Charles Boyer is probably best remembered as the quintessential Gallic heartthrob of the 1930s and ‘40s.
But Boyer may have turned in his most memorable performance when he played against his suave and romantic screen image in George Cukor’s psychological mystery-drama, “Gaslight.” In this 1944 film, the usually debonair Frenchman brings to chilling life the character of Gregory Anton, a manipulative and ruthless composer who tries to drive his naive wife, Paula (Ingrid Bergman, in an Oscar-winning performance), insane.
When this Victorian period film opens, an underage Paula is in the process of moving out of her home in an upscale area of London. It is revealed that her aunt and guardian--a revered opera singer--has been murdered and that the young girl is moving to Italy in an attempt to distance herself from that traumatic event and to further her own budding singing career.
Ten years later, Paula falls in love with Gregory. The couple quickly marry, and Gregory persuades his new bride to move back to the London estate that she inherited from her aunt.
But after the couple make the trek from Italy to England, Gregory’s behavior suddenly turns cryptic and overbearing. He refuses to allow Paula to socialize and insists that she is becoming alarmingly forgetful and paranoid.
A virtual prisoner in her own home, Paula’s vivacious spirit begins to wither.
What keeps “Gaslight” burning is its tantalizing aura of mystery. The question is, why is Gregory trying to drive Paula out of her mind? The clues arrive in bits and pieces, and eventually it’s evident that Gregory has a secret past connected to Paula and her aunt.
“Gaslight,” based on a play by Patrick Hamilton, is also buttressed by three strong supporting performances. A fresh-faced Angela Lansbury is appealingly impudent as the housemaid; Dame May Whitty brings a comedic dimension to her role as a nosy neighbor, and Joseph Cotten has his moments as a well-bred fellow determined to get to the bottom of the strange goings-on at the Anton residence.
“Gaslight” is so named for the mysteriously temperamental gas lamps in Paula’s bedroom.
“Gaslight” (1944), directed by George Cukor. 114 minutes. Not rated.