Gaslight (1944) and the True Meaning of Fear

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Gaslighting: The idea that a person will eventually become convinced of something through conditioning by an individual in a position of power and influence, despite being in direct opposition to what the person knows and believes to be true. It is a word we hear tossed around a lot these days, usually in reference to the behaviors of overtly biased media and their use of clickbait headlines and grossly out of context quotes, and the politicians’ not-so-clever sleight of hand in discussing issues and controversy with the public. We frequently hear our elected officials telling lies, or at best, half truths. If they keep repeating and reinforcing them, the lies eventually become the truth, right? That is the strategy, at least. Fortunately, we have a few sane, respected voices who help parse out the information, while reminding us to stay vigilant. These same respected voices often compare this dissemination of lies to “gaslighting,” a term originated from the stage play Gas Light (1938). “Gaslighting” is a form of psychological torture found in abusive relationships, specifically romantic ones. Using this term to describe the actions of our political and media class is often overreaction at best, potentially dangerous at worst, detracting from individuals, particularly women, who are suffering mental torture in intimate, abusive relationships. By using the term to describe any nefarious action, we inadvertently dilute its originally powerful meaning.

To fully understand the concept of “gaslighting” and its implications, take a look at MGM’s 1944 adaptation of Gaslight starring Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer. Bergman is Paula Alquist, a young woman dealing with the trauma of her aunt’s murder. As a child, the orphaned Paula was sent to live with her aunt, the famous opera singer Alice Alquist, in London. Paula’s aunt served as her guardian and caretaker. She adored her aunt, having nothing but fond memories of their time together, with much of it centered around stories of Aunt Alice’s performances on the London stage. As a famous singer, Alice had her share of admirers, all devoted, but not always with the best of intentions. Late one night, young Paula stumbles upon her aunt’s dead body, apparently strangled, with no clue as to the murderer or the motive. Shocked and afraid, Paula, the sole heir to Alice’s estate, is sent away to Italy to study music. Many years pass, and Paula, still immersed in her music lessons with a renowned teacher, falls in love with the charming pianist Gregory Anton (Charles Boyer). After a quick courtship, wedding and romantic honeymoon, Gregory, aware of Alice’s murder, encourages Paula to return to the London home she once shared with her aunt.

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It is important to note that Paula had not stepped foot into her aunt’s house since the night she left for Italy some ten years earlier. Just the mere mention of “Number 9 Thornton Square” triggers Paula’s anxiety. Gregory encourages Paula to face her fears by returning to the home, clear out much of the old furnishings and reclaim the space for them to start out their life together. At first, Gregory’s suggestion appears to be rooted in good intentions, even if at times he displays more of a paternal love toward Paula than that of a husband. Paula feels safe with Gregory. He fosters confidence and stability in Paula; she trusts Gregory implicitly, despite not really knowing him (something she readily admits during their whirlwind courtship). Even with Paula’s built up confidence, she is still terribly vulnerable, especially when faced with entering her aunt’s home for the first time as an adult. Unfortunately, Paula’s nightmare is far from over; she unknowingly falls into a dangerous trap set by Gregory. He devises a plan to slowly drive Paula insane, for reasons that aren’t immediately clear. Jewelry and artwork go missing and reappear in odd places, despite Paula having no memory of losing the items in the first place. Gregory convinces Paula that she is ill and unable to go out in public or receive guests in their home. The few attempts at socializing with London high society go terribly awry, most notably during a private concert. Gregory confronts Paula during the recital that his pocket watch is missing from its chain, only to find it tucked away in her purse. Knowing that she didn’t take his watch, or at least having any memory of doing so, causes Paula to descend into hysterics. The public’s case for her insanity is all but final; she will never be able to show her face again without scrutiny. She’s increasingly isolated, left to sit alone with her confused mind, trying to sort out how she could possibly be insane. In addition to the accusations of stealing by Gregory, Paula frequently hears sounds of footsteps from above her bedroom and the strange dimming of all the lights in the home. Their two maids, Nancy (Angela Lansbury) and Elizabeth (Barbara Everest), are never around to witness this strange event. Further complicating matters is Gregory’s insistence that it is all in Paula’s imagination, adding to his case that she should be institutionalized.

