Follow TV Tropes


Film / Gaslight

Go To

"If I were not mad, I could have helped you. Whatever you had done, I could have pitied and protected you. But because I am mad, I hate you. Because I am mad, I have betrayed you. And because I'm mad, I'm rejoicing in my heart, without a shred of pity, without a shred of regret, watching you go with glory in my heart!"
Paula Alquist denouncing her husband

Adapted from Patrick Hamilton's 1938 British play Gas Light (aka Angel Street),note  Gaslight is a 1944 Psychological Thriller film directed by George Cukor and starring Ingrid Bergman in her first Academy Award-winning performance.

She plays Paula, a young girl who lived with her aunt, a famous opera singer. One day, the aunt is suddenly murdered and robbed by the mysterious Sergius Bauer, leaving Paula alone. After studying abroad for the ten years since the incident, she returns to England with a new husband, Gregory (Charles Boyer). But shortly afterwards, Gregory suddenly starts going out of his way to Mind Rape Paula.

Can Paula find out the reason for her husband's cruelty? Can a sympathetic Scotland Yard officer (Joseph Cotten) save the day?

A very young Angela Lansbury made her film debut as the quirky maid, Nancy; she was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.

The film is notable for coining the term Gaslighting, a form of psychological abuse of which the film's plot is an example.

This movie provides examples of:

