Mother of the Void Presents: Gaslight (1944)

The definition of gaslight is “psychological manipulation of a person usually over an extended period of time that causes the victim to question the validity of their own thoughts, perceptions of reality or memories and typically leads to confusion, loss of confidence and self esteem, uncertainty of one’s emotional or mental stability, and a dependency on the perpetrator.”

Gaslight (1944 film) - Wikipedia

The name for the term Gaslighting came from the 1938 play “Gas Light” written by Patrick Hamilton. It was made into a film in 1940, and it is the second adaption, 1944, that is my film for the week. Having been a victim of this abuse in two major relationships in my life, I think the Void is trying to give me some inexpensive therapy, and I appreciate it. So here we go with Gaslight, directed by George Cukor and starring Charles Boyer, Ingrid Bergman and Joseph Cotten. If you want to read my last one, check it out here.

The beginning

The film open in London, as a young Paula Alquist is being led away from the scene of her aunt’s murder. A paper reveals that the murderer is still at large. There are many onlookers as a clearly distraught Paula watches the gaslights in her aunt’s house are extinguished. Her caretaker informs her that she is going to Italy to study singing with her aunt’s best friend. Paula is told this man will make her into a great singer, like her aunt. 

We now see an older Paula, studying her singing, and she is chastised for not taking her singing seriously and also for not singing like her aunt. As Paula assures her teacher she will try harder, the accompanist asks to be excused, and is granted permission. 

Paula discusses with her teacher that she knows she is not meant to be a singer. He tells her that she has been coming to her lessons happier than he has ever seen her, but as her happiness improves, it is having the opposite effect on her singing. He asks her if she is in love, and she affirms that she is. She tells him that she is happier than she has ever been, which is something she never thought would happen. Her instructor tells her that she should embrace this chance at happiness, she should free herself from the past. He asks to meet this man she loves, and instead of agreeing, she tells him goodbye. 

Paula hears her name called as she leaves her lesson. Gregory, the accompanist, is waiting for her. He pulls her into a secluded area and kisses her. He then asks if she told her teacher, and she says she didn’t have to, he knew already. Gregory questions why Paula hesitates moving forward with him. She admits she knows nothing about him, and he still asks her to marry him. . He questions if she is afraid of him, and she says no of happiness. Paula asks Gregory to give her time, and he says, “You will have all the time you need”. Paula confirms that they have only known each other for two weeks. She tells Gregory that she wants to go away for two weeks, so she can think about this on her own. He is supportive of her going. They have a very sweet parting. 

Paula’s Trip

Paula is now on the train with Miss Thwaites, who if she was alive today, she would be the biggest true crime podcast fan ever! She is reading a mystery novel, and she is very animated about what she is reading. She and Paula strike up a conversation. Paula tells Miss Thwaites that she is going to Lake Cuomo, and the old woman is shocked that she is traveling by herself. 

Miss Thwaites reveals that she is going to London and she lives in Thornton Square. This is the same area we saw Paula leaving at the beginning of the film. She tells the old woman that she knew people who lived there, and the amature sleuth begins to share the story of the unsolved murder that took place there years before. Paula becomes visibly upset, but the woman keeps talking. Much to Paula’s relief they reach her stop. As she exits the train, and Miss Thwaites continues to talk, a hand appears on her arm. It is Gregory, who has followed her. He says he hopes she is not angry, and she is genuinely relieved to see him. 

Now my younger self would have seen this and thought, “How romantic.” My older self, who has been in dysfunctional relationships sees this and thinks, “She asks for space, and this is his way of making sure she doesn’t get a chance to analyze what is happening in a healthy way, and change her mind.” To all you kids out there, respect your partner’s wishes. Time apart will not kill you! And if someone does not respect your wishes for space, RUN!

Newlyweds

We now see the beautiful balcony of the hotel where Gregory and Paula are spending their honeymoon, or at least I think it is their honeymoon. If not, this is really naughty for 1944. They are romantically talking about their future together. Gregory asks Paula where she would like to settle down. She suggests Paris, and he suggests London, which takes some of the joy from her face. All of a sudden, he has an idea.

He visited London when he was younger, and had always dreamed of having a home, “in one of the quiet little squares” asking her again if they could settle down in London. He then notices the expression on her face and asks what is wrong. She tells him she already owns a house in a square in London. Her Aunt left her the house. Paula confides that she knows nothing of her parents and lived with her Aunt until her death. She tells Gregory that she hasn’t been afraid since she has known him. Paula tells him that she can face the house with him by her side. She will give him his dream of a house in the square. 

