Director: Andre De Toth
Producer: Samuel Bischoff
Screenwriter: Karl Kamb, Andre De Toth, and William Bowers
Cinematographer: Harry J. Wild
Studio: United Artists 1948
Main Acting: Dick Powell and Lizabeth Scott
It’s past midnight and I was getting ready to post George Cukor’s Gaslight as my number 43 on the film noir countdown. As I write below, I have serious reservations about including this movie on the list. At this late hour, I decided to place Pitfall here as a last minute replacement. I regret not being able to write in detail about De Toth’s wonderful 1948 picture starring Dick Powell. Similar to I Walk Alone, Pitfall deserves a legit DVD/Blu Ray release and is a great noir that screams out for more recognition. I will allow my initial pick to be read as I explicitly describe why I feel strongly to have it removed from consideration. After some deliberation, Gaslight is simply not film noir in my eyes. To be honest, Pitfall is probably the overall better film anyway.
Dave Hicks included Pitfall in his own noir countdown almost a year ago. He had the De Toth film coming in at #13. The movie deals with John Forbes (played by Dick Powell), an insurance agent trying to find some excitement in his boring middle class life. He sparks a romance with model Mona Stevens (played by Lizabeth Scott) who happens to be the girlfriend of a imprisoned criminal that Forbes has been assigned the task of repossessing various expensive items from. Forbes ends up lying on his reports, falsifying what Mona has in her ownership (primarily a speedboat) and gets involved in a relationship that sends his envious private investigator colleague MacDonald (Raymond Burr) into a jealous frenzy. The couple is increasingly stalked and threatened by MacDonald. Forbes must now wade his way through various entanglements that could cost him not only his marriage but even his life.
Seeing the lineup trotted out for Noir City 9 (this past January 21st through January 31st), I was struck by one particular film included in the program. A movie I have always enjoyed and considered a minor classic, but never assumed as film noir by any stretch of the imagination. That picture is George Cukor’s 1944 mystery thriller, Gaslight, starring Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer. Interesting backstory: This was actually a remake of an English movie directed by Thorold Dickinson four years earlier. MGM had had their own Cukor version in the works, so they allegedly tried to eliminate the competition and block its American release by (unsuccessfully) trying to destroy the negative of the English film. In the end, MGM didn’t need to resort to underhanded espionage because Cukor and his team created a memorable film in its own right.
What strikes me about the 1944 Gaslight is that it feels more like a Hitchcockian woman’s picture such as Rebecca than anything resembling Double Indemnity. Yet as I was conducting my research, I was amazed by the sheer number of people that felt it deserved a place in the noir pantheon. The realization dawned on me that if we decide the genre is more about style, lighting, and mise en scene above themes than Gaslight must certainly be included. I personally wonder if it really deserves a spot over something like Mankiewicz’s’ House Of Stangers or De Toth’s Pitfall, which are clear examples of the genre, while Cukor’s remake is borderline at best. Yet my main purpose of this countdown is to highlight my favorite films that exude some essence of noir. With this caveat established, Gaslight is a shoo-in when it comes to half of my equation. I place it here as another personal pick I am not entirely comfortable with.
Gaslight opens with Bergman’s Paula in shock over the ghastly murder of her opera-singing Aunt Alice. Shattered by this recent event, Paula’s psyche is especially fragile. In an attempt to move on, she goes to Italy to train for her own operatic aspirations. However Paula can’t muster up her deceased aunt’s passion and ambition. Instead she falls for her teacher’s piano player, Gregory. Quickly, they decide to marry and move back to London where the oddly smitten groom convinces his wife to relocate back into the home where her traumatic past still lingers. Once settled, Alice starts to lose her grip on reality, absentmindedly misplacing valuable possessions, which drives the overly concerned Gregory to untold levels of bemusement. Isolated and kept apart from visitors, Alice must find the mental fortitude to realize that her bouts of forgetfulness and slide into insanity might actually be the sole manipulations of her seemingly sweet yet sinister husband. She gains the help of concerned Scotland Yard inspector Brian Cameron (Joseph Cotten), who finds a link to a long-unsolved case that may finally be explained.
A pinnacle example of melodramatic woman-in-peril films, Gaslight is extremely effective at establishing a level of tension and frustration. I always find myself becoming increasingly queasy halfway through the movie when it’s more than apparent that Gregory is a scheming bastard. We know quickly that Boyer’s character is deliberately forcing his wife into a state of panic and confusion, and his increased attacks on her also affect us deeply. As the movie goes on, Cukor exacerbates his female protagonist’s suffering. We, the viewers, become an unwilling participant in this emotional torture and are powerless throughout the proceedings. We must sit helplessly as the naively unaware Paula grows increasing paranoid and more and more desperate. The boiling point slowly mounts to an unbearable crescendo. The fact that Charles Boyer portrays a homme fatale is not unique to most women’s pictures, but is unusual in the borderline misogynistic world of film noir. It’s an interesting change of pace that may indicate why Gaslight is not universally considered part of the genre. Femme fatale is an essential piece of noir lexicon; homme fatale, other than some key examples (like The Prowler), is not. A doomed male protagonist is par for the course; suffering sensitive female is not. The sense that the final act will lead to a tragic ending is standard. The sense that the tortured girl will find peace, love, and live happy ever after is not.
Cinematographer Joseph Ruttenberg does an excellent job visually. The scene where Gregory leaves the house after having an erotically charged discussion with Angela Lansbury’s music-hall-loving maid Nancy is evocatively photographed. As is the moment where the policeman banging his stick across the gate slowly appears like an apparition from the darkness. I have always been a sucker for fog-bound Victorian-era settings like this. While I’m not a fan of most glossy MGM productions, throw in some top hats, crank up the fog machine, and set the time period to, say, 1880 and I’m there. Gaslight is not the only movie in this countdown that will be featuring this fascinating period of London, that yet-to-come picture in question undoubtedly has a much stronger grip on the tenants of film noir. Still, even with my reservations of placing this film on a “noir” countdown, I can’t find much fault with the actual movie itself—aside from the devious and destructive motives of Gaslight’s studio heads. But, then again, maybe it was that sneaky behind-the-scenes conspiracy that helped imbue such convincing villainy on the screen.