  • Adaptational Nationality: The original play's (English) Jack Manningham becomes the film's (French) Gregory Anton.
  • Adaptation Name Change: In the play the husband and wife were named Jack and Bella Manningham.
  • Alliterative Name: Alice Alquist.
  • Alone with the Psycho: Paula being confronted by Gregory in the film's finale, while Brian is not around to help her.
  • Bitch in Sheep's Clothing: Gregory, who initially acts like the love of Paula's life, but slowly reveals his manipulative and cruel nature as time goes on. Paula is a Horrible Judge of Character to not notice it.
  • Bound and Gagged: Gregory (minus the gagged), after Brian and the constable overpower him.
  • Catchphrase: Miss Thwaites's "Well!" upon seeing something scandalous or rude.
  • Chekhov's Gun:
    • That there's only one of Paula's aunt's stage gloves remaining in her home, with the other apparently given to an unnamed admirer... who turns out to have been Cameron as a boy.
    • The costume Alice Alquist is wearing in her portrait is where she hid the jewels.
  • Chekhov's Gunman: It's established early on that Elizabeth the maid is a bit deaf, often needing people to speak loudly right next to her for Elizabeth to hear them properly. As such she can't hear the noises of Gregory moving around in the attic, unintentionally aiding him in his scheme.
  • Cruel to Be Kind: When Gregory asks Elizabeth if anyone entered the house while he was gone, Elizabeth gaslights Paula to allay Gregory's suspicions about Brian. This lie keeps Gregory in the house long enough for Brian to come back to arrest him.
  • Death by Childbirth: Paula's mother died when she was born, though Gregory later twists the story to serve his agenda.
  • Decomposite Character: The detective from the original play is split into two characters, Brian and Ms. Thwaites.
  • The Dog Bites Back: Paula charging Gregory when latter is Bound and Gagged, giving him the blistering speech at the top of this page as her final word to him.
  • Domestic Abuse: One of the most iconic examples in fiction, as Gregory bullies, isolates, and manipulates Paula to the point of madness.
  • Driven to Madness: Gregory pulls no punches in order to convince Paula she's going mad, making her question both her memory and constantly removing any source of outside help.
  • Droste Image: Gregory holding Alice Alquist's costume in front of a painting of the singer wearing said costume.
  • The Film of the Play: And actually the second screen adaptation. The first film version, made in the UK in 1940, was directed by Thorold Dickinson and starred Anton Walbrook and Diana Wynyard in the lead roles.
  • A Foggy Day in London Town: The film uses this as Ominous Fog to establish mood, like when Paula is being led away from the house after her aunt has been murdered, or later, when her evil husband Gregory is skulking through the streets and alleyways.
  • Foreshadowing:
    • When Paula and Gregory are kissing after he's surprised her with a date to the theatre, his hands are briefly around her neck. Then you remember that her aunt Alice was strangled.
    • George's behavior in the Tower of London when seeing the Crown Jewels is odd; instead of polite interest or the awe of a foreigner touring the famous London attraction, he's all but slavering over the gems on display with real hunger in his eyes. Alice's cabinet was broken into, but nothing was apparently stolen... but those gems that Alice received from a "highly placed" admirer were never found.
  • Fourth-Date Marriage: Invoked by Gregory to push his agenda. He starts talking about marriage already after only two weeks of knowing Paula.
  • French Jerk: In the 1944 film, the villainous Gregory is played by Charles Boyer, who uses his natural accent. Possibly subverted, as Gregory's real name is Sergis Bauer, and is apparently from Prague, so it could be an affectation.
  • Gaslighting: The film is both the Trope Maker and Trope Namer. Gregory psychologically abuses Paula by secretively moving and stealing some objects to convince her that her mind is not well, so she'll be committed to an asylum and won't interfere with his attempt to steal her aunt's jewels. The film's title comes when Paula is so broken by his manipulations that she believes that seeing the gaslights in her house dim for no reason (actually because Gregory had turned the lights on in the attic to search for the jewels, thus re-directing the gas from the lights downstairs) is a sign of her own madness.
  • Gun Struggle: Between Gregory and Brian. Nobody gets harmed though.
  • Haunted House Historian: The old neighbor Miss Thwaites is extremely knowledgeable about the murder mystery at the number 9 house.
  • The Hecate Sisters: The three supporting female characters. There's Nancy (maiden), Elizabeth (matron) and Miss Thwaites (crone).
  • Heel–Face Turn: Elizabeth is a downplayed example as she was only an unwitting accomplice to Gregory and was never evil. In the final act, she aids the protagonists by lying to Gregory and later gets a cop to help Brian capture Gregory.
  • He Knows Too Much: Gregory tries to make Paula believe she is an Unreliable Narrator, in order to make her deny she ever saw that letter which tied him to the murder case.
  • Hell Is That Noise: The noise from the attic drives Paula crazy, mainly because no one else seems to hear it.
  • Hidden in Plain Sight: How Alice hid the jewels that the Tsar gave her, the ones Gregory is hunting for. They're on the costume she wore to the opera, amidst all the fake jewelry she wore for her performance.
  • Hoist by His Own Petard: As the page quote proudly demonstrates, Paula proudly turns Gregory's scheme to drive her to madness back on him.
  • Horrible Judge of Character: Paula is a manipulated victim, mistaking Gregory for a well-meaning husband. Sadly Truth in Television, because abusers are excellent at putting on exactly the face they want their victims (and bystanders) to see. By the time Paula sees what Gregory is really like, she's married to him and he's been putting a lot of work into making her doubt her own perception.
  • Laser-Guided Karma: After finally busting her manipulative husband and tying him to a chair, Paula taunts him that she could free him, but hey, she's crazy, so that knife in her hand might not be real...
  • Letting Her Hair Down: Done the other way around. Paula has her hair down at the beginning of the film, as befits a young unmarried lady, but wears it up as Gregory drives her mad. An Inverted Trope; as her hair gets more twisted and wound up, her emotional state gets "wound up", too.
  • MacGuffin: Aunt Alice's jewels were the reason she was murdered, and part of the film's plot is finding out just where they've disappeared to.
  • Manipulative Bastard: The fact that one of the classic forms of psychological manipulation is named after this film should underline what a master Gregory is at being one. This is a man who sought out his victim's surviving niece, marrying her only so he could get access to her house and find some jewels.