We now see Miss Thwaites saying hello to flowers and it is revealed that new tenants are moving into Number 9, where the murder happened. She recognizes Paula and reintroduces herself. The solicitor opens the door to the house and they slowly enter together. Gregory begins to make his way through the house, but he has an intuition about the layout of the house. They go upstairs to the drawing room. Paula says the room smells of death, as Gregory opens a window, saying it won’t for long. Paula shows him a cabinet that displayed her aunt’s treasures. The glass was broken the night of the murder, but nothing was missing.

She shows her husband a single glove her Aunt loved, and as a child she inquired as to the whereabouts of the other glove, but was told that her aunt gave it away to a great admirer and that was all she knew. Gregory tells Paula that he wished he could have seen her, and she reveals her painting. A strange expression comes across Gregory’s face when he looks at the painting. Paula reveals the place where she found her aunt’s body, and that she had been strangled. Gregory suggests that they remove all the items that remind Paula of the tragedy.

A Home of their own

Paula heartily agrees and excitedly talks of the parties they could have. Gregory looks displeased and tells her that parties would come later because he wants them to have time to themselves. Paula tells him there is an attic where all her things are, and Gregory suggests they could put all the old furniture up there. Once they were done, they could board it up, so she would never have to look at them again. Personally I was thinking ‘YARD SALE”, but that is just my American coming out I guess. 

While Paula is showing Gregory her Aunt’s piano, she finds a letter and begins to read it outloud. When she says the letter was written by someone named Sergus Bower, Gregory becomes visibly upset and rips the letter out of her hands. He tells her that they need to get rid of all of these things because they are upsetting her.  Hello pot, I’m kettle. He tells her that while she holds on to her Aunt, there can be no happiness for them. 

Gaslight | CINEACTION

Some time has now passed, and Miss Thwaites runs into Elizabeth, Paula and Gregory’s housekeeper. It is established that workers have just finished boarding up the attic and Gregory doesn’t allow visitors because he feels that Paula is too unwell to be around people. 

When Elizabeth enters the house, Gregory is hiring another housekeeper (a very young and beautiful Angela Lansbury). He tells her she is never to bother Paula, and to always come to him. There is an obvious flirtation between the two. Paula comes downstairs and is introduced to Nancy, the new maid. Gregory gives Paula a cameo that he tells her that it belonged to his mother. He makes a point of pointing out to her that she has a tendency to lose things, and tells her he is putting it in her bag for safe keeping due to the clasp being broken. She tells him she won’t forget it is there, and they head out for a tour of the Tower of London. She is so excited that she actually gets to leave the house for the day. How nice of him to unlock her cage. 

The Gas Is turned on

While on a tour of the Tower of London, Paula realizes that her cameo is no longer in her bag. This sends her into a panic, and she leaves the tour group to search for it. Gregory quickly follows her and they go for a walk in the sunshine. While on their walk a man with his niece and nephew tips his hat at them. Brian’s niece tells him he looks like he has seen a ghost and he says that the woman reminds him of someone who is dead. Gregory get instantly jealous and contronts Paula about who the man is. She tells him she has no idea and was just being polite. 

Once again, to distract from his actions, Gregory tells Paula he is worried about her and the fact that she is so forgetful lately. Paula is confused about what he is talking about, and he tells her not to worry. Anytime she questions Gregory, he accuses her of being suspicious and makes her doubt her own mind. Paula wants to go home and Brian watches them leave. 

When they return home, Paula  inquires about seeing the room that Gregory rented to work out of. He tells her that is unnecessary, and sends her upstairs to rest. When she is half way up the first flight of stairs, Gregory asks for her cameo so he can have it repaired. She confesses to him that she can’t find it. He empties her purse and the cameo is missing. Gregory tells her he warned her he would lose it. When she apologizes he tells her it is not important, and when she asks him to confirm he put it in her purse, he questions her memory again. 

While getting ready for bed, Paula notices the gas lights in her room dimmed, and questions Nancy about who would have turned on a light in another part of the house causing this one to dim. She then hears footsteps above her. 

The Gas Lights

Miss Thwaites greets Brian outside Paula’s house. She tells him that Paula never leaves the house, and he looks over and corrects her when he sees Paula outside the door. She had forgotten her keys and had to have Nancy open the door so she could retrieve her umbrella. Nancy questions what she should tell Gregory is he asks where she has gone, and despite Paula’s answers, she continues to grill her, to the point where Paula gives up and goes back in the house. Miss Thwaites confides in Brian that the new maid, Nancy, has been fooling around with a policeman who walks around the house.

