Ingrid Bergman is not a name one thinks of when compiling a list of film noir actresses. Even the film I have chosen to discuss for this blogathon post, 1944’s Gaslight — with its Edwardian setting, high production values, and direction by “women’s director” George Cukor — was pitched as melodrama. But Gaslight is a film known for its suspense (often misattributed to Hitchcock) and rife with the kind of tension, cynicism, mise en scène, and chiaroscuro lighting that defines noir. It also features an Academy Award-winning performance by Bergman.
The tale of a man who tries to drive his wife mad in order to attain her murdered aunt’s fortune, Gaslight (a more lavish remake of a British film in 1940 based on an original 1938 play) fits well into two noir subgenres: Edwardian noir (e.g. The Lodger, Hangover Square) and what film critic Emmanuel Levy calls “Don’t Trust Your Husband” noir (e.g. Rebecca, The Spiral Staircase, The Two Mrs. Carrolls). We watch as Bergman’s Paula goes from innocent young woman with a tragic past to delighted bride to terrified victim.
The villain of the film, Charles Boyer as Gregory, gives Bergman a great deal to play off of, aiding her compelling performance. Gregory epitomizes the proper upper-class gentleman aka overbearing patriarch in the mask of caring husband (see Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper for a feminist take on patriarchal control of women in the Victorian era).
The film also offers us the delight of seeing Angela Landsbury in her first film role, playing a disdainful, scheming maid.
Adapting stage plays and working closely with actors was Cukor’s forte, particularly women who were or would become major celebrities (e.g. Katharine Hepburn, Joan Crawford, Judy Holliday, Judy Garland, Marilyn Monroe). A tightly focused character study, Gaslight offered Cukor a perfect opportunity to excel, and for Bergman to shine.
Perhaps most delightful in the picture is that our victimized ingenue does not remain victimized or innocent. You can only push a woman so far, and Cukor loved directing strong women in strong roles.