Sunday, April 10, 2011

Gaslight [George Cukor]

The only problem with 1944's Gaslight is its length. At about 90 minutes, it would have made a cracking psychological thriller. At nearly 2 hours, it feels padded out, the problem exacerbated by the fact that the movie tips its hand very early on. Ingrid Bergman is a romantic woman who as a child was traumatized by the mysterious death of her famous opera singer aunt. She goes on to fall in love with and marry Charles Boyer, a European pianist. At his urging the couple return to London, to the house her aunt originally lived in. But all doesn't remain well. Indeed very soon after, Ingrid appears a reclusive nervous wreck, her behavior in many ways molded by the increasingly dominant, repressive influence of Charles who insists that she is becoming forgetful and fanciful, and is not mentally up to mixing with other people. When he leaves her alone every evening, the titular gaslight grows dim and she hears strange noises (or does she?), leaving her ever more anxious and brittle. For most of the film we see Ingrid being pushed further and further towards the edge of sanity till...

Oh, there's no mystery here, we know who the bad guy is, almost from the very beginning. However, the interplay between Bergman and Boyer is the highlight here and both stars put on sterling performances; Bergman apparently had studied patients with mental illness to prepare for her role and, like Deborah Kerr in The Innocents, she is convincing as a woman whose hold on reality is terrifyingly tenuous; she won the Academy Award for Best Actress that year.

George Cukor directs with noticeable chutzpah and the production has a richly embroidered look which serves the purpose of the story. The rooms of Ingrid's house, where most scenes of the film are set, are strewn with all manner of knick-knacks that create a cluttered claustrophobic ambiance, reflecting her mental suffocation. Joseph Ruttenberg, the man behind the camera, creates stark frames with deep shadow when needed to evoke the tension; this is one beautifully captured film, and apart from the unnecessarily long trek to a very obvious revelation, it makes very good watching for those that like their gas-lit mysteries.

On an aside, Enlighten Home Library, which have released this film in India have made their DVD from a sterling master (probably the same used for the Warner Bros release abroad). The 4:3 image has exquisite detail and contrast for a film so old and a lovely light sheen of film grain, indicating a respectful treatment of the source materials. The mono sound is crisp and clear. Unlike the WB release which also included a 1940 adaptation of Gaslight, Enlighten's release carries little by way of bonus features, but the picture and sound quality, as with their release of David Lean's film Oliver Twist, is immensely pleasing and, at the selling price, easily commended to lovers of classic Hollywood / British cinema in India.

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