When I heard about the 2nd Wonderful Ingrid Bergman Blogathon hosted by The Wonderful World of Cinema it took me awhile to decide what I wanted to write about. I think the famed actress was fantastic in Anastasia, hilarious in Cactus Flower, mysterious in Notorious and inspirational in The Bells of St. Mary’s. But then I realize there was one film role that absolutely defines Ingrid Bergman – Gaslight.
Gaslight was released in 1944 – an adaptation of a 1938 Patrick Hamilton play. It was, in fact, the second adaptation after a 1940 British film of the same name. This time it was made by MGM using a good dose of it’s famed star power – Ingrid Bergman, Charles Boyer and Joseph Cotten (although I believe only Boyer was contracted with the studio).
In the George Cukor film Bergman stars as Paula, the niece of a famed opera singer who was mysteriously murdered a decade earlier. While studying abroad she falls in love with Gregory, a handsome pianist played by Boyer. They soon marry and return to her childhood home, the scene of the earlier crime. As they start their new life in London Paula slowly finds herself driven mad by her controlling husband. Convinced she’s ill and that her husband only wants what’s best for her Paula’s future seems dim until she meets Scotland Yard Inspector Brian, played by Cotten. He see right through Gregory and is determined to help Paula escape his clutches.
When Gaslight was released all three actors were at the height of their career and it shows. Often a romantic lead, Boyer is deliciously menacing playing against type as the murderous Gregory. Cotten’s role is relatively small but he plays the hero effortlessly (and only a year after portraying the murderous Uncle Charlie in Shadow of a Doubt). The supporting class includes famed British actress Dame May Whitty, Barbara Evans, and in her film debut, Angela Lansbury. In fact, Lansbury made such an impact as the streetwise and slightly menacing maid, Nancy, that she netted an Oscar nomination for the role.
Despite the excellent supporting cast the film would not be the classic it is without Bergman. She’s absolute perfection as Paula. Early in the film she’s filled with love and affection and simply radiates happiness. Then, before our very eyes she starts to unravel. Her performance is so subtle and nuanced that her descent into madness seems completely authentic. In fact, by the time she reaches a hysterical state at a concert it’s almost a shock to find out just how ill she is. Then at the end, when she’s realized she’s fine and it’s all Gregory’s doing…well, hell hath no fury like a woman scorned and she can deliver retribution like no one else.
It’s really no surprise that Bergman won her first Oscar for this role. I often think the Academy is misguided in their choices but this time they were absolutely right. It’s a role of a lifetime and Bergman handles it deftly.
To this day Gaslight remains one of my favorite films. Filled with superb performances and dripping with mystery it’s simply timeless.