Sweden produced two of Hollywood’s most revered actresses. The first was Greta Garbo, queen of the silent screen and film’s first true mega-star.
The second was Ingrid Bergman.
Bergman won her first of three Oscars for her role in 1944’s Gaslight, a performance so riveting that it beat out Barbara Stanwyck’s breathtaking turn as Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity. (Part IV of this blog was dedicated to my bitterness that Stanwyck never won an Oscar. But even I cannot begrudge the Academy for rewarding Bergman for her excellent work here.)
Bergman plays Paula Alquist, a young woman who moves back into the house where her aunt was murdered with her new husband. Though at first blissfully happy, the honeymoon is soon over as Paula begins to lose and forget things. At her husband’s insistence, she becomes a recluse, convinced she is too ill for visitors and that she is slowly losing her mind.
She is isolated and alone but for the servants as her husband goes out every night to work on his music compositions (none of which ever seem to be completed.)
But things are not as they seem for Paula—she is perfectly sane and well. She is the victim of her husband’s sadistic obsession. He is the one hiding things to make her believe she has lost them. He is the one removing pictures from the walls and then telling Paula she did it. He has narrowed her world to that claustrophobic house, creating an alternative universe where he can slowly and deliberately drive her insane. She has no one else to talk to, no one else to rely on, no one else to inform her of her sanity or the outside world.
I won’t reveal her husband’s motive, or how Paula eventually extricates herself from his clutches, because it is a suspenseful film of psychological manipulation that I encourage you to watch.
It’s tense, tightly plotted, and will have you squirming in your seat—not from any gruesome violence—but by watching Paula’s escalating distress at her sincere belief that she is losing her mind while her husband stands by and adds fuel to the fire. It is a cruel and premeditated strike playing on a person’s greatest fear—that they are no longer in control of their own actions.
Bergman and Charles Boyer are wonderful and convincing in their roles as the tortured wife and sadistic husband. Their portrayal was the third version of the gaslight story—the first was a 1938 play, followed by a film version in 1940. The film was remade by Bergman and Boyer in 1944.
Even if you haven’t seen any of the versions, you likely know the term gaslight. It’s used often today in the news and psychiatric circles to describe a form of psychological manipulation when one person (usually, though not always, a man) tries to control his victim by making them doubt their own perceptions and judgement. It involves isolating, doubting, trivializing, and humiliating the other person. It is psychological rather than physical abuse.
In the stage and film versions, Paula notices that when she is alone at night, the light dims in her gas powered lamps. This would normally indicate that someone has turned on the gas in another part of the house. (Like water pressure going down if too many taps are on) Her husband insists she is imagining the gas dimming because it only happens when she is alone. He knows, however, that she is perfectly sane because he does not actually leave the house every night to work as he tells her, but goes up into the attic and turns on the gas.
It’s a metaphor for all of his psychological manipulation, and the manipulation that is still practiced today. To gaslight someone is more than to merely lie to them. It is to manipulate until the person no longer believes their sense of the world is true, and no longer trusts their own judgement.
It’s a terrible way to torture someone.
But it makes for outstanding cinema.
Want more? Click here for an index of all posts in this series, as well as source notes and suggested reading.
And it’s incredible that THIS film gave borth to a phrase that pretty much everyone knows and uses in 2020; surreal the way culture works. And most of the people using it have never heard of this film!