A long time ago, I saw the 1944 version of Gaslight, and then, some years later, I saw the 1940 version. But that was before the term “gaslighting” had become a part of our vocabulary. Now that the week does not go by that someone does not use that word, I decided to watch both movies again.
The 1940 Version
The 1940 version of Gaslight begins with Alice Barlow, an elderly widow, working on a piece of embroidery, on which she has stitched the date, 1865. A man sneaks up behind her and strangles her with a skein of worsted picked up off the table next to her. It is late at night, and for over five hours, he ransacks the place. Then he really becomes desperate and starts ripping open the furniture cushions. He apparently has to give up and leave, for in the next scene, the maid is coming out of the door, screaming for the police, having just arrived around seven in the morning. The newspaper informs us that the murderer got away with the Barlow rubies, worth £12,000. Converted to dollars, and adjusted for inflation, they would be worth about $1,500,000 today in America.
At this point, we could follow the events as they unfold in the movie. And while that is a suitable method for summarizing most movies, perhaps the only one that makes sense in certain cases, with other movies there may be a benefit in reconstructing the events and their meaning, which can be grasped only after the fact. As I watched this movie, I was perplexed at certain points, and even after seeing the entire thing twice, I found that much of it did not make sense. Therefore, by pulling together bits and pieces gathered from different points in the movie, I shall try to make clear my misgivings.
The first thing that bothered me was that no one seems to have received the Barlow estate through inheritance. After the murder, twenty years pass, with the house at 12 Pimlico Square still sitting there, complete with all the furniture and other possessions of Alice Barlow. Now, I realize that probate can sometimes take a while, but twenty years is a bit much, even for the estate of someone that is rich. Nor is there a word in the movie explaining this, such as a reference to relatives, possibly children of the Barlows, contending with each other in court for possession of the house, belongings of the deceased, or even what she might have had in the bank. In fact, twenty years later, the house seems to be not only unoccupied, but unowned. There is a sign in front of the house indicating the agent that is in charge of leasing the property for the estate, but no reference to an owner.
I belabor this point because the man that murdered Alice Barlow was her nephew, Louis Bauer. In the absence of any reference to this woman having had children, Bauer would seem to be the most likely heir. Prior to the murder, Bauer was not a criminal, and the police never suspected him of that murder. Therefore, it would seem that all Bauer had to do was inherit the house and then resume his search for the rubies, as a bachelor, unencumbered by a wife.
Presumably, then, Bauer was not the heir to the Barlow estate. So, he emigrates to Australia and gets married. That doesn’t make sense. Inasmuch as the house has remained unoccupied for twenty years, he could have stayed in London and, after things calmed down a bit, break in and look for the rubies again. With no fear of being interrupted, he could have leisurely searched the place whenever he wanted to and as often as he liked. Again, he is not a suspect, and he is not a criminal as far as the police are concerned, so this move to Australia is completely unmotivated.
But he does move to Australia and get married. For the next two decades, he remains there with his wife, until one day, we can only suppose, he gets to thinking about those rubies he could never find. He can’t afford to buy or even lease the Barlow house, so he decides that he should return to England, marry a rich woman, use her money to buy the house, move into it, and resume his search for the rubies. Divorce in Australia was not easily obtained in the nineteenth century, so he figures he will just abandon his wife, change his name to Paul Mallen, and marry a rich woman in England while still having that wife in Australia. It’s just too bad he didn’t think of all this twenty years earlier. Then he could have legally married a rich woman under his real name right there in London.
Anyway, he executes his plan, marrying a rich woman named Bella. After moving into the house at 12 Pimlico Square, Bella finds an envelope addressed to Louis Bauer. When she asks Mallen about this letter, he realizes he is in danger of being exposed. So, he figures he needs to make her think she is going mad, and then have her committed to an insane asylum where no one will believe anything she says. He does this by periodically hiding something, then asking her where the hidden item is, making her think she unconsciously hid the item herself and then repressed her memory of having done so.
One item in particular that Mallen hides from Bella is a cameo brooch that he pocketed the night of the murder, which he gave to her as an engagement present. The irony is that the brooch has a secret compartment, containing the rubies, along with the initials “A. B.” inscribed inside, which is the final piece of evidence that will convict Mallen of murder.
At night, under some pretense never given, he leaves the house. Then, making sure no one is looking, he sneaks into the house at 14 Pimlico Square, which is right next door. He can do this because he holds the lease on this house and refuses to rent it out. He goes upstairs and leaves through the attic window onto a balcony that is shared with house number 12, the one he lives in. That means he is able to cross over to the attic window of his own house, through which he enters, allowing him to once again search for those rubies. Once inside, he lights a gas lamp, which causes the lamp in Bella’s room to dim. She notices that it has dimmed, and she hears him rummaging around upstairs. No one is supposed to be up there because the upper two stories, which contained all of the Barlow household possessions, had been closed off.