What is gaslighting? The 1944 film Gaslight is the best explainer. - Vox

We now see Brian entering Scotland yard. He is asking them to reopen the case. He explains that he met Paula’s aunt when he was 12 years old, and he thought she was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. The detective tells him that there is no reason to reopen the case, but then he mentions that some jewels were missing. This sparks Brian’s interest, as he states there is no mention of jewels in the case file. The detective tells him someone “highly placed” gave them to the woman. That is the theory behind why she was murdered, but the jewels were too famous to ever be sold. Instead of Brian dropping it, this has sparked his interest even more. 

Brian meets up with an officer, asks him if he is married and offers him a new location in a more stylish neighborhood. Nancy does like a man in uniform, and this one will do. 

We now find Gregory and Paula in the drawing room. Paula wants to put coal on the fire, but Gregory insists she call Nancy. When she enters Gregory openly flirts with her, even asking Nancy to give Paula makeup tips. Paula chastices Gregory for the way he treats her, and Gregory accuses her of imagining things. 

Nancy enters the room and says Miss Thwaites has come for a visit with her nephew. Paula welcomes the visit, but Gregory tells Nancy to send them away. When Paula protests, Gregory begins to yell at her, telling her he doesn’t want people in the house. He tells Nancy to say Paula is not well enough for visitors. Paula tells Gregory she really wanted to see her, and his reply is well then you should have just said so. They dismiss Miss Thwaites and her “nephew” Brian. 

More Schemes

In the sitting room, Gregory is happily playing the piano, with Paula worrying in the background. He tells her that they are going out for the evening, and Paula begins to question if she has forgotten him telling her. He assures her it is just a surprise for her–taking her to the theater. Paula is happily singing, when Gregory stops playing and questions her about the whereabouts of a little picture. He asks her to go and get it and she insists she didn’t take it. Paula begs him not to ring for the servants. He asks Elizabeth if she knows where the painting is, and she says that she has never touched the painting. Gregory asks her to kiss the bible to show she is telling the truth.

Gregory tells her to bring in Nancy, whom Paula is fearful of. He questions Nancy, and she denies taking the picture. They dismiss Nancy and Paula swears on and kisses the bible, saying that she did not take the picture. Sternly Gregory tells her to go look for the picture. On the way up the stairs, she finds the picture and he accuses her of knowing where it was all along. He sends her to her room and tells her that she is too ill for her to go to the theater. 

Paula begs Gregory to be gentle with her if she is truly ill. He takes her to her room, and tells her that he is leaving to work. She begs him not to leave and tells him she is hearing noises and she begs him to hold her and make her feel safe. He leaves and tells her he hopes she is better in the morning. Gregory and Nancy flirt yet again as Gregory leaves to go work. Nancy is a wee bit of a ho bag.

Gregory exits the house into the foggy London night. He quickly steps into the shadows. What are you up to?

Approaching Paula’s Breaking Point

Paula is laying on her bed, crying when once again the gas lights dim and there are noises overhead. 

There is a concert, and Brian as well as Paula and Gregory are invited. Brian asks the host if she will seat him next to Paula. Just then the hostess gets word that Gregory has RSVP’d that Paula is ill and they won’t be attending.

Paula descends the stairs in a lovely white gown, ready to go to the concert. Gregory is in the sitting room in his smoking jacket. Paula proclaims that despite Gregory’s response to the invitation, she is going, alone if she has to. Gregory plays it off that he didn’t realize that the party was so important, and goes to change so he can go with her. Paula gains some confidence after an icey exchange with Nancy. 

They arrive at the concert, which has already started, and draw Brian’s attention as they take their seats. Once seated, another musician starts to play. Brian watches the couple, drawing Gregory’s attention. During the performance, Gregory reaches for his watch, which is missing. He questions Paula about the whereabouts of it, and she becomes very upset. He begins to examine her purse and pulls his watch from it. When she protests that she didn’t take his watch, she begins to sob uncontrollably and Gregory tells the hostess that she is too sick after all. Brian leaves his seat during the commotion and follows the couple back to their house. 

In Paula’s bedroom, Gregory is pacing, ranting that he has tried to keep her “illness” quiet, but her insistence on going to the concert has brought everything out in the open. Paula tries to recall when things started to slip from her. She traces it back to the letter she found, and Gregory insists that there never was a letter at all, and he was just playing along with her. Poor Paula.

Gregory tells her that Paula’s mother was insane and died in an asylum. He tells her that Paula’s symptoms are the same as hers. He then accuses her of knowing that Brian would be at the concert. Paula tells him that she has no idea who he is. Gregory becomes angry and accuses her of lying to him. He tells her what she is doing is worse than lying. She is forgetting. He then threatens her that he will bring in two doctors to have her legally committed. 

