Gaslight(ing): The Ingrid Bergman-starring Gothic Thriller that Coined the Phrase
In December of 2016, when Teen Vogue published Lauren Duca’s article “Donald Trump is Gaslighting America,” a surge in interest surrounding the term “Gaslighting” issued forth. The deceptively fluffy publication, with extreme aptitude and prescient foresight, linked Trump’s inconceivable rise in power to a film released some seventy years ago. And as several journalists have pointed out, interest in that film rose substantially in the wake of magazine’s invocation of it. The gothic thriller, which is often misattributed to Alfred Hitchcock, coined a term that is now routinely used to describe the process of manipulating and psychologically abusing an intimate. “Gaslighting,” soon after the film’s release, made its way not only into the Oxford English Dictionary, but was frequently utilized by medical practitioners in published papers – a rare case where a film somehow carved out a new concept of psychosis. Released in 1944 and set in the 1870s, George Cukor’s Gaslight is, today, a hot property – a classic thriller that is upheld for its modern innovations in understanding the psychology of abusive relationships.
Set in Victorian London, Gaslight features Ingrid Bergman as Paula Alquist, a young woman, recently married who in her childhood witnessed the murder of her aunt, a famous opera singer. With the murder still unsolved and upon the insistence of her husband (Charles Boyer), Paula moves into the London townhouse where the crime was committed. As she hears footsteps above in the abandoned attic, her husband (who we learn early in the film is after the aunt’s hidden jewels) gradually convinces Paula that she is going mad by making her doubt her perceptions, memory, and rationality. A ritualistic process of hiding Paula away from society and threatening her with commitment to an insane asylum further isolates her and leads the fragile woman to believe that her only saviour is the husband who has orchestrated the entire rouse. Paula’s only hope is a Scotland Yard detective (Joseph Cotten) interested in solving the decade-old murder.
Few films portray the power of mind games and manipulation better than Cukor’s Gaslight. As Paula truly descends into madness – brought upon by the emotional abuse of her husband – the only reassurance that she may not be imagining things, is that the light in the gas-powered chandeliers dim in her bedroom every time she “imagines” someone above her in the attic. However, her husband eventually convinces her that she is hallucinating the light flickering. Hence, “gaslighting” refers to a situation where a narcissistic sociopath persistently insists on a false version of events with the ultimate goal of winning power over a victim, who, having been accused enough times of having faulty perceptions, begins to actually believe it and submits to the abuser’s whims.
1944’s Gaslight, produced by the prestigious MGM, was the second film version of Patrick Hamilton’s 1938 play. The first, a UK-produced feature directed by Thorold Dickinson and starring Anton Walbrook and Diana Wynyard was released in 1940 (MGM attempted to destroy all prints of the first version when releasing their own – luckily, they failed in their mission). Whereas the earlier UK production followed the play closely, Cukor made significant adaptations for his version – changing character names and making Boyer’s character even more sinister. The addition of a maid, hired by Boyer’s character to reinforce his wife’s torment, leant Hollywood one its most impressive screen debuts – that of then seventeen-year old Angela Lansbury, playing a tawdry Cockney villainess, happy to reinforce her employer’s misdeeds. Lansbury was so young when she began filming that Cukor and crew had to wait for her eighteenth birthday before they could film any scenes featuring her smoking – as industry regulations forbade films from showing children with cigarettes.
Every detail in Gaslight is rendered with an intent to create suspense. The film’s production design, orchestrated by European émigré Paul Huldschinsky to Brontë-esque Gothic perfection, effectively conveys a progressive claustrophobia through cluttered Victorian tchotchkes and overly-wrought furnishings, amplifying Paula’s compromised condition (Huldschinsky would rightfully win an Oscar for his work on this film). The madder Paula is driven, the more stifling and domineering the house becomes – this is also conveyed through the film’s masterful cinematography, designed by Joseph Ruttenberg and articulated with an impressive chiaroscuro palette of shadows. The film’s greatest strength, however, is in its ability to elicit empathy for Bergman’s character. Her performance – for which she won her first Best Actress Oscar, beating out Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity – is something incredible and perfectly encapsulates why she was at the top of her game in the 1940s. The actress spent time researching mental illness, going as far to briefly stay in a psychiatric hospital. She studied the mannerisms of one patient in particular – a woman who had recently suffered a mental breakdown – and channeled them into her performance. Every hesitant glance and nervous fracture conveyed by her body is not only believable, but progressively more heartbreaking as the reality of her situation is more and more menacing.
While the play is the true origin of the term “gaslighting,” Cukor’s immensely successful film, which was nominated for a total seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, popularized it in the minds of women. The idea that your husband could drive you insane simply by telling you that you are insane effectively summarizes the powerlessness felt by women controlled by domesticity. If anything, Gaslight is a clinical study of how sociopaths operate and the wrought effects of their mechanisms on their victims. It’s a cautionary tale, as well as a disturbing allegory for the current political climate. If “gaslighting” as a term has become deeply significant in the modern lexicon, it may be because of a certain resemblance between the film’s sinister villain and his methodical tactics of psychological terror to current authoritarian political figures who reject reality for their own false version of events. Gaslight is a phenomenal film, and like all great horror, it remains current, maybe more so now than ever.