This is all wrong. Since Mallen has control of both houses, he should have had him and Bella move into house number 14. Then there would be no need to go across the balcony and break into his own house. He could just walk over to house number 12 and look around without causing suspicion. The flame of the gas lamp in Bella’s room would not dim, and she would not hear noises coming from above. And he wouldn’t have to worry about the maid and the cook hearing those noises either. For that matter, he could be completely honest about going next door, telling Bella that since a rich woman used to live in house 12, he thought he would go over there and look around to see if he can find anything of value.
As a matter of fact, Mallen is completely unaware that he is causing the light to dim in Bella’s room, for Bella never says anything to him about it. But she does say something about the noises to Elizabeth, the cook. Elizabeth agrees that the lamp is dim, but dismisses it as something being wrong with the pipes. As for the sounds upstairs, they just happen to stop when Elizabeth enters Bella’s room, and they start right up again as soon as she leaves the room. Had the timing been slightly different, Elizabeth would have heard the sounds too, which would have caused problems for Mallen.
By the time we meet Bella in this movie, Mallen has been working on her for some time, either making her think she is crazy, or driving her crazy, or a combination of the two. Therefore, we don’t know what she was like before she met him. At one point, he says she was normal when he first met her, but he is not a reliable source of information. As a result, by the time we are introduced to Bella, she comes across as one of the weakest women in the history of cinema. When Mallen tells her that he is going to have her committed to a madhouse, she asks him, “Paul, did you ever love me?” He replies, “I hate you. You are utterly repulsive to me.” And yet, when she finds out that he is Louis Bauer, who murdered his aunt, and who is trying to have her committed to keep her quiet, she stands by him, refusing to provide evidence against him, saying, “I couldn’t betray my husband.” Such sniveling!
There are three possible explanations for this. First, maybe Bella was just a weak woman to begin with, easily manipulated. Could Nancy, the parlor maid, who was a fast piece, have been so easily fooled? That strains credulity. Second, maybe women in the nineteenth century were so completely dominated by their husbands that they could be more easily controlled. Aside from the fact that there would be no gaslights in the twenty-first century, we wonder if this movie could be remade today, set in contemporaneous times. Or third, it may be that Bella was a perfectly normal woman, and that Mallen’s persistence just wore her down to the pathetic state we find her in when we first see her. But since we are not privy to what she was like before marriage, we just don’t know.
After they move into the house, they attend church the following Sunday. Mr. Rough, a retired police officer, who now runs a livery stable, is taken aback when he sees Mallen. He tells his assistant, Mr. Cobb, that he has just seen a ghost. Then he remembers that the man was Louis Bauer. Mr. Cobb tells him he is going under the name of Mallen, causing Rough to become suspicious. They both begin investigating and ultimately find out what is going on. There is a confrontation, leading to a fight, after which Rough and Cobb tie Mallen up. As if the movie were not already heavy in melodrama, there is a scene in which Bella acts as though she would cut her husband loose, but she says that on account of her madness, she doesn’t realize she holds a knife in her hand.
Bella reveals the secret compartment of the brooch and the rubies that were hidden therein. As Mallen grabs them, a policeman puts the handcuffs on him. Suddenly, Mallen’s mind gives way to madness, the very madness he was trying to inflict on Bella.
The 1944 Version
This movie was remade in 1944. Those who wrote the screenplay for this version apparently noticed some of the problems discussed above and made changes to eliminate them. On the other hand, they introduced some new difficulties of their own. The differences are many and some quite substantial. It may be useful to organize these differences under headings.
Names and Places
Sometimes the scriptwriters of a remake will keep all the same names for the characters in the movie, but some, like this one, will give everyone different names just because they can. Even the house has a different address, being 9 Thornton Square instead of 12 Pimlico Square. So, let’s establish the identities before we begin:
Alice Barlow (elderly widow) becomes Alice Alquist (prima donna).
Paul Mallen, aka Louis Bauer, becomes Gregory Anton, aka Sergis Bauer, (Charles Boyer).
Bella Mallen becomes Paula Anton (Ingrid Bergman).
Mr. Rough sort of becomes Brian Cameron (Joseph Cotton).
The maid and cook have the same names, Nancy and Elizabeth, with Nancy being played by Angela Lansbury.
