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Gurglings of a Putrid Stream

Thoughts on books and other assorted topics.

See also:  http://goppf.wikidot.com/swstart

My name:  Brian Martin

Gaslight (1944), directed by George Cukor

Gaslight - Ingrid Bergman, Angela Lansbury

Here, ladies and gentlemen, we have the ax of the 'eadsman and the execution block. These are the originals with which such historic persons as Lady Jane Grey and Queen Catherine Howard was beheaded within these precincts. The victim, kneeling, laid his 'ead upon the block, fitted his neck into the small, hollowed-out space designed to receive it, whereupon the ax descended, severing the 'ead from the torso with one blow...or, in unlucky cases, two.

Gaslight stars Ingrid Bergman as Paula, Charles Boyer as Gregory, and Joseph Cotton.

Early in the film Paula sings from Gaetano Donizetti's tragic opera Lucia di Lammermoor. Paula's mother was an opera singer. Before she was murdered. It doesn't seem to occur to Paula that perhaps the two facts are related, even though she knows perfectly well that her mother was strangled.

I saw an opera once, though it wasn't Lucia. It was Tosca, and the occasion was a class field trip. I can't say that it broadened my horizons much, except in that it taught me one thing: that the kid who sits enthralled by opera is a weird kid. Not a bad kid, but a very odd duck indeed.

Comic opera is another matter entirely, at least when it is written by Gilbert and Sullivan. My Dad had several recordings of their work, and I believe I am the better for having heard them. Indeed, I now own them.

But back to Lucia. Is this the greatest in-joke ever? I'd call it foreshadowing, but not even the lightest of shadows is visible in the dark. Gaslight, as it happens, is about a man trying to drive his wife insane. In the opera, which is based on The Bride of Lammermoor, a novel by Sir Walter Scott, Lucia goes insane. Even better, a letter figures prominently in both. How I envy the man or woman who watches Gaslight and actually gets all this! Why, with all that education, they'd have to be very model of a modern major-general.

Details, details. Gaslight is a movie with many lovely details. Another, in the previous vein, is that Paula reads from Charlotte Bronte's Villette, which also includes some of the same themes as this film. (I didn't get that one, either, having not read the book.) Most of them, however, are more generally accessible, like one involving a glove and its missing mate. The trouble is, the whole doesn't quite equal the parts.

I won't go all feminist on you and explain why Paula's passivity and submissiveness are abhorrent -- partly because I don't even believe that; still, speaking as a human being, I feel that she could have done more in her own defense. Not that it would have been easy. The idea is, traumatized by her mother's death, Paula falls in love with a man who dreams of living in a house in London. Paula, of course, owns just such a house -- her mother's, to which she hasn't returned since the tragedy. On edge already, Paula is pushed further by Gregory, her husband, who keeps her closed in the house and turns the servants, who are Paula's only real contact with the outside world, against her. He does things like hiding a picture and then asking her where it's gone, insinuating she took it and forgot all about it. It takes its toll. Yet being told that you are insane is rather like hallucinating. I scoff when characters see things that plainly aren't there and go on with their lives without a second thought (this happens far too often), and I scoff here at Paula, who resists Gregory's psychological assaults only in her mind. In my mind, I am screaming, Do something, for crying out loud!

A bigger problem is Gregory. Gregory has a reason for doing all this. But if he is the picture of methodical planning and execution in the matter of wrecking Paula's sanity, he is inexplicably haphazard and disorganized in his deeper plot. It makes no sense at all.

Undeniably, though, Ingrid Bergman is a beautiful Paula. She is well-paired here with George Cukor, famously known as a "woman's director." (While the epithet has validity, one wonders, given the director's sexual orientation, if it wasn't also intended as a slur.) More importantly, she plays the part well; she won the Best Actress Academy Award for her performance. Charles Boyer is also quite good, being by turns thoroughly charming and darkly menacing.

Details, details. Gaslight, set in the Edwardian era, also won the Academy Award for Best Art Direction. It's a pretty film, and all that gas lighting is very romantic. In a tortured souls kind of way.