At the end of Gaslight, when all has seemingly been revealed, there’s only one question left. If Scotland Yard inspector Joseph Cotten isn’t an American in London, why doesn’t anyone notice his lack of accent. It’s a wise choice not to give Cotten an accent–presumably he couldn’t do one–but it also means there’s always something a little off about him, which just furthers his likability. And his likability is important, because (intentionally) there’s not much likable in Gaslight.
The film opens in a flashback–teenage girl Ingrid Bergman is being hurried out of London for the continent, presumably something to do with a strangler on the loose (a newspaper headline informs the viewer). Ten years later, she’s training to be an opera singer. Only it’s not going so well and she’d much rather run off with her pianist, Charles Boyer. So she does, meeting a British woman (Dame May Whitty) along the way; turns out Whitty lives just across the street from Bergman’s childhood home, where she fled in the opening scene, following the murder of her aunt.
Bergman’s ready to go back to London, however, so long as Boyer’s with her. He’s always wanted to live in London. How coincidental she just happens to own some property there. Even if she has nightmares about her time in the house.
Until this point–them arriving in London–Boyer’s been the perfect suitor, now husband. But on their initial tour of the house, Bergman comes across a letter from an admirer to her aunt and it drives Boyer into a fit. He snatches it away from her, explaining he’s upset at how upset the house is making her. He’s such a considerate fellow.
The action cuts ahead–using Whitty snooping on her new neighbors, without much success–and it’s a very different household. Boyer’s just hired rude young maid Angela Lansbury, who he sort of flirts with, sort of doesn’t, but definitely implies interest. He’s constantly chastising Bergman for losing things, even though she has no memory of it. Seemingly to prove his point, she loses something that very day, a family heirloom he’s given her.
On one of the few occasions Boyer lets her out of the house, they happen to pass Cotten, who thinks he recognizes Bergman–for her aunt–and begins inquiring into the still unsolved murder. And finds out it was also a robbery; the thief grabbed precious jewels. Boyer and Bergman had just been to visit the crown jewels, where Boyer salivated at the sight of them. Rather suspicious.
For about the next half hour, Boyer is just tormenting Bergman. He’s absurdly cruel and controlling, even though the film doesn’t actually reveal him doing anything criminal. He’s just some guy who married a wealthier woman, took over her property, and treats her like garbage. Nothing too uncommon for 1885 London, though it’s hard to say as he doesn’t let Bergman meet anyone. Especially not Cotten, who’s still trying to figure out what’s going on with the pair.
Then, at about the hour mark (the film runs just under two hours), we finally see Boyer do something rather suspicious and almost obviously devious. The second hour, which has Bergman start further breaking down, Cotten finally figuring out what’s going on, then multiple showdowns, is phenomenal. The first half is setup, the second half is payoff. And Bergman gets some payoff too, which is a welcome change since most of the first hour and some of the second is just watching Boyer mentally abuse her. Boyer’s cruel in his abuse, not charming. Gaslight accounts for Bergman’s isolation as a factor, but has a hard time showing it. If Bergman’s not with someone else or being terrified while alone, she doesn’t have any scenes.
It’s not until she and Cotten get their first scene alone together where there’s just this phenomenal acting and reveal on the character she’s been creating all along. It takes Gaslight a while to get to its payoff, but its worth it right away when it starts.
Gorgeous photography from Joseph Ruttenberg–especially once the walls, proverbially, start closing in on Bergman. That phase of the film is when director Cukor starts getting rather creative as well. There’s not much in the way of visual foreshadowing on Boyer; in fact, Gaslight usually avoids it, not giving him any suspicious behaviors when he’s just gotten down manipulating Bergman. The way it plays him off Lansbury is phenomenal.
Ralph E. Winters’s editing is also crucial. He’s got to keep up the pace, which drags a little first hour, then never slows down for a breath in the second, even during Cotten’s exposition dumps.
The actors are the stars–earnest Cotten, haunted Bergman, quizzical Boyer. There’s obviously some bad going on with Boyer (from his first scene in London), but it’s never clear what. He’s never sympathetic or redeemable, he’s just cruel. Increasingly cruel. In a special way or just in a bad Victorian husband way is the question.
Bergman spends the film pent up. When she finally gets loose–starting with a wordless exclamation–there’s no stopping her.
Cotten gets to be the steady throughout. He’s always cute, always sympathetic. I mean, his first scene has him taking his niece and nephew to a museum, how can he not be likable. Even if he’s got that obvious, inexplicable lack of English accent.
The supporting cast is all good, especially Lansbury and Barbara Everest (as the hearing impaired cook who can’t ever confirm Bergman’s audial suspicions). And Whitty’s fun. She’s in it for the punchlines mostly and she gets them.
The production design and set decoration are excellent. And Ruttenberg’s lighting of them. Cukor’s got some fantastic composition in Gaslight too, particularly for how he moves the actors around the frame. The screenplay is quick and nimble, though maybe more for Cotten than anyone else. Boyer’s big suspicious action scenes are always a little too big. It’s not clear enough, at the start, why Bergman wouldn’t be more concerned with his behavior.
Gaslight’s an outstanding thriller. Just too bad Bergman didn’t get more to do in the first hour.
This post is part of the Joseph Cotten Blogathon hosted by Crystal of In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood and Maddy of Maddy Loves Her Classic Films.