  • Market-Based Title: Released in the UK as The Murder in Thornton Square, to avoid confusion with the 1940 film.
  • Marrying the Mark: Gregory, the famously abusive husband of Ingrid Bergman's character Paula, only married Paula so that he could gain access to her aunt's old house, where the primadonna opera singer had hidden a collection of priceless jewels.
  • Maybe Ever After: At the end, Brian the detective tells Paula that he'll come by later and help her get past her trauma.
  • Mind Rape: Gregory's mind games that he uses to convince Paula she's going insane.
  • Mood-Swinger: Gregory can go from barely contained fury to cooing affection in an instant, and then again to terrible coldness. It's probably deliberate, to keep Paula off-balance, but Gregory doesn't really seem like Mister Stability himself.
  • Mr. Exposition: The neighbor being a Haunted House Historian and the police captain dropping Info Dumps about the missing jewels.
  • Never My Fault: Gregory never for a moment lets Paula entertain the idea that he may be mistaken; she must be mad. He loses his pocket watch, it's obviously Paula's fault somehow. At the end, Gregory insists that he and Paula could have been happy together were it not for her aunt's jewels. This is a man who has married a woman explicitly to drive her insane so she'd be committed, and murdered her aunt for the aforementioned jewels. Paula's not impressed.
  • Nightmare Fetishist: Miss Thwaites is a great lover of murder mysteries - nicknamed 'Bloody Bessie' by her friends. She's positively giddy that she lives on the same street a murder was committed.
  • Nosy Neighbor: Miss Thwaites, who proudly states that she tried to enter the number 9 house when it was still a murder scene multiple times, and she's one of the few people at London Square that tries to find out just why her new neighbors at number 9 are acting so strangely.
  • Not Even Bothering with the Accent: Joseph Cotten using his own courtly Virginia accent to play a Scotland Yard detective.
  • Ominous Fog: Lots of it around the neighborhood as Paula is led away from the house after her aunt's murder, and lots more later, when Gregory is skulking through the alleys.
  • One-Liner, Name... One-Liner: Brian to the cop: "I don't know, Williams. I don't know."
  • Parental Abandonment: Paula's mother suffered Death by Childbirth and she never met her Disappeared Dad, so she grew up with her aunt, the famous singer Alice Alquist.
  • Police Are Useless:
    • Played straight with General Huddleston who tries hard to keep the lid on the Alice Alquist murder case, mostly out of professional embarrassment due to not locating the tsar's jewels after the crime was committed.
    • Averted with Constable Williams who helps Brian solve the case and also later when both overpower Gregory.
  • Posthumous Character: Alice Alquist, opera singer, lover to a tsar, owner of valuable jewels that Sergis Bauer is determined to find.
  • Really Gets Around: Nancy the slutty maid, portrayed as explicitly as possible in a 1944 film.
  • Red Herring: It's sometimes implied that Nancy could be in on Gregory's plan to drive Paula insane, but she turns out to be innocent.
  • The Remake: This was the second film adaptation of the play; the first was a British film made in 1940. MGM tried to buy and burn up all the negatives of the 1940 version in order to avoid any competition with its film. They failed, and the earlier version survives today (it even wound up as an extra on the DVD).
  • Servile Snarker: Nancy, who regularly talks back to her master or mistress when they annoy her or act strangely.
  • Sleeping Single: Paula and Gregory have separate rooms—of course, given Gregory's ulterior motives, this makes sense.
  • Spanner in the Works: Inspector Cameron. If Paula hadn't met him and enlisted his help investigating, then Gregory would probably have gotten away with the jewels, and Paula would have been committed.
  • Spotting the Thread: It is implied that Elizabeth gets suspicious of Gregory when the latter somehow manages to return to the house without entering through the front door.
  • Stealth Insult: Elizabeth delivers one to Gregory after she lies to him. It is almost subverted when Gregory gives her a look of concern, but his attention quickly turns to Paula, and the insult eventually goes over his head.
    Gregory: [gestures with disapproval at Paula's mental breakdown] You see how it is, Elizabeth?
    Elizabeth: [glares at Gregory] Yes sir, I see just how it is.
  • Tap on the Head: How Gregory is ultimately subdued in the 1940 version.
  • Terrible Ticking: One of Gregory's tricks on Paula is to have Elizabeth, a partially deaf maid, deny hearing the footsteps coming from the attic.
  • Unbuilt Trope:
    • The film is the Trope Namer for Gaslighting and yet what gives it the name—Gregory causing the gas lights to flicker—is done unintentionally as it's just an accidental side effect of Gregory trying to find the jewels by turning on the attic lights. In addition, while Gregory did anticipate that Paula would hear his footsteps in the attic, he did not foresee that Paula would see the gas lights dim. Both Nancy and Elizabeth don't deny that the gas lights are dimming when Paula notices, and instead they offer Paula plausible explanations on why the gas lights would fade at certain times; in fact, Elizabeth's explanation almost reassures Paula of her mental stability.
    • Gregory also employs handpicked servants to facilitate his psychological abuse, but the servants in question are Unwitting Pawns and unintentionally gaslight Paula because Gregory manipulated them into believing that Paula was insane. For example, Elizabeth only believes that Paula is hearing imaginary sounds because Elizabeth herself can't hear the same noises due to her partial deafness, which was taken into account by Gregory. Ironically, when Elizabeth does intentionally gaslight Paula, she does so to protect Paula from Gregory.
  • Unwitting Pawn:
    • Gregory only married Paula to gain access to her aunt's valuable jewels, and spends most of the film psychologically manipulating her so she won't be able to expose him.
    • Elizabeth and Nancy, the two servants, were hired specifically for traits that would isolate Paula even more; Elizabeth is hard of hearing and so legitimately wouldn't hear the footsteps in the attic that Paula did, while Nancy's flirty and rather disagreeable nature would alienate her from Paula - as well as make her leave the house rather often.
  • Victorian London: The film takes place mostly in London (though it does begin in Italy).
  • Villain Protagonist: Gregory, though he's not established as a villain right away.
  • You Can See That, Right?:
    • The "did you hear that" variation, Paula asking the cook Elizabeth to confirm that there's strange noises coming from the attic. Too bad that the latter is hearing-impaired.
    • Luckily, it works better the second time when Brian confirms to Paula that he too sees the gas lights dimming and hears the footsteps coming from the attic.