Gregory leaves the house again, and as he walks away, he hears footsteps behind him. Ahead of him is the officer that Brian  had assigned to the street. Once again, Gregory disappears into the shadows, as Brian and the officer meet and try to figure out where he went. 

The Dimming of the Gas light

Once again, the dimming of the gas light and footsteps above her head plagues Paula. She screams for Elizabeth, who is coming upstairs. She asks Elizabeth if she turned on the gas downstairs. Elizabeth tells her no, and that she is the only one in the house. Noises appear overhead again. Elizabeth is mostly deaf, so when Paula asks her if she hears the noises, she says she doesn’t and tells her it is just her imagination. 

Brian has spent his breakfast making a diagram to figure out how Gregory disappeared. The officer comes to his house and tells him he saw Gregory coming out of the shadows, dirty and disheveled. He then tells Brian that he has had breakfast with Nancy. She told him that Gregory informed her that Paula might be going away for a very long time, and he asked her to stay on and look after him. (I bet she did….slut!). Brian sees this news as a reason to speed up their investigation. Brian tells the officer to get Nancy out of the house in the evening and he will stop by and see Paula after Gregory leaves for the night. 

Paula is trying to read, but Gregory’s words are causing her brain to spin. Brian sees Gregory leave, and then goes to ring to bell on the house. Elizabeth tells Brian she won’t see anyone.  He pushes his way past Elizabeth. Paula comes down the stairs, and begs him to leave. Brian shows her a glove that Paula’s Aunt had given him; the match to the glove she had in the cabinet. Brian asks if she is planning on going away. She says no, unless Gregory sends her away. Brian tells her that she is not crazy and he is there to prove it. He asks if there is anyone else there, and she says no. He tells her that the gas went down, which relieves Paula that he saw it as well. She tells him that every night, the light goes down and she hears things. 

Brian begins to put the pieces together as they hear noises. Brian helps to convince her that she is not crazy and it is actually her husband who is upstairs, making the noises. We then see Gregory, going through everything, looking for the jewels that he could not find when he murdered Paula’s aunt. 

Brian Assists Paula

Brian asks if there are any weapons, and Brian breaks into Gregory’s desk to see if his revolver is there. While Brian is looking, she finds the letter that Gregory said didn’t exist. Brian shows her handwriting samples to show Paula that Gregory and the man who wrote the letter to her Aunt are the same person. He tells Paula that Gregory is trying to drive her crazy so he could get control of her property and search for the jewels with no obstacles. Brian tells her that Gregory married a woman in Prague. As they are talking, the gas goes back up. Gregory leaves through the sky light when light catches the jewels, sewn into one of the costumes in an open trunk. 

Brian leaves and asks Elizabeth to take care of Paula. Brian waits for Gregory to come home, but he enters through the boarded up door to the attic. He quickly rushes to his room to examine the jewels, and he finds someone broke into his desk. Enraged, he goes to Paula’s room. Paula is one very angry woman. Hell hath no fury, asshole.

Frightened, but she knows what is going on now. He is so cruel to her. She tells him it wasn’t her, he continues to question her. She lets it slip that “he” opened it. He asks Elizabeth who the man was, but she says no one was here. Paula is reeling, but Elizabeth is protecting her. As Paula spirals, Gregory continues to spin her. Just then Brian shows up at the door. He confronts Gregory. He asks Paula to leave to keep her safe. Gregory escorts her from the room. Brian confronts him about finding the jewels. They struggle over the gun and they go upstairs. Elizabeth calls for the officer, and he joins the fray. 

Our resident true crime sleuth, Miss Thwaites, enters the house to see what is going on. Brian and the officer have tied Gregory to a chair. Paula asks to see him alone. She begins to play his own game with him. She wants to torture him the way he tortured her. But the best torture is to let the police take him away. 

The film ends with a suggested future romance between Paula and Brian, and a possibility of happily ever after. 

Conclusion

This is one heck of a psychological thriller, and if you have ever had a relationship that involved gaslighting, this could be a trigger. Having lived through two such relationships, to see it played out in such an early film makes me know that there were many who came before me. We recognize this abuse more and more now, but still the abuse happens. 

This is a very important film, which is helpful, especially by younger people who could use it as examples of red flags in their own relationships. That is the social side of it. As a film, the acting is wonderful and the use of light, shadow and fog are superb. Now that spooky season is over, time to get yourself mentally prepared for all those holiday gatherings with the family.

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