She watched him, and was aware that his eyes were on the diamonds and not on her face. She quickly took them off and handed them to him. ‘I am afraid,’ she said, with dry eyes more tragic than if they had been filled with tears, ‘that I have not your taste for pretty things.’ – Isak Dinesen, Seven Gothic Tales (1)

Can the right film be famous for the wrong reason? In 1944, MGM not only remade a 1940 British thriller about a demonic Victorian husband driving his poor wife slowly and deliberately insane. They also burned the negative and set out to destroy all existing prints. The original Gaslight survived – only just – and has since become a cause célèbre (“the film that was murdered” (2)) while the remake is routinely dismissed as “a vulgar travesty” (2). The first film boasts sinuous and inventive camerawork (director Thorold Dickinson shows a special fondness for potted palms) and a sinister High Camp performance by the great Anton Walbrook. Yet it’s hampered by the dull and stagy presence of Diana Wynyard as the wife. An overall sense of detachment bars our full access to this couple’s twisted emotional life.

When it comes to plumbing the depths of one especially ghastly marriage, the remake of Gaslight (directed by George Cukor) is an infinitely richer and more complex piece of work. Carlos Clarens, in his book-length study of Cukor, describes it as “a relentless exercise in sado-masochism” that shows “an almost Gestalt dependency between tormentor and victim” (3). The playing of Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman (who won the 1944 Oscar for Best Actress) maps out the mechanics of torture and ecstasy, dominance and submission, with a clarity that the makers of The Night Porter (Liliana Cavani, 1974) or The Story of O (Just Jaeckin, 1975) could only dream of. Their marital relations are not simply about pain but about pleasure, too. How else could they sustain a flimsy plot for a running time of almost two hours?

Boyer, it turns out, is trying to drive his wife mad so he can take control of her property and seize a fortune in diamonds that is hidden in the attic of the house. These diamonds belonged to her aunt, a glamorous opera diva whom Boyer strangled in that same house years before. The husband is a man whose primary erotic response is not to women (or even to other men) but to jewels – to priceless and coldly exquisite objets d’art. He embodies an archetype common in films noirs of the 40s, the ‘psycho dandy.’ An immaculately groomed gentleman of refined taste and nonexistent morals, who would turn without scruple to murder to possess the object of his desire.

Other examples of this type are Clifton Webb in Laura (Otto Preminger, 1944), George Macready in Gilda (Charles Vidor, 1946) and Eric Portman in Corridor of Mirrors (Terence Young, 1948). He can be traced back to the darker strains of Romantic literature, notably to E T A Hoffmann’s 1819 short story “Mademoiselle de Scudéry” – in which the psychotic jeweller René Cardillac stalks and murders any customer unwary enough to buy his creations. Each of these men is implicitly gay or, at least, asexual. He may seek to possess Gene Tierney or Rita Hayworth or Edana Romney as a sort of living art object – to dress her and groom her and transform her into his own aesthetic fantasy. He does not, by any stretch of the imagination, want to have sex with her. The script may pretend otherwise, of course – but only to keep the censors quiet.

Boyer’s role in Gaslight is an intriguing variation on this type. While Walbrook in the 1940 film shows no erotic interest in Wynyard, Boyer seems to share an intensely sexual complicity with his victim/wife. Early in the film, the couple shares a brief Italian honeymoon. Boyer parts the floating gauze curtain of the room where they have spent their wedding night. Bergman lies motionless on the bridal bed, her arms spread in a crucified pose. We wonder, just for an instant, if she is dead. Her bridegroom seems capable, quite literally, of fucking her to death. Once we return to London, it is clear Boyer uses sex to intensify his control over her – withholding his favours whenever she shows signs of independent life. “Gregory, please, please!” begs a tearful Bergman. “Take me in your arms, Gregory! Please!” The implication in his answer is clear: “I hope to find you better in the morning.”

In her discussion of Gaslight and other Gothic melodramas (notably Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940) and Suspicion (1941)), Molly Haskell suggests that such erotic sadism is essential to the emotional dynamics of these marriages:

The directors suggest, moreover, that cruelty and coldness are indispensable elements in the fascination these men hold for these particular women. Bergman remains under Boyer’s spell – indeed most completely surrenders to its sexual implications – after she has discovered his true nature. (4)

Yet Cukor takes this sadism further, arguably, than Hitchcock dares to do. With his flair for duality and alter egos, he allows Boyer to entrap the terrorised Bergman in a complex web of identities and alternate selves. The first of these – staring down impassively from the drawing-room wall – is the portrait of her aunt, the murdered opera diva. A woman of legendary beauty and limitless sexual power, the mistress of composers and kings, the aunt is described as looking exactly like her niece. Clearly her portrait (a device in most Gothic melodramas of the 40s) was modelled on Bergman. The aunt embodies the strong and sensual woman that Bergman might be –that Boyer, paradoxically, can help her become or prevent her ever being.

The second alter ego is Angela Lansbury (in her very first film role) as the vulgar and slatternly maid Boyer insists on hiring. Her golden curls styled in a way that mirrors Bergman’s own, her face a lewd caricature of Bergman’s rounded cheeks and sensual mouth, Lansbury blossoms – and grows more blatantly erotic – as Boyer turns his sexual favours away from his wife and makes advances to her instead. She treats him to a bawdy music hall ditty (“Up in a Balloon, Boys!” – a title rich in innuendo) and he rarely comes near her without a long and distinctly phallic cigarette, cocked at just the right angle. As the marital torment grows more intense, Lansbury comes to embody the sexuality Bergman is losing. Boyer, like a sort of vampire, seems to drain the life from one woman and infuse it into another.

Perhaps the real marvel of Gaslight is that Bergman is the very last actress we would expect this transformation to work on. “Precisely because of her voluptuous figure and the healthy love of the senses she projects,” writes Clarens, “Bergman’s degradation is all the more painful to watch.” (5) Ironic, too, that it took Cukor – a discreet but openly gay director in a homophobic Hollywood system – to reinvent the camp and asexual archetype of the ‘psycho dandy’ as a potent heterosexual love god. At the end of Gaslight, when Boyer is caught and led away by the forces of justice – his villainy exposed and plain for all to see – at least half the women in the audience (and, most likely, some of the men) would gladly accept his offer of a date.

 

Endnotes

1. Isak Dinesen, “The Roads Round Pisa” in Seven Gothic Tales, Penguin Twentieth Century Classics, London, 1963, p. 9.

2. Jeffrey Richards, Thorold Dickinson: The Man and His Films, Croom Helm, London, 1986, p. 80.

3. Carlos Clarens, George Cukor, Secker & Warburg, London, 1976, p. 79.

4. Molly Haskell, From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies (Second Edition), The University of Chicago Press, Chicago & London, 1987, p. 196.

5. Clarens, p. 80.

 

Gaslight (1944 USA 109 mins)

Prod. Co: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Prod: Arthur Hornblow, Jr. Dir: George Cukor Scr: John van Druten, Walter Reisch, John L. Balderston, based on the play Angel Street by Patrick Hamilton Phot: Joseph Ruttenberg Mus: Bronislau Kaper Ed:  Ralph E. Winters Art Dir: Cedric Gibbons, William Ferrari

Cast: Ingrid Bergman, Charles Boyer, Joseph Cotten, Angela Lansbury, Dame May Whitty, Barbara Everest, Halliwell Hobbes