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Of course we know that Paula is perfectly sane, albeit vulnerable due to her traumatic childhood. This vulnerability is brutally exploited by Gregory primarily so that he can have full access to the hidden, valuable treasures that once belonged to Paula’s aunt. But it’s more than that; Gregory enjoys torturing Paula. While his ultimate goal is to be rid of Paula, he certainly takes his sweet time in doing so. He gains far too much pleasure in seeing her suffer, at times making the film very difficult to watch. The systematic psychological torture of a broken person desperately in need of love and protection, this is what should come to mind when the term “gaslighting” is mentioned, not partisan political nonsense.

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Gaslight, currently streaming on FilmStruck as part of their Icons: Ingrid Bergman series, is an exceptional Academy Award-nominated dramatic thriller directed by George Cukor. The film features expert acting by Bergman, who won the Oscar for Best Actress, with excellent Oscar-nominated performances by Charles Boyer and a young Angela Lansbury, as well as supporting roles by Joseph Cotten and Dame May Whitty. This haunting film is one of the boldest productions to come out of MGM in the 1940s. Along with this adaptation, the 1940 version starring Anton Walbrook and Diana Wynyard is also required viewing.

Jill Blake

13 Responses Gaslight (1944) and the True Meaning of Fear
Posted By Jack J Mass : January 12, 2017 1:13 am

I thought “galighting ” meant driving a person to such distraction, that he loses his mind in the process. To be plain and simple, driving another person mad by confusing him, planting objects he never never saw before and accusing him of putting them there. Madness on the installment plan. Mental torture. I don’t understand where all the political nonsense comes into play.

Posted By Doug : January 12, 2017 7:48 am

Jill, a fine post on a chilling film which I will have to watch again. The psychological torture-I think that if Paula were penniless but married to Gregory, he would inflict the torture just the same-the treasure in the house gives him am excuse to act out his villainy…but his true raison d’etre is torturing Paula.
I think we’ve all come across his type of evil in our lives-there are a lot of bad people out there.
Bergman is so vulnerable in this film, making Gregory’s acts of torture all the more reprehensible.
I definitely need to watch this again.

Posted By Emgee : January 12, 2017 3:14 pm

“his true raison d’etre is torturing Paula”

You definitely need to watch this again, cause to him it’s all about the jewels, she’s just an obstacle to him and of course a means of entering the house.

One of my favourite Gothic thrillers, that i watch every year.
Also one of Bergman’s best movies.

Posted By Jill Blake : January 12, 2017 3:30 pm

Emgee– I’ve probably seen this movie some 20 or 30 times, so no need to see it again. You’re right: Gregory/Sergius wants the jewels. That’s his endgame. But it’s so much more than that. He tracked Paula down, cultivated a relationship with her, and spent all of that time torturing her. Was it to buy him time to search for the jewels? Yes. Was it to drive her insane so she’d be institutionalized so he’d have the freedom to tear the house up searching for the jewels? Yes. Did he ENJOY torturing her? ABSOLUTELY. He didn’t have to mentally torture her. He could’ve sent her away on a trip or he could’ve killed her and made it look like an accident. But all of that is too simple. He’s a sadist. He knew her weakness (this horrible trauma) and he exploited it. He’s an abusive, homicidal creep who happens to be a jewel thief. They’re not mutually exclusive.

Posted By Jill Blake : January 12, 2017 3:37 pm

Emgee– I just realized you were responding to Doug, although I see Doug and I are in agreement here.

Doug– You’re exactly right here. The jewels are the MacGuffin. Gregory/Sergius is an abuser.

Posted By Jill Blake : January 12, 2017 3:48 pm

Jack–yes, you’re correct about what gaslighting is. I’ve said the same thing here, albeit in slightly different terms. I mentioned politics because the term gaslighting is often thrown around a lot to describe the actions of politicians, leaders, media, etc., and I believe that is the wrong use of the term. Recent events inspired me to remind people of its original meaning.

