My 20-year-old colleague Samantha s a champion of the underdog, prides herself in coloring office conversation with dark interjections about the ableist and ageist and racist and sexist subtext in our chats about, say, who should go get the coffee, and she posts a lot on social media about how this or that group is persecuted or ignored, the horrors of gentrification, the horrible things in our food and the urgent need for enlightened discourse about one cause or another (plastic in the ocean, animal testing, beauty standards), and, like lots of the college-age bleeding hearts who file in and out of our tutoring center, she mentions “gaslighting” on a daily basis. The gaslighting of women by men and of various marginalized groups by the whole of society. She took to saying it so much that it’s met with unanimous eye-rolling at this point and — a good sport — she can’t really say it with a straight face. The word’s kinda lost its punch.
Hitchcock’s movie of the same name is an adaptation of a 1938 play called Gas Light and appears to be the origin of why that word is now used for a certain kind of abuse.
To gaslight somebody is to make them believe that something that’s unfolding right in front of them isn’t actually happening. Or that it’s not happening as they perceive it. or that it’s a result of their own doing.
In Hitchcock’s Gaslight we see Ingrid Bergman married to an accomplished pianist, played by Charles Boyer, who insists they move to London and into the house of her dead aunt, who was murdered there, and who left the house to Bergman’s character along with — hidden in the attic — some priceless jewels. Bergman doesn’t know about the jewels. Boyer does. It’s a gothic plot, with a big old creepy house and a nice dollop of foggy latenight strolls along cobblestone roads, and — befitting the genre — it turns out Boyer hasn’t only married her for access to the house, and the jewels by extension, but was also the one who murdered her aunt a few years back.
In order to tear the house up so he can search for the jewels, he wants to get her committed to some kind of institution. So he tries to drive her crazy. He gives her things that she cherishes, and then hides them. Makes her think she’s misplaced them. He puts things on the walls and then takes them down, making her think she imagined them to be there in the first place. And, the titular offense, he turns on a gaslight at strategic moments to make her believe she’s being haunted by the ghost of her murdered aunt.
Joseph Cotten turns up as the dashing and inquisitive extramarital love interest and, ultimately, the villain’s…foil? He’s not the hero. That’s Bergman. Ahdunno what you’d call him. Anyway. He really is a charming guy, I’m impressed by his work here and in Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons and Shadow of a Doubt and (still a few years down the List), The Third Man, but I can kinda see why he never became a leading man of the Cary Grant caliber. He might not be handsome enough, for one thing, but he also lacks It. Whatever It might be. He doesn’t stand out as a presence around whom the story can orbit. Rather, eh’s more relatable for how he seems to be walking unwittingly through the story’s events. Tough to articulate that star quality.
Anyway. The reason I bring up the thing with Samantha and how the word “gaslight” is used so rampantly online, is because this movie, while a bit tedious and probably the slowest of Hitchcock’s movies on the List to date (slower, even, than Rebecca), it illustrates the horror of that abusive tactic in a way that I don’t think Hitchcock ever recaptured. But it did intrigue him: the frenzied terror of women subjected to some baffling nightmare. The Lady Vanishes, Rebecca, Shadow of a Doubt and Blackmail — they all feature women in temporarily paralyzing grips of manipulation. A person they trusted proves duplicitous, cruel, exploitative. Or else something they’ve seen and touched and understood is made to seem false and dangerous. Their sanity is called into question.
But Gaslight takes it to a new level with a scene in the center where, for about ten minutes, Boyer strings Bergman along through a conversation that fluctuates between tenderness and cruelty, compliment and reprimand, apology and blame. For all the subtlety with which Boyer, in his performance, moves along the spectrum of cruelty, the most remarkable thing in the movie is how Bergman is probably exhausting herself in the role of a person coming totally undone. We see the mental and emotional toll of the constant flux of tenderness and aggression. How he fucks with her, feigns rage or hurt and then joy, keeping her on egg shells and then tilting the floor so that even when she tries to rectify her behavior she ends up opening the door to some other folly.
It deserves another look.
For all the depths of Hitchcock criticism on the internet, little is said about Gaslight, and apart from not appearing on the curriculum of that Hitchcock course I took in college it wasn’t even mentioned in class discussions, and I think it’s because — despite the brilliance of Gaslight‘s structure and pace and performances — this belongs to Hitchcock’s middle period of quiet psychological movies. Rebecca and Spellbound are a couple others. Hitchcock at this point is still working his way toward the greatness for which he’d be celebrated in the 1970s and ’80s. He appreciates his powers as a storyteller, as a manipulator of the medium’s resources, but I think he takes too many liberties with the audience’s patience here (and in Rebecca, too). (Editor’s Note from the Future: I think he starts inching out of that period with his next movie on the List, Notorious.)