had been in the desk searching for clues in fact this is where the letter from Sergius Bauer was found. Gregory continued in his efforts to convince Paula that she was going mad, but as she was beginning again to believe that she was losing her mind Brian showed up. He arrested Gregory for the murder of Paula’s aunt.

Paula asked for a moment alone with Gregory who had been safely tied up. As he plead for her to untie him and release him she began to play into the whole role of losing her mind, though now she knew she was not. Eventually she called for Brian to come and take him away.

Gregory Finds His Watch in Paula's Purse

Charles Boyer shows watch to Ingrid Bergman

Charles Boyer shows watch to Ingrid Bergman

Analysis

Truly this is a psychological thriller. Even the audience does not know at first what is happening. Is Paula going mad? At some point we the audience begin to consider that perhaps Gregory is driving her mad, but we may not be convinced until much later in the story. Gregory does grow sterner as a normal response to someone who is starting to cross the line into any mental health condition. He restricts her from any social activity, but when they do go out he arranges it so that she causes a scene thus convincing herself of her own mental deterioration while illustrating to the outside world that there really is a problem. Gregory is very adept at arranging all circumstances to accomplish his end results. His efforts are convincing and for Paula there is an internal terror in realizing that she is slowly losing her mind. That is an incredibly terrifying thing in and of itself.

Added to that is something that Gregory hasn’t considered, his presence in the attic and its effect on the house below. There are two notable signs to his attic wanderings and they are these: his footsteps can be heard and the jets on the gas lamps dim when he turns them on upstairs. These things further terrorize Paula and yet they will also serve to implicate him, because Brian who is a detective also notices them. It is the key scene of the movie when he notices the gaslights dim.

Years ago Brian had met Paula’s aunt; he was a young admirer of her singing; she was after all a world renowned opera singer. She was so taken with this young admirer that she gave him a single glove as a keepsake. Later, after she had been murdered Brian maintained a curiosity about this case because it was unsolved and it had become a cold case. Now in his capacity as a Scotland Yard detective his curiosity piqued. Here in the very house where this murder had taken place the victim’s niece had returned to live and she was behaving strangely. What’s more, her husband seemed to be overly controlling. Brian reopened the cold case. One of the unanswered questions from that case concerned jewels which the victim had but were never found. She had been presented with them by a royal admirer from a different country, but no one knew where she had kept them.

Brian realized that Gregory was going up into the attic to search for the jewels. It all made sense to him; this is why the gaslights dimmed and this is why footsteps were heard above the ceiling.

And this is why he was trying to drive Paula mad. He wanted to put her away and have free reign around the house for his own treasure hunt. Gregory found the jewels sewn into an elegant gown, hidden in plain sight. But on the very night he found the jewels Brian found the murderer. The jewel thief and the murderer were one and the same, Gregory Anton alias Sergius Bauer!

Gregory is the villain of the movie; Paula the victim and Brian the hero. There is a nick-of-time suspense element in the plot. Had Brian not solved it when he did Paula would have been committed the next day and Gregory would have escaped justice again. He may have taken up with Nancy, the domestic servant who was effectively flirting with him.

There is an undertone of romantic interest towards Paula on Brian’s part. He had a boyhood crush on her aunt and he noted what a striking resemblance she bore to her aunt. In fact it was probably this interest that propelled him to investigate the cold case at all. This saved Paula!

What Gregory did was to virtually imprison Paula and cause her to lose things. This was accomplished by first planting then reinforcing the thought in Paula that she is very forgetful and has the constant habit of losing things. As an example, he shows Paula a brooch, an heirloom that had (allegedly) belonged to his mother. He places it in Paula’s purse while she’s watching. Then when she’s not looking he removes it. But this is no sleight of hand magic trick; it’s methodical and deadly serious. When asked to give Gregory the brooch so that he can take it for repair Paula can’t find it. These types of occurrences happened frequently leading Paula to conclude that she is losing her mind. Gregory helps the dementia along by informing Paula that he had done research and learned that this is exactly what had happened to her mother. It is not necessarily true. Paula was raised by her aunt, but we are not told that she ever knew what had happened to her parents. But by this time she was open to suggestion and she loved and trusted Gregory. Gregory would also withhold social interaction from her so that when he did arrange to go out with her she was extraordinarily grateful like a Stockholm syndrome victim (Ingrid Bergman is coincidently from Stockholm, but that term developed in the 1970s)

