Time to demonstrate my gay card as I speak positively over Gaslight’s two hours of diva in full martyrdom! George Cukor’s gothic melodrama about a naïve young wife being slowly driven insane by her gold-digging husband is a lot of fun. It’s as atmospherically cluttered and inky as a Universal Monsters film and as well-acted as any of his heralded “women’s pictures” from the era. Of course, having actors as great as Ingrid Bergman, Charles Boyer, and Angela Lansbury in major roles doesn’t hurt, either.
Sure, time has dulled some of the psychological terror that comes with watching Ingrid Bergman’s Victorian wife slowly losing grip on sanity, but there’s still plenty of studio-era visual poetry and lyrical acting gestures on display. The very artifice of a film like Gaslight is its own pleasurable reward. We’re not looking into complex insight here but for a hissable villain, here embodied by a complex Boyer, and a brittle woman on the verge of hysteria with colorful supporting parts, especially Lansbury as a slutty Cockney chambermaid and Dame May Whitty as a nosy neighbor.
There isn’t much in the way of mystery as Boyer’s duplicitous nature is practically spelled out from the get-go, but there is the pleasure of watching the normally stolid Bergman begin to deteriorate mentally and emotionally as up becomes down and nothing is quite what it appears. Gaslight is a tightly wound costume drama with a dash of complex horror and a healthy dose of atmosphere to separate it from the pack. It works as its evenly paced unraveling corresponds with Bergman’s.
If anything, Gaslight’s crumbling martyr is a portrait of the danger women face both inside and outside the home. Bergman’s character sought tranquility and stability in a life that’s been marred by scandal as her aunt was killed in this very house when she was a child, and now she’s trapped in an abusive marriage. If she’s unsafe in her marriage, and by extension for the time period her entire life, then she is unsafe any and everywhere. There’s seemingly no reprieve from the ominous shadows, the flickering lights, or the isolation for this woman. How many others can say the same?