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Revisiting ‘Gaslight,’ the Movie

What can the original 1944 George Cukor film teach us in 2017?

‘Gaslight’ (Getty Images)
‘Gaslight’ (Getty Images)

Since the election of Donald Trump — in this disorienting moment when American democracy and the nature of truth itself are both on shaky ground — it has been both a comfort and a shock to engage with art that feels eerily prophetic. 1984 is back on the best-seller list; copies of The Handmaid’s Tale are flying off the shelves. My book club is not the only one currently reading It Can’t Happen Here, Sinclair Lewis’s satirical 1935 novel speculating what would have happened if an economic-nationalist-turned-totalitarian had beaten FDR for the presidency in ’36. In this retrogressive cultural climate, it makes a certain amount of sense that an early contender for the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year actually comes to us from Gaslight — a movie from 1944, based on a play from 1938, which takes place in the 1880s.

Surely you’ve heard the word “gaslight” in the past couple of months, if not the past couple of hours. It’s suddenly everywhere: The New York Times, CNN, and even Psychology Today have all used it in headlines; the Chronicle of Higher Education recently ran a thorough blog post on its etymology. “Gaslighting” — lying to someone so charismatically and manipulatively that they start to believe they are insane — had been a buzzword in the feminist blogosphere for a while, but its crossover moment came last year thanks to articles like the widely shared op-ed by Teen Vogue writer Lauren Duca titled “Donald Trump Is Gaslighting America.” “At the hands of Trump,” she wrote, “facts have become interchangeable with opinions, blinding us into arguing amongst ourselves, as our very reality is called into question.” In 2017, the idea of gaslighting is near inescapable.

Before it was an SEO tag, Gaslight was a George Cukor movie — made in 1944, adapted from a play by Patrick Hamilton, and starring Ingrid Bergman in the first of three roles for which she’d win an Oscar. The film also stars Charles Boyer (who, at the time, insisted on billing above a lesser-known Bergman, although history has sorted that out), an annoyingly chivalrous Joseph Cotten, and, most notably, an 18-year-old Angela Lansbury, in her first film role, portraying an insubordinate maid named Nancy with a saucy Cockney accent.

Bergman plays a woman named Paula, who as a girl discovered the body of her aunt (and sole guardian) after the aunt had been strangled to death by an intruder in their home. Paula’s remaining relatives whisk her away from London and set up a new life for her in Italy, where they make a decision — the first of several in this film that a therapist might find quite dubious — to train Paula to be an opera singer just like her dead aunt. All’s well until she falls in love with a charming Italian man named Gregory (Boyer). They marry, she gives up her opera studies, and he insists they make a home for themselves in London, in (psychologically dubious decision no. 2) the very same home in which the aunt’s murder took place.

Gregory first starts acting erratically when he and Paula are going through Aunt Alice’s belongings; when Paula finds a letter from a man named Sergius Bauer, addressed to her aunt and dated a few days before her death, Gregory suddenly snatches it out of her hands. As they settle into their new home, though, things tumble rapidly downhill. Possessions start to go missing — a brooch, a watch, a picture on the wall — and each time Gregory, in a blood-curdlingly patronizing tone of voice, convinces Paula that she misplaced them. He repeatedly tells her that she’s forgetful, careless, maybe even a kleptomaniac. But we soon we realize that it is Gregory who has been hiding these things, repeating his recitations that she’s so absent-minded, manipulating Paula so she will start to question her own judgment and sanity. This is the point that many 2017 viewers will start to yell at the screen.

When Gaslight was released, Cukor already had a reputation as a “woman’s director,” and to most people in 1944 this was not a compliment. In its kindest interpretation, it was a means of ghettoizing the work that he and his lead actresses (like Katharine Hepburn, with whom he’d already made six films) did as something separate from and less than the default male norm. But, in a thinly veiled euphemism, it was also a way of calling him gay.

Cukor’s homosexuality was a widely known secret in Hollywood, though he didn’t like it on the record; even four decades after Gaslight, in 1981, New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael incited a long-lasting controversy when she ostensibly outed him in her review of his final film, Rich and Famous. Still, his reputation occasionally preceded him on set. The original director of Gone With the Wind, Cukor was replaced shortly into the film’s production and replaced with Victor Fleming; it is rumored that part of the reason was Clark Gable did not want to be directed by a “woman’s director.” The phrase followed Cukor for the rest of his career, though it wasn’t one he wore with pride. “I suppose they call me a woman’s director because there were all these movie queens in the old days, and I directed most of them,” he said late in his life. “But I also directed Jack Barrymore and Ronald Colman and James Stewart, to name a few.”

Much of what makes Gaslight feel so strikingly modern today, though, is its central focus on the woman’s point of view and its insistence on taking it seriously. Gaslight is not your typical thriller: It is a horror story of the domestic sphere. As Gregory begins to convince Paula that she is mentally unstable, he also confines her to their home. One of the only times he lets her go out — in one of the film’s most excruciating scenes — he publicly humiliates her at a concert by asking if she has his watch (which of course we know he hid), leading to a public breakdown that Bergman plays with chilling intensity.

Whenever Paula is alone in the house, she imagines that she hears footsteps in the attic and sees the gas lights flickering on and off. When Gregory returns home, each time, he reassures her with overblown bravado that she’s seeing things. But Paula isn’t crazy, and the plot progresses less from external action than from the internal journey by which she starts to believe her own observations. Perhaps the most old-fashioned thing about the story is that it takes an intervention by a do-gooder male detective (who becomes obsessed with Paula only because she looks so much like her aunt, upon whom this detective had a crush) for Paula to begin doubting Gregory. This plot point wouldn’t be as easy to tolerate if Paula were played by almost anyone but Ingrid Bergman, who cannot help but radiate an air of steely self-sufficiency even in a movie that is ostensibly about hysteria.

I won’t spoil the ending of the movie, but if you’re looking to see a conniving truth-distorter get his comeuppance, Gaslight is a satisfying palate cleanser. What makes its resurgence more surprising than, say, 1984 or Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, is that Gaslight was not trying to be historically prophetic — on its surface, it’s not really about politics or history at all. It’s instead about a more private, subtler, internalized type of violence that’s harder to depict on screen. “Gaslighting,” we’re reminded, is nothing new, but its sudden ubiquity in modern discourse at least means that some members of the mainstream are waking up to the regular experience of marginalized people. With more voices than ever trying to tell us that 2 + 2 = 5, or that 306 is larger than 365, Gaslight serves up an age-old lesson: Just because a powerful man speaks with authority doesn’t mean he’s right.