Have you ever been in a situation so surreal you felt you were being driven out of your mind?
Bergman, in her Academy Award-winning role, plays Paula, a newly-married woman who moves into her deceased aunt’s house with her husband, Gregory (Charles Boyer). No sooner have they settled in than Boyer starts the process we now call gaslighting: he begins manipulating Bergman and has her believing that she is responsible for losing and/or hiding valuable household objects. (Never mind that this is her house and they are her objects.)
Boyer is delightfully evil in this movie. He has exaggerated airs as the put-upon husband, a man who sighs loudly and talks to his frantic wife as though she were an imbecile. But as strong a presence as Boyer is on screen, Bergman is equally strong if not stronger.
Bergman gives an exceptional performance as a woman who cannot believe she’s going insane. Her character is smart and rational, but slowly she’s being convinced that she’s going crazy. Bergman’s disbelief at her accusing husband matches our own; there is simply no way she’s responsible for the things she’s accused of. Her character desperately wants to please her new husband and tries to suppress fits of hysteria when he calmly reprimands her for losing her memory again. You feel for Bergman and cringe every time Boyer gets a certain look in his eye, which means he has a new and troubling accusation. This, in turn, becomes another push towards madness.
Slowly, Bergman is isolated and cut off from the world. She becomes nervous and uncertain, and finds she cannot leave the house; she doesn’t trust herself Out In The World. Even the maid (Angela Lansbury in a scene-stealing role) has been turned against her, and speaks to her with utter contempt. Bergman’s only friend is Brian (Joseph Cotten), a detective from Scotland Yard who is suspicious of Boyer.
Gaslight is a tense thriller that exploits one of society’s most dreaded fears – the fear of going insane. The real tension in this movie deals with Bergman’s mental health: Can she keep hold of her sanity long enough to expose her husband’s dark secret?
Our favourite scene is near the end of the film, when Bergman and Boyer have their final conversation. We will not reveal any details, for fear of giving away the story, but it is a scene so well acted it almost makes you gasp. Bergman shows us her intense acting ability and when the scene is over you almost can’t blink. Then you reach for the rewind button and watch it all over again. It is that good.
If you have not yet seen Gaslight, promise us you’ll make it an urgent priority in your life. With incredible acting and directing, plus a water-tight script, you’ll be glad you made the effort to see it.
Gaslight: starring Charles Boyer, Ingrid Bergman, Joseph Cotten. Directed by George Cukor. Written by John Van Druten, Walter Reisch, John L. Balderston. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1944, B&W, 114 mins.