It’s 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die Blog Club time!
Some time ago, I read a novel’s afterword in which the author put forth a compelling definition of melodrama as “stories where nothing really changes”. I don’t rightly know if this was a technically exacting definition, in terms of literary theory, but that’s kind of beside the point. Melodrama is one of those words where everyone basically gets the gist of what it means even if they can’t nail it down precisely. Soap operas are melodramatic, teenagers are melodramatic, golden oldie movies are melodramatic, all in different ways (which frequently overlap). One of the ideas that seems inseparable from melodrama is its association with the hyperbolic: when an adolescent claims that whatever is happening to them is the worst thing that has ever happened to anyone, we tell them they are being melodramatic (or, more likely, tell them to stop being so melodramatic). So it goes with movies and soaps in which the villains are irredeemably awful and the heroes are unassailably good and the stakes are nothing less than life and death. Everything is exaggerated.
But also, and maybe more importantly, everything is very simple. It’s easy to take sides and easy to form expectations when the elements in play are so stark. That’s what the author I read was really much more concerned with, that in melodrama the villain and hero (and hero’s love interest) never change places, not for a moment. The villain is villainous at the outset and villainous at the conclusion of things, just as the hero never strays from the path of virtue, and the love interest … unfortunately (and coincidentally in total contrast to everything I brought up yesterday while I was gushing over The Hunger Games) the love interest is consistently nothing more than arm candy and/or the damsel in distress whom the villain can threaten and the hero can rescue. The author’s point, in illuminating all this, was that his initial inspiration was to take the archetypal elements of a hero-damsel-villain melodrama and establish them in the traditional way, but then slowly twist and turn the story so that the hero became the villain and the villain became the love interest and the love interest became the hero. Which was interesting enough to stick in my head.
This all came back to me when I watched Gaslight because it hews pretty dang closely to these melodramatic idioms. The movie itself is 68 years old, which means that although the story takes place in 1880 there’s now more time between us and the world the movie premiered in than there was between the movie and the world it depicts at the time of that premier. It’s a weird double-layer of remove, the combination of Victorian mores and manners as necessary plot elements with the “modern” style of portrayal of them which was appropriate to 1944. It’s also a movie based on a play, which tends to bring along a certain stilted staginess that can be hard to overcome. Combine all that with the fact that it is very much a story about a villain (Gregory), a hero (Brian) and a damsel in distress (Paula) and everything seems to be in place for this to be a classic melodrama in the most dispiriting sense of the word.
It’s especially hard to disregard all of the above when you know where the whole movie is headed, which I did. (When a movie’s title provides the name for a form of psychological abuse, as Gaslight does for “gaslighting”, you end up with a bit of trivia which is also inherently a spoiler, another phenomenon which someone needs to cook up a neologism for.) Charles Boyer plays Gregory’s nefariousness pretty broad (and enjoyably so!), totally telegraphing the Big Reveal when you’re biding time waiting for it. Joseph Cotten as Brian is all square-jawed resolve and never allows a moment’s doubt that he’s going to make everything all right. And then there’s Ingrid Bergman as Paula.
Essentially, in my humble estimation, Ingrid Bergman is the main reason to see the movie. Because, in many ways, she’s what elevates the whole thing above the level of simplistic and hyperbolic melodrama, which might seem like an odd thing to assert considering how much of the movie she spends emoting gigantically as a woman on the verge of losing her mind, but go with me on this. For one thing, her position within the story is a little bit off-model. She starts out as very much the hero (though the audience doesn’t know it at first, except that she’s the first character we meet) and then becomes the love interest … of Gregory, the villain. Gregory then proceeds to terrorize her with mind games, which does have the unfortunate effect of making her seem helpless and weak. Brian arrives to save the day, but all he really does is provide some crucial information to prove that she’s not going crazy and that Gregory is trying to convince her she’s going crazy. For as it turns out, Gregory murdered Paula’s aunt but was scared off by a young Paula before he was able to find and steal the jewels he had murdered her for. Thus began a years-long (and wildly improbable, but whatevs) scheme on Gregory’s part to woo Paula, marry her, gain access to her aunt’s house, drive Paula insane and institutionalize her, thereby gaining access to the jewels’ hiding place and removing the one potential witness to his crime in one masterstroke. But because Paula didn’t quite succumb, and Brian rescued her from the brink of madness, justice will ultimately be served.
Which would all be well and good, except for the end of the movie. If it were nothing more than melodrama then once Brian had rescued Paula he would apprehend Gregory and send the villain off to jail. Brian would then tell Paula everything was going to be all right, they would kiss, roll credits. Instead, what we get is Brian apprehending Gregory (offscreen, no less) and then Paula asking if she can have a moment or two alone with her husband, which Brian reluctantly gives her if only because Gregory is literally tied to a chair.
I’ve often said that I enjoy a good cathartic work of art but that in order for me, personally, to get the most out of it said work has to really lay the comeuppance on with a heavy hand. Probably moreso than most people would care for, and thus I’m often a little disappointed by the way in which I’m left wanting more. But Gaslight, or rather Bergman specifically, gives all that I could ask for in the comeuppance department and then some. Once Gregory is alone with Paula he asks her to set him free, if she ever loved him, as she must realize that if he faces justice for murdering her aunt he’ll be executed. For a brief moment Paula has choices and agency and all the power in their relationship, and she wrings every drop out of that moment just stone-cold torturing Gregory. She pays back everything from earlier in the movie (nearly two hours of running time but, within the narrative, months and months of sadistic brainwashing) within less than five minutes and just destroys Gregory’s spirit, as evidenced by the docile manner in which he allows the constables to take him away afterwards. Ingrid Bergman just sells the hell out of it and it’s amazing.
All that and the screen debut of an 18-year-old Angela Lansbury as a saucy maid! Not bad at all for one from the Hollywood archives.