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Gaslight: Play, Film, Remake, Song and Clinical Diagnosis

Gaslight: Play, Film, Remake, Song and Clinical Diagnosis

| On 16, Dec 2013

What do Ingrid Bergman, clinical psychology and Steely Dan have in common? A British play by a disfigured writer/rejectionist of modern technology.

Patrick Hamilton was a British novelist and playwright, whose rejection of modern culture in pre-World War II England, ironically became an important contributor to the medium of film. Two of his plays, 1929’s “Rope” and 1938’s “Gas Light” (“Angel Street” in the US) became important films in the 1940’s still respected to this day.  “Rope” became an Alfred Hitchcock classic in 1948, but it’s “Gaslight” that became a story often reproduced over the years.

Gaslight, the 1944 film noir classic

Gaslight, the 1944 film noir classic

Considered one of the greats in the film noir era, “Gaslight” was actually a remake of a 1940 UK picture that was adapted from Hamilton’s 1938 play “Gas Light.” Directed by George Cukor and starring Ingrid Bergman, Charles Boyer, Joseph Cotton and making her feature film debut, 18 year old Angela Lansbury, the 1944 American remake is a more suspenseful thriller than the British version, thanks largely to Cukor’s direction and outstanding performances from Bergman, Boyer and Lansbury.

The premise revolves around a murder of a famous 19th century opera singer in her London home over rare rubies she owns. The murder remains unsolved for years until a newlywed couple move into the same house and mysterious events take place where the wife is led to believe by her husband that she is slowly losing her mind over a series of unexplained events, including the flickering of lamps throughout the house run on gas.

 Diana Wynyard & Anton Walbrook in the original 1940 U.K. "Gaslight"

Diana Wynyard & Anton Walbrook in the original 1940 U.K. “Gaslight”

The British version, which is more closely adapted from the play, is more graphic than the superior remake, with the strangulation of opera singer Alice Barlow (Alice Alquist in the remake) on full display in the opening, lacking the melodramatic lighting and slow build up of the police investigation. What can be seen as the awkward transition of a play into a full length feature film, the British actors project their lines as if on a stage, sometime bordering on overacting.

Charles Boyer & Ingrid Bergman in the 1944 remake

Charles Boyer & Ingrid Bergman in the 1944 remake

The remake includes a deeper back story of the murdered opera singer and her young admirer who is deeply suspicious of the newlywed husband; the family connection between Bergman’s character and the opera singer and a brief courtship in Italy between Bergman and Boyer.

Ingrid Bergman is fantastic as the slowly unraveling Paula. What starts as her emotional and physical removal from the murder scene on No. 9 Thornton Square in London, the film flash forward 10 years to her brief attempt at singing lessons in Italy. After a very brief courtship with her piano player (Boyer’s Gregory Anton), they return to her inherited aunt’s home in London for the start a blissful married life.

Soon after moving in, Boyer begins to manipulate his unsuspecting wife with troubling thoughts and mental abuse, slowly convincing her that she is going mad. Bergman becomes a confused and lost soul in her childhood home, unsuspecting what truly is taking place under her roof.

The title “Gaslight” is a plot device used throughout the remake, foreshadowing the husbands (Boyer) mental abuse toward his wife, with her eventual belief of reality severely compromised. The key moments are when the husband is away at night and secretly returning into the couples attic in search of the lost jewels, adjusting the lights and causing Bergman’s room light fixture to inexplicitly dim during  his absence.  Other tactics used by the husband include blaming her on misplaced objects and openly flirting with Lansbury’s character in her presence. Bergman’s increasing disorientation is gripping to watch, bordering on her sanity being completely lost until the film’s conclusion.  Not many actress’s today can deliver Bergman’s restrained madness.

Because of the higher budget MGM invested, they reportedly tried to destroy the negatives of the original 1940 film so as not to compete. The 1940 UK version was released in the U.S as “Angel Street” at one point was also entitled “A Strange Case of Murder,” in England. “Gaslight” was remade several more times for television in the U.S, Austria, West Germany, Australia  and the U.K., the last in 1977.

18 year old Angela Lansbury in her first feature film led to an Oscar win for Best Supporting Actress

18 year old Angela Lansbury in her first feature film led to an Oscar win for Best Supporting Actress

The 1944 film was nominated for seven Oscars including Best Actor for Boyer, Best Supporting Actress for Lansbury, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Cinematography (black & white). Ingrid Bergman won for Best Actress and Cedric Gibbons, William Ferrari, Edwin  B. Willis and  Paul Huldschinsky won  for Best Art Direction (black & white).

With the film’s immense popularity, the term “gaslighting” has been used in clinical literature since the 1970’s as a form of mental abuse when false info is given with the intent of making a victim doubt their own memory and perception.  Psychologists use this to describe sociopath’s victimization of their prey and exploiting others for personal gain; even Sigmund Freud’s conduct has been called “gaslighting.” It was also an influential 1981 article, “Some Clinical Consequences of Introjection: Gaslighting, ” arguing  that gaslighting can be a “”a very complex, highly structured configuration which encompasses contributions from many elements of the psychic apparatus.”  The phrase returned with Victor Santoro’s 1994 book, “Gaslighting; How to Drive Your Enemies Crazy,” detailed legal tactics to annoy others.

The term Gaslight does not end there. In 2000, Steely Dan released the song “Gaslighting Abbie” from their album “Two Against Nature”, inspired by the 1944 classic. The album  won four Grammy Awards and was Steely Dan’s first in 20 years.

Gaslight is a rarity among franchises, not only crossing over several entertainment mediums, but inspiring medical diagnosis that is regularly used today that is regularly used today.

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