The Devil You Know: The Subversive Genius of George Cukor’s Cinematic Classic, GASLIGHT

Like most films in the 1940s, George Cukor’s Gaslight seems to fit the mold: murder mystery, a pained heiress in a veil in the back of a handsome cab, a sudden time lapse, a beautiful, lavender romance. But even then, Cukor and Bergman are already subverting the typical nature of the 1940s film on its head.

Cukor is magnetized to Bergman’s expressive and elusive eyes that emanate youthful radiance that all too quickly undulates to an unsettling darkness.

The beauty of Gaslight is well within the first act, you can sense how the plot will flesh itself out, and yet, due to impeccably nuanced acting by the flawless Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer, you become fixated.

Boyer and Bergman emanate passion and chemistry, and the camera lovingly pans over Bergman’s naive and yet ever-evolving understanding of what is happening to her.

Her eyes portray the magnificent decadence of budding romance, the anxiety of being a young bride, and then the otherness of becoming a victim of abuse, a young woman thrust into the tangled web of emotional abuse and manipulation, trying to cling to the ribbons of what sanity she has left, and Bergman does it all.

Cukor knew full well what he was doing casting Bergman as the bewildered protagonist Paula; Bergman’s performance as a tortured wife surely informed the performance of Nicole Kidman in the beloved 2017 HBO limited series, Big Little Lies. 

The abuse is mirrored in minute expression, in subtly recoiled horror. Surely this cannot happen to me, Bergman’s eyes beg. And then come her banshee cries and the long, agoraphobic shots of the doomed London estate. With a fever pitch, Bergman’s anxiety ratchets up to a manic pace. Already unmoored by her mother’s murder, she is all too easy prey to Boyer’s tightly nuanced predator. Bergman and Boyer give their all in their performances, made all the more real by Cukor’s lingering shots that seem to be other than the peers and predecessors of their era.

Joseph Cotten’s performance is a revelation: as the outsider to the marriage, you can feel the looming intrigue that is measuredly pervasive in his role as Brian Cameron. The delicious alchemy that sizzles when Bergman is vindicated in her sanity and Cotten affirms it enthusiastically is electric.

Shot in rich black and white, the atmosphere is all London fog and rain-dappled cobblestone reflected through a fluid abyss skewing toward Van Gogh nihilism. Joseph Ruttenberg is the genius cinematographer who helps establish the dreary palate. Ruttenberg would go on to create the Technicolor dreamscape in GiGi and is the man behind the startlingly beautiful camerawork in the wartime classic, Mrs. Miniver.

What’s interesting is, while Gaslight seemed to follow a trend of books and films of women afraid of their husbands, it nevertheless remains impeccably outside of it. Perhaps this is in large part to Bergman’s timelessness and vulnerability. Gaslight never feels stale or tired, Cukor paces the film so we are never bored, and the chemistry between Bergman and Boyer sizzles, even against the grain of the graphic nature of most films today.

It’s interesting to see how a film like Gaslight stands up against predecessors like Gone Girl. While Gone Girl has that much talked about subversive plot twist, Gaslight still remains a fresh and extraordinary look at being married to the devil you know.

 

 

 

 

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