Gaslighting is a very intimate, personal form of mental abuse and torture, typically directed toward women in romantic relationships, although it can be found in any personal or family dynamic.

Posted By Emgee : January 12, 2017 4:26 pm

“Emgee– I just realized you were responding to Doug, although I see Doug and I are in agreement here. ”

It´s an open blog so everyone can pitch in. And it´s your post so yeah, by all means. To quote Doug more fully

“I think that if Paula were penniless but married to Gregory, he would inflict the torture just the same.”

That´s where i diagree. Yes he likes his cruel mind games, but I think without the jewels he wouldn´t tell her the time of day.

I agree that in the story the jewels are the MacGuffin, who cares if he´s looking for rare stamps or stocks and bonds, but for the character Gregory the jewels are the ultimate goal.

“He could’ve sent her away on a trip or he could’ve killed her and made it look like an accident.”

Then it wouldn´t have been the tense thriller that it is and the Bergman character would have been a nothing character: the mental torture is a great dramatic device, but NOT his motivation. That is, as so often, the money.

Posted By Jill Blake : January 12, 2017 4:57 pm

Emgee– My apologies. I realized my comment might’ve come across a bit terse. I think we are mostly on the same page, with one slight difference. You view Gregory as a jewel thief who happens to be abusive, whereas I view him as an abuser who happens to be a jewel thief. Whew, that was a mouthful.

I think we can both agree that he’s a terrible person and Bergman is brilliant in this film. :)

Posted By Doug : January 12, 2017 9:19 pm

Angela Lansbury also showed…(if I can borrow once more from H.G. Wells)’things to come’ concerning her career. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen this, but I remember Lansbury being note perfect in her small role.
Recently watched Bergman in “Notorious”-she was luminescent and Grant kept up pretty well himself.

Posted By Jill Blake : January 12, 2017 10:06 pm

Doug– Angela Lansbury is incredible, and more than holds her own alongside Boyer and Bergman. Matter of fact, she received an Academy Award nomination for the role.

NOTORIOUS is my favorite film, and Bergman and Grant’s absolute best, in my opinion. Also love their second and final film, INDISCREET (1958). Wish they had made more together. Wonderful pairing.

Posted By Emgee : January 13, 2017 4:43 am

” I realized my comment might’ve come across a bit terse.” Same here, as regarding my comments, and yes i think we largely agree.
He’s a bully, who realizes how fragile his wife’s mental condition is, and i’m sure she not his first victim.

Bergman is great because she can play both vulnerable and feisty, but of course because of the morals of the times ultimately a man has to rescue her. Dear oh dear.
The use of the housemaid, who also realises how easy her mistress can be bullied is a marvelous dramatic device.

Posted By Mitch Farish : January 14, 2017 12:41 pm

I’ve always though this film was a bit long and too focused on the romance angle. I liked bits of it, but Boyer annoyed me more that he frightened me. Then I saw the ’40 version and Anton Walbrook really frightened me. MGM turned an economic thriller into a glossy film to showcases the sex-appeal of the leads.

The ’40 British version gets right to the point from the beginning. The scene of the thief searching the house for those jewels, pausing in his insane rampage to move the body of the old lady he just murdered, is as chilling as it gets.

The incredibly stupid premise of the ’44 version – the backstory of Boyer tracking down Bergman, wooing her, confident she would marry him and allow him to get into her house – strains credulity.

In the ’40 version Walbrook just marries the first rich woman who will take him so he can have enough money to buy the house. Makes more sense. Diane Winyard as the wife and Cathleen Cordell as the maid Nancy are not strong, but it’s Walbrook’s show and he tears it up. Boyer just can’t compare.

Posted By George : January 21, 2017 3:51 pm

Do a Google search for “Trump gaslighter” or “gaslighter in chief.” You’ll get quite a few results.

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