You’ve probably heard of the term “gaslighting”—the act of manipulation by psychological means to cause someone to question their own sanity. But do you know where the term originated?
It turns out, there has been a story floating around since the late 1930s about a woman whose husband uses psychological tricks to slowly convince her that she has lost her mind. It’s a tale that humanity continues to revisit.
The story originated in 1938 with a play by Patrick Hamilton titled “Gas Light,” and, in 1940, a British film adaptation was made by the same name. Four years later, America, not to be outdone, stepped up to the plate and made the critically acclaimed version of “Gaslight” with Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer, directed by George Cukor. And what a good decision, because, with seven Academy Award nominations and two wins (Best Actress and Best Production Design), audiences here artfully proved that the story was still relevant.
Bergman plays Paula Alquist, the niece of Alice Alquist, a famous opera singer who was murdered in her home in Thornton Square. The killer was never caught, and, years later, after moving away from the scene of the crime, Paula returns with her new husband, Gregory Anton (Charles Boyer), a man who suddenly appeared in her life and immediately swept her off her feet. The newlyweds move into the house in Thornton Square and board up the top floor, cordoning off all of Alice’s belongings so that Paula doesn’t have to look at them and remember the painful events from her past.
But soon, Gregory begins commenting on Paula’s forgetfulness and then objects start going missing—things that Paula should have kept in safekeeping. Every night, when Gregory leaves the house to work, Paula hears noises in the floor above, and the gaslight in the house dims, though no one in the house has lit one in another room. Luckily for Paula, her neighbor, Miss Thwaites (May Whitty) and a local investigator, Brian Cameron (Joseph Cotton), believe something is afoot. Brian begins to piece together Gregory’s criminal history, including connections to Alice and a case of missing jewels.
Though the film has a rocky introduction with its heavily expository setup (poor Paula is told exactly why she’s leaving the country after her aunt’s murder—she must forget the past, of course), the story continues with a solidity that most screenplays today forego for special effects. Even with the actual act of gaslighting aside, every scene nails the daily frustrations that a woman must deal with, whether it’s unfair comparisons, not being taken seriously, or pitting other women against her (the housekeepers, Elizabeth and Nancy, played by Barbara Everest and Angela Lansbury, reflect the complexity of these relationships in such a subtly hostile environment). And as Paula is slowly convinced of her insanity, Bergman lets loose with her character, driving home the point that, with a little conditioning, you can turn into exactly what you insist you are not. There is a reason Bergman won an Academy Award for her performance, and Boyer’s straight-faced manipulation complements it perfectly.
There are so many facets of this screen gem that make it applicable to current events. We see clearly the battle that women fight every day of their lives, trying to contradict the accusations against womanhood that have been reinforced for centuries. In a world where women are told they are being fanciful, or lying to make a scene, or remembering the facts wrong, or even that they are not strong enough to be out in the real world, this film says, no. This is not your imagination; your voice matters, and we believe you. Just like Paula’s house in the square, this world can be more than just your place of psychological trauma.
Despite this reviewer’s dislike for Hollywood remakes, perhaps a story that remains so painfully relevant needs to be revisited again—or at least replayed on the big screen.
“Gaslight” will be shown on Jan. 28 at Midtown Cinema, 250 Reily St., Harrisburg. For more information, visit www.midtowncinema.com.
JANUARY SPECIAL EVENTS
Oscar Winner January!
“All About Eve” (1950)
Won: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Sound Mixing, Best Costume Design
Sunday, Jan. 7, 2 p.m.
“The Departed” (2006)
Won: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Film Editing
Sunday, Jan. 14, 2 p.m.
“The Wizard of Oz” (1939)
Won: Best Original Score, nominated for Best Picture
Friday, Jan. 19, 9:30 p.m. (3rd in the Burg)
Saturday, Jan. 20, 2 p.m.
Won: Best Actress, Best Art Direction, nominated for Best Picture
Sunday, Jan. 28, 2 p.m.