When Paula informs Gregory that his desk drawer had been tampered with by a visiting stranger Gregory asked Elizabeth who Paula’s visitor was, but she denied there having been any visitor. This may seem as if she wants no part in what’s going on, but bear in mind that Brian has asked for her help. If she corroborates Paula’s story she lets Gregory know he’s been discovered. If, on the other hand, she denies Paula’s story she will cause Paula to once more doubt her won sanity. She chose the second option and that plunged Paula into incredible self-doubt. But when Gregory said to Elizabeth, “You see how it is” she responded emphatically, “I see exactly how it is!” This response alarms Gregory slightly, but he is beginning to wonder if he is being successful in his plot to cause Paula to lose her mind or not. He really wants to know who this visitor was, but he must also be wondering if there was any visitor at all.

The final scene is classic. When Brian finally convinces Paula that she’s not mad, but only being driven mad she asks for a moment alone with the tied up Gregory. In that moment Gregory pleads with her to get a knife and cut him loose. Here Paula shows him the fruit of his efforts. She acts mad holding a knife in her hand but acting as if she doesn’t know what it is. She tosses it away and acts as if it is just one more item that she has lost. Does Gregory know that she’s onto him? She acts in the manner of what he has created her to be – a mad woman who fumbles all opportunity to help him. But indeed she is sane and in that moment she lets loose her anger at him for the psychological abuse he has subjected her to. (Not to mention her aunt’s murder). There is a delicious vengeance to this final scene. Gregory is not just caught; he does not know if his efforts have been effective. Paula uses the very condition, which he had sought to produce in her to thwart her own efforts to free him. Is she mad and incapable of cutting the rope to set him free he wondered? Turnabout is fair play when she uses his psychological methods against him.

There is a hint hidden between the lines that Paula and Brian could develop a romance. This is also true of Gregory and Nancy.

Gregory Finds the Jewels Sewn Into This Dress

Charles Boyer finding the jewels in this dress in the attic

Charles Boyer finding the jewels in this dress in the attic

Tidbits

From IMDB Trivia

Named for this movie, "gaslighting" has become a recognized form of controlling and manipulative behavior. It involves an exploitative person manipulating people who suspect him or her into doubting themselves and questioning their own perceptions so that they distrust their own suspicions of the manipulator. By the 2020s, this behavior would be classified as a form of “psychological abuse.”

Director George Cukor suggested that Ingrid Bergman study the patients at a mental hospital to learn about nervous breakdowns. She did, focusing on one woman in particular, whose habits and physical quirks became part of the character.

May Whitty became the first actress to be called "Dame" when she received the DBE (Dame Commander of Order of the British Empire) from King George V in 1918. Seventy years later, her teenage castmate, Dame Angela Lansbury, would receive the same honor from George's granddaughter Elizabeth II in 2014.

Dame Angela Lansbury was only eighteen when she made this, her theatrical movie debut. She had been working at Bullocks Department Store in Los Angeles, California, and when she told her boss that she was leaving, he offered to match the pay at her new job. Expecting it to be in the region of her Bullocks salary of the equivalent of twenty-seven dollars a week, he was somewhat taken aback when she told him she would be earning five hundred dollars a week!

When this movie was produced, MGM attempted to have all prints of the previous version, Gaslight (1940), destroyed. These efforts were ultimately unsuccessful, though the movie was rarely seen for the next few decades. Most of the prints of Gaslight (1940) which survived the MGM's attempted eradication did so because they had been mistakenly labelled "Angel's Street", the title of the movie's 1938 stage production.

Gregory Pleads with Paula to Release Him

Ingrid Berman talks to a tied up Charles Boyer

Ingrid Berman talks to a tied up Charles Boyer

Movie Trailer

Nearly Driven Insane Paula is Rescued by Brian

Paula's Revenge

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