“Gaslight” is a thriller based on a stage play of the same name. And in fact, our term “gaslighting” is based on the psychological abuse that is featured in this story.
Ingrid Bergman is Paula Alquist. As a girl she lived with her famous aunt Alice Alquist, a diva of the Opera stage. But when her aunt is murdered Paula is sent away from her aunt’s home in London to study music in Italy. As a grown woman she falls in love with a pianist who plays for the maestro that Paula studies under. Charles Boyer plays her lover Gregory Anton. He convinces Paula to marry him and then to move back to London and take up residence in her aunt’s former home.
But once they settle into the house Gregory begins a concerted campaign to undermine Paula’s sanity. He engineers situations where she seems to lose things or moves things without knowing that she’s done it. And Gregory conspires with the maid Nancy (played by Angela Lansbury) to undermine Paula’s standing in the home by treating her like a feeble-minded invalid. And she is isolated from the outside world under the pretext that she has become erratic and would embarrass herself if others witnessed her mental decline.
But one person exists who is aware of Paula’s return to London and is interested in her situation. This is a Scotland Yard detective, Brian Cameron played by Joseph Cotten. As a boy he had met Alice Alquist and now he is determined to solve the old murder case. He suspects that Gregory is up to no good. Cameron employs the local constable whose beat includes the Alquist home. He encourages the constable to date Nancy the maid and find out what is going on inside the house. And Cameron directs him to follow Gregory Anton and find out where he goes every night.
And through Cameron we learn from his superior at Scotland Yard that there were missing jewels that belonged to a foreign king who was a lover of Alice Alquist. He had given them to her but they disappeared after her murder. Now Cameron has the motive he has always lacked for the murder and soon he’ll have more.
One of the recurring nightmares that Paula experiences is that every night after her husband leaves the house to go to “work” the gas in her room would go down as if someone had turned on another light in the house. And at the same time, she would here noises from above her room. But the attic was boarded up so no one could enter it and no one else ever notices the gas change but her.
Eventually Cameron figures out that Gregory enters the vacant house around the block in order to climb on the roof and enter the attic of his own home from the roof. There he searches for the jewels of Alice Alquist. Once Cameron figures this out he barges into the Alquist home while Gregory is in the attic and he confronts Paula with the information. While Cameron is searching Gregory’s locked desk for his gun Paula notices a letter that Gregory had claimed that she had imagined. This note was written by an admirer of Alice Alquist named Sergis Bauer and had been found in Alice’s papers when she died. After examining it and comparing it to an example of Gregory’s handwriting Cameron informs Paula that Gregory and Sergis Bauer are the same man. Now it is clear that Gregory is her aunt’s murderer.
Meanwhile Gregory has finally found the jewels in the attic and Cameron notices the gas light rising meaning Gregory is coming home. Cameron rushes out of the house to catch Gregory on his way home. But Gregory no longer needs to keep up a pretense of working outside his home so he comes through the boarded-up attic door inside the house. When Gregory discovers his desk has been rifled, he accuses Paula. She declares that a man did it. When Gregory demands to know what man was in the house the cook lies claiming that no one has been in the house in order to stall for time. But hearing this Paula begins to doubt her sanity again. She is just about to collapse into despair when Cameron shows up and confronts Gregory. A struggle ensues and after a stray shot Cameron disarms Gregory. Gregory bolts up into the attic and Cameron follows. Meanwhile the cook has summoned the constable from the street and he bounds up the stairs and the two policemen subdue and tie Gregory to a chair in the attic.
For the finale Cameron agrees to let Paula talk alone to the securely bound Gregory. Gregory begs Paula to take a knife out of a cabinet drawer and cut him free to allow him to escape. But now Paula taunts him with his own words. She says she’s insane so she can’t trust her own senses that something is actually a knife. Then she throws the knife away and says, “But I seem to have lost it.” Then by chance she finds a piece of jewelry that Gregory claimed she had lost and she becomes agitated and she declares her hatred for him and her joy at seeing him being brought to justice. And she opens the door and demands that Cameron take Gregory away to his fate.
Right up front in the discussion I have to state that listening to Charles Boyer’s voice in this movie annoys the hell out of me. The combination of his accent and his constant hectoring of Paula makes me want to punch him in the nose. But at the same time Paula’s inability to stand up to Gregory’s bullying is also very annoying. I want to shake her and slap her in the face and tell her to snap out of it. Interestingly, Camera Girl has claimed in the past that I employ gaslighting against her. But I claim it’s just a combination of bad memory and growing insanity on her part. Silly woman.
Beyond those visceral feeling I enjoy this movie, especially the ending where Joseph Cotten sets things right. Ingrid Bergman is a very good actress and even in this exaggerated atmosphere of emotional turbulence she provides a very convincing performance.