Review: Gaslight

Gaslight screenshot

Year: 1944 | Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Gaslight is a slow-burn (shameless pun intended). The first half-hour or so was pretty bumpy as the story got established, but once the mystery really deepened and Ingrid Bergman leaned into her virtuosic performance, it really sucked me in and didn’t let me go until the very end.

What I think I appreciate most about this film is how much the screenwriters chose to give away fairly early in the story, and yet it’s still a mystery that throws curveballs at the audience all the way throughout. I daresay that even if I hadn’t already known the “twist” thanks to the cultural ubiquity of the term “gaslight” that originates from this film, it would have been obvious less than a third of the way through the film that Gregory (Charles Boyer) had something to do with Paula’s (Ingrid Bergman) aunt’s murder and that he was now intentionally making her question her reality. But the motives for Gregory’s actions and how the story was going to resolve itself remained shroud in mystery and left me guessing until the reveal. The real mystery of Gaslight isn’t what is happening so much as why it’s happened, which, to me, is much preferable to a mystery film that simply withholds every pertinent piece of information from the audience until the very end, seeking that surface-level “gotcha!” moment that in actuality has very little depth behind it.

If I may dive a little in film nerd territory here, I also find Gaslight interesting as a natural progression of George Cukor’s directing career. Chronologically, this film lands smack-dab in the middle of Cukor’s filmography, and both of the prior films of his that I had seen — Holiday (1938) and The Philadelphia Story (1940) — were, like Gaslight, film adaptations of stage plays. What strikes me about this film is how much less “stagey” it feels in comparison to the former two. This is not a comment on the quality of the three films in question; I consider both Holiday and The Philadelphia Story to be better films than Gaslight. But where the former films hinge almost entirely on the dialogue and the performances of the actors, it feels like Cukor really made an effort to make Gaslight feel like a film in the visual sense: the lighting and camerawork all the way down to something as simple as the blocking of the actors on the screen ensures that this film feels purely cinematic; there’s one shot with shadows on a doorway that made my jaw drop. Obviously this film was influenced by the film noir movement that was reaching the peak of its prevalence in American film, but it’s still an interesting point of comparison, I think.

But anyway, yeah, I liked Gaslight a lot after the first act. It could have been a stone-cold masterpiece if the beginning had been executed a little better, but it was well worth sticking in there and seeing this one through.

Language: English
Genre: Drama, Crime, Thriller, Mystery
Runtime: 1 hr. 54 min.
Rating: Passed

Director: George Cukor
Starring: Charles Boyer, Ingrid Bergman, Joseph Cotten, May Whitty, Angela Lansbury

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