Nine Reasons to Watch 'Gaslight'

Hansom cabs and fog-shrouded alleys might call to mind "Mary Poppins" and more family-friendly interpretations of old-timey London, but this week's KCET Presents feature, "Gaslight" employs the same atmosphere for sinister effect. Watch the trailer here:

This 1944 George Cukor thriller also boasts a Oscar-winning performance by Ingrid Bergman, but in case that's not enough to convince you to tune it at 9 p.m. this Sunday, here are nine more reasons.

Bergman as ingénue. It's not remarkable that Ingrid Bergman delivers an awesome performance. She's Ingrid Bergman. In fact, just a year previous, she'd been nominated for an Oscar for her role in "For Whom the Bell Tolls." What's remarkable here is to watch a 30-year-old Bergman, who'd already starred in "Casablanca," play the maiden. In her role as Paula, a naïve bride who's essentially imprisoned in her home by her Bluebeard-like husband, Bergman is completely convincing as a woman who's only just taken the first steps toward adulthood.

Bergman as Bergman. Speaking of the interplay between Bergman's performance and her life offscreen, it's interesting to note how her character in the movie -- a would-be opera singer who's trapped in the shadow of her late superstar mother -- works as real-life foreshadowing for Bergman's real-life actress daughter, Isabella Rossellini. Thirty years after Bergman passed away, Rossellini is still Ingrid Bergman's daughter -- and she probably always will be.

Think "Turn of the Screw," minus the ghosts. It's interesting that Bergman would go on to play the lead in a 1959 production of "Turn of the Screw," the classic story about an isolated house haunted by ghosts that may be mere figments of the protagonist's imagination, because there's a lot of overlap between "Screw" and "Gaslight" that should please fans of the "pretty lady in a creepy old house genre." However, I'll say this much about "Gaslight": In the end, you won't be left wondering whether it was all in Paula's head or if she truly was being driven mad as a result of living in the home where her mother was murdered.

With a little bit of "Psycho" thrown in. Perhaps you've heard the story that when Alfred Hitchcock began filming "Psycho," he attempted to purchase available copies of the book it was based on in order to preserve the plot twist. MGM went to even greater lengths when promoting "Gaslight," allegedly attempting to destroy the negatives to a 1940 British adaptation, just so their version would be "the" version.

It's called set decoration. And holy crap, does this movie have tons of it. The atmosphere outside Paula's house -- curling fog with streetlamps struggling to shine through -- is enough, but inside the home, the background décor is even more oppressive. You know that claustrophobic feeling you get when you're in an antique store in which every corner, nook, cranny and ledge is lined with knick-knacks? That's the very vibe that the "Gaslight" set decorator was going for, and it effectively makes the viewer feel as trapped as poor Paula.

You'll never want to slap Angela Lansbury more. In April, KCET screened "Till the Clouds Roll By," which featured a young Angela Lansbury in full-on showgirl mode. She's even younger in "Gaslight" -- 18, in fact, and still showing some baby fat in the cheeks. As a guy who grew up knowing Lansbury as "that 'Murder, She Wrote' lady," I feel strange seeing her look so young, but it's also a lot of fun watching her relish the role of impudent, conniving and quite likely promiscuous maid who does nothing to calm Paula's fraying nerves.

The tensest piano recital in cinema history. Revealing absolutely nothing about the plot, the following scene shows director George Cukor's prowess in setting a scene. Who would have thought a piano recital in a room full of seated, unmoving people could be so tense?

Also, hey! -- pretty piano music!

Bloodthirsty Bessie. Played by Dame May Whitty, Bloodthirsty Bessie will show you just how much a single gossipy old bitty can do. She's awesome.

Its contribution to the English language. Warning: Don't read this last one if you want to go into the film unspoiled! "Gaslight," as a movie and as the play the movie was adapted from, contributed a term that's still used today: gaslighting. It's a form of psychological abuse in which a person manipulates another to the point that he or she doubts his or her own sanity. And it all goes back to Paula's villainous husband furtively fiddling with the gas-powered lamps in her room then lying about it.


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