Gaslight (1940)

Directed by Thorold Dickinson

Screen Shot 2018-04-12 at 12.39.15 PM

Gaslight is a thriller about the stress of marriage, at least when your husband is a murderous thief intent on convincing you that you need to be institutionalized.

The story takes place in a small British neighborhood, where a newlywed couple, Paul and Bella Mallen, move in years after the murder of Alice Barlow.  Paul and Bella’s arrival attracts the attention of a local detective, B.G. Rough, who suspects Paul may be Barlow’s murderer.

Rough’s suspicion plus Paul’s disturbing behavior towards his wife makes it clear that he’s the killer.  Also, who else could it be?  Paul alienates himself from the audience almost immediately as he torments Bella, making it seem as though she has misplaced several items in the house with no memory of doing so.  Paul is intent on having his wife institutionalized so that anything she knows or believes about Paul can be dismissed in court.  Why?  Well he’s a killer, and he has returned to the neighborhood so that he can search for the rubies he had hoped to get from his aunt after he killed her.

Basically we’re told that Paul killed Barlow, and he ran when he couldn’t find the rubies he wanted to steal from her.  Now, years later, he has married and returned with a wife from the countryside.  Using Bella’s family fortune, Paul has purchased two homes, the one in which they live and the adjacent unit.  At night he sneaks off into the neighboring home to look for the rubies.  Bella can hear his footsteps, and later she realizes that when the lights in her home dim, it’s because Paul has ignited the lights next door.

Bella only puts this together when Rough shows up, telling her what’s going on.  He’s able to get close to Bella because Paul has gone off to a show with one of the maids.  He’s just kind of casually having an affair for no discernible reason other than to allow Rough the opportunity to speak freely with Bella.  Also it makes Rough more unlikeable, but he’s also pretty unlikeable from the start.

Bella is reluctant to turn against Paul because he’s her husband, and she holds sacred the institution of marriage.  It’s why she puts up with Paul far too long, one of those character traits that doesn’t quite add up but always seems to show up in movies like these.  We look at Bella and wonder why she hasn’t gotten the hell out based only on Paul’s strange behavior, but she’s committed for some reason.  She needs proof that he’s not just crazy but sinister, and well eventually she gets it.

The end of the film is pretty delightful.  Paul is tied up and turns into Gollum once he finds his rubies.  He stares at them like a feral animal, and Bella nearly stabs him after taunting him and before he is arrested.  It’s strange and twisted and energetic.  It might be the only time in the movie we get extreme close ups of the actors.  Their faces fill the frame in a way we don’t see through the rest of the film and in a way you don’t typically see in films of this time period.

Most often the story is shot like a staged play.  The characters move and talk while the camera just captures the action, often framing one or more characters in the same shot.  This means less cutting, and it often slows down the film’s pacing.  Then, in the final scene, we see canted angles and extreme close ups.  The intensity is ramped up, and the veil drops, revealing the full insanity of both Paul and, to a lesser extent, Bella.

They’re both animalistic in a certain way.  Paul is the more clear example, with his single-minded determination to get those damn rubies, but even Bella cuts loose for a little while.  She spends most of the film playing the part of a soon to be sacrificed little lamb, but she finally gets her moment.  When she closes in on Paul, holding that shiny knife, you really feel like she might plunge it into his chest.  It’s a surprising amount of suspense I didn’t think this film was capable of, at least from today’s vantage point, having seen more modern, extreme thrillers.

What I find so great and weirdly engaging about these films is the ways characters act on hunches.  They always seem to feel something before they know it logically, and this gut feeling drives the story.

That’s the case with detective Rough who just feels like something’s up when Paul and Bella move in.  He has no real reason to suspect the new married couple, but he knows there’s something in the air, and he’s completely right.

Then with Paul, we don’t know what drives him exactly, but there’s some strange, dark urge within him.  He acts on impulse, and the less we know about his background and about why he wants the rubies, the better.  He’s a mystery.  Sure, we know he wants the rubies because they’re financially valuable, but when he marries Bella we’re told that he has married into her family wealth.  This suggests that the rubies have some value to him beyond money, and the less we know about this desire the better.  He’s a force, a dark, antagonistic force.

Then there’s Bella.  She’s a different breed, mainly there to be pure and imprisoned, a sign of what’s at stake.  She never really becomes her own character until the final moments of the film, when she gets to finally make a decision for herself.  She has the opportunity to gut her husband (who she finds out isn’t legally her husband), but she holds back.

Like with Paul, we don’t really know what drives Bella.  She loves her husband, for some reason, and holds the concept of marriage dear to her heart, but we don’t know anything else about her.  Does she want a family?  Does she have any dreams of her own?  Like with Paul we understand her immediate concerns (she wants a happy marriage), but we know little beyond that.  And the fact that she so stubbornly wants this happy marriage in spite of her husband’s malicious behavior makes that goal all the more strange.  I think in normal circumstances her character’s desire would be relatable, just wanting to live a happy life with the spouse you love, but this down to earth goal becomes all the more off-putting as she clings to it while her husband becomes increasingly deranged.  Bella’s commitment to her own desire, like Paul’s, becomes alien to us the more she resists opening her eyes.

So Gaslight is a story set in the world of an upper class community in England.  They dress and act the part, but under that thin veneer there is a dark, strange urge driving them all forward.  Like with other thrillers of the time (namely Hitchcock), this story suggests that while we are perfectly civilized in public, behind closed doors there is something rotting.

Up Next: Cedar Rapids (2011), The Informant! (2009), Life Itself (2014)

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