When it comes to villains, Gregory Anton in Gaslight lacks the theatricality of The Joker or Lecter. He wants the presence of Harry Lime or the narcissism of Ellen Harland. He doesn’t chill the viewer as do Maleficent and Mrs. Danvers. On the surface, therefore, Gregory might not seem a villain worthy of comment. As played by Charles Boyer, the role is so two-dimensional as to approach camp. You can almost hear Boyer saying to himself, “Time for the faux-loving face—wait, too long on that one, stern face time.”
Yes, Gregory seems as commonplace a villain as his name would suggest. But in terms of his effect on his victim, Gregory is a master among villains. Having convinced his new wife, Paula (Ingrid Bergman), to move back to the house where her aunt was murdered, he creates a series of sounds and sights he pretends not to notice. He expresses concern at Paula’s supposedly imaginary observations; he chides her for forgetfulness when items disappear (due to his own actions). She believes him because she loves him. The term “gaslighting,” which originated with this story, refers to Gregory’s sinister brand of psychological abuse: trying to convince his wife she’s going insane. While the motives of his actions are not immediately apparent, he clearly feels no remorse for his cruelty.
So often, we side with the criminal in a plot like this one: with a wife this gullible, it’s easy to go for the laugh rather than the shiver. It would be common too to dismiss Paula as stupid, to fail to sympathize due to her blindness and fragility. But the nineteenth-century timeline of the story counters our usual impulses, making us uneasy and fearful from the start. (Just what were those stories about men committing their wives to asylums on questionable grounds again?) And Paula is not just any victim: She is a victim played by Ingrid Bergman.
Bergman beautifully illustrates the extent of her heroine’s downfall at Gregory’s hands. She is incandescent as a woman in love before his plot takes off.
Her fears about her sanity, which first dim, and then blot out any semblance of happiness or reason, are terrifying to watch. Just when she thinks she can trust in his love for her and have faith in herself again, Gregory cuts off her giddiness with a chilling expression, claims she’s unwell, forgetful, unworthy, childish. Her jealousy of a cruel maid (Angela Lansbury) he flirts with in her own home is nothing, he suggests, but a sign of her sickness.
Think of Betty Draper in the first season of Mad Men, then quadruple the vulnerability, make Don evil rather than sick, take away his love, and remove any right Betty has to defend herself against his duplicity, and you have poor Paula in Gaslight.
Paula’s weakness is her love for her husband; without it to prey upon, Gregory would have no chance of winning this psychological battle against her. And it’s just this level of cruelty she can’t accept. Of course she finds her own forgetfulness more believable. Not content with the damage he’s done, Gregory shuts her away from others, guaranteeing she spends most of her time obsessing over whether she’s mad–hardly a healthy pastime. How long, we wonder, CAN Paula stay sane, trapped in a loveless marriage, a frightening house, and fears she can no longer control? While there’s hope in the form of a suspicious detective (Joseph Cotten), even if Paula escapes, can anyone recover from this kind of treatment?
Despite a largely passive performance, Bergman is stunning to watch in Gaslight. I can think of no actress but Meryl Streep who could accomplish so much with just expressions, who could deliver enough pain and fear to carry the film and beat out Barbara Stanwyck, Bette Davis, Claudette Colbert, and Greer Garson for the Oscar.
Just a few years after Gaslight, Bergman would fall for Roberto Rossellini and become involved in an affair with him so scandalous Congress and many of her American fans would condemn her. But she would make a Hollywood comeback less than a decade later, and her union with the famous director would result in a daughter, Isabella, who, in a curious twist, would make a splash of her own as a victim in another famous film, Blue Velvet. Who could forget torch singer Dorothy Vallens, the target of creepy villain Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper)?
Be sure to check out the other villains in the blogathon!