Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Film of the Week: Gaslight, 1944

Did I dream? Did I really, really dream?
--"Paula Anton"

Terrible things happened one night at 9 Thornton Square. The famed opera singer, Alice Alquist, was murdered in the sumptuous Belgravia townhouse—her body left lying on the floor in front of her portrait. Her young niece, Paula, was alone with her that night, and found her lifeless body.

Years later, Paula herself is studying to be a singer. The teacher’s accompanist is a dashing Frenchman named Gregory Anton. Paula finds herself in love with the dashing pianist, and, soon, they are married. Gregory has one wish for their life together. He’s always dreamed of living in one of “those English Squares.” “I know of such a square,” Paula says cautiously. And, so, she and Gregory go to England.

Married life is not so terribly blissful for Paula. Gregory is always telling her that she’s “ill.” She hears noises in the house—on the top floor, the floor that has been sealed off, the floor that contains her aunt’s belongings. Each night, while Gregory is out at his studio, the gaslights dim and the horrible noises begin. Why won’t anyone believe her? The kind, but deaf housekeeper, Elizabeth, is good-hearted, but dubious. Nancy, the new parlor maid is a tart who belittles her mistress. Soon, Paula begins misplacing things. Gregory tells her that she is mad, that she’s just like her mother, “who died in an asylum with only half a brain.” And what about that letter from someone named Sergius Bauer? Did it exist? Did any of it exist?

This is the story behind one of the most gripping films directed by George Cukor. The 1944 version of Gaslight starred the enchanting, sensational Ingrid Bergman as Paula, Charles Boyer as Gregory, Joseph Cotten as the Scotland Yard detective who comes to Paula’s aid, Dame May Whitty as their curious neighbor, and marked the film debut of Angela Lansbury as Nancy. This film is based, in part, on Patrick Hamilton's Broadway play, Angel Street of 1941. An earlier version—quite different from Cukor’s—had been filmed in Great Britain in 1940.

Cukor’s version, while different from its predecessors, had the budget to make the film a blockbuster. With a scintillating cast and superb performances, the film is engrossing and mesmerizing. Ingrid Bergman’s performance alone is worth seeing. She is superb and delivers what I consider her best performance. She earned an Academy Award nomination for best actress for the part.

Another element about this movie that I just adore is the sets. They are quintessentially Victorian and truly remarkable in every detail. I wouldn’t mind living in that house—without Charles Boyer, of course. If you want a tale of betrayal, deceit, madness, murder and jewel theft, this is the film for you. And, you’d be challenged to find a better one.

See for yourself in this clip of one of my favorite scenes.  Isn't she utterly brilliant?

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