In the 1940 version, the newspaper makes it clear that the police believe that the murderer got away with the Barlow rubies. In the 1944 version, as far as the public is concerned, no one knows what the motive was for the murder. Brian Cameron, who works for Scotland Yard, is informed by his superior, the commissioner, that Alice Alquist was given some jewels by someone of royal blood, though the public knows nothing of this. The official theory is that the jewels were the motive for the murder, but this was hushed up by order of an “important personage.” Cameron’s superior does not know whether the murderer succeeded in stealing the jewels.
In the 1940 version, the rubies are hidden in the one thing the murderer stole from the house, the brooch. In the 1944 version, the jewels turn out to be fastened to the dress Alice wore when performing as the Empress Theodora, presumably so that her lover could see her wearing those jewels when she performed. While we are supposed to be amused by this hide-in-plain-sight feature, it is hard to believe that it would have taken Anton that long to spot them. The irony of the stones being hidden in the brooch that he stole the night of the murder in the 1940 version was better.
The Night of the Murder
In the 1940 version, the murderer ransacks the house for over five hours, tearing things apart, before he has to leave without having found the rubies. He did, however, steal a brooch, not realizing that the rubies were hidden in a secret compartment. In the 1944 version, the murderer broke the glass of a cabinet where Alice kept her most treasured possessions. Though items were moved around as he searched for the jewels, he took nothing. In particular, he does not steal a brooch. Anton does give Paula a brooch, saying it belonged to his mother, which he then hides as part of his plan to make her think she is losing her mind. He says it belonged to his mother. Maybe it did, maybe it didn’t. But he did not steal it on the night of the murder.
Relationship to the Murdered Woman
In this movie, Alice is an operatic diva, murdered by Sergis Bauer, who was her pianist in Prague. There is no reference to her ever having been married. She had a sister who died giving birth to Paula. Nothing is known about Paula’s father. And so, Alice ends up raising her niece Paula, who was there the night of the murder. It was Paula whom Bauer heard coming down the stairs, causing him to flee. In other words, Paula inherited her aunt’s house, which was left unoccupied while she was sent to Italy to study the opera herself.
Ten years pass between the time of the murder and when Paula comes to know Bauer, going under the name of Gregory Anton. Though not explicitly stated as such, it is easy to imagine that when Bauer accompanied Alice on the piano in Prague, he was already married. We may allow that the difficulty of getting a divorce precluded the possibility of obtaining one, so he abandoned his wife and took up an assumed name for the purpose of marrying Paula and getting access to her house. He gets to know her by becoming her pianist while she receives singing lessons.
Paula falls in love with Anton, after knowing him for only two weeks, and agrees to marry him. On their honeymoon, he finagles her into a conversation about the house, getting her to tell him about it, as if he didn’t know. She makes the following remarks:
That house comes into my dreams sometimes, a house of horror. It’s strange. I haven’t dreamed of it since I’ve known you. I haven’t been afraid since I’ve known you…. For years I’ve been afraid of something nameless ever since she died. You’ve cast out fear for me…. It is true. I’ve found peace in loving you.
And so, her fears having melted away owing to the curative powers of true love, she is ready to move back into the house of her youth. All of her aunt’s possessions are moved to the attic and boarded up. In this version, Anton does not control, through ownership or lease, the house next door. Instead, he breaks in the back of the house at 5 Thornton Square, which just happens to be empty, exits through the attic, walks across the roof, and breaks into his own house so he can search through the stuff that is in the attic.
The Noise in the Attic
In the 1940 version, to say it was bad luck that the noises stopped as soon as Elizabeth entered Bella’s room and started up again as soon as she left is an understatement. In this 1944 version, nothing is left to chance concerning Elizabeth. We have a scene early in the movie that informs us that Elizabeth is extremely hard of hearing, and thus is unable to hear those noises. With Nancy, however, the movie still depends on luck. Paula is in her room with Nancy when the lights dim for the first time. They discuss it, with Nancy being somewhat indifferent as to what caused the flame to lower. But then she leaves the room, and right after she does, the noises can be heard from above.
The Weak Woman
This version gives us some idea as to what Paula was like before she was married, and some understanding of her mental state. Since she was in the house when her aunt was murdered, and was just a young girl at the time, she would naturally be traumatized. And so, moving back into that house could easily make her mentally unstable. However, she is a mouth-breather in this movie, so we have to wonder if her mind was weak to begin with. And again, we have to wonder if Nancy, in this case played by Angela Lansbury, would not have been more difficult to bamboozle had it been her aunt that was murdered.
In the 1940 version, Mr. Rough says he has seen a ghost, figuratively speaking, when he sees Louis Bauer at church. When Mr. Cobb says Bauer is now going by the name of Mallen, Rough becomes suspicious, leading him to investigate. In the 1944 version, it is Cameron who says he has seen a ghost when visiting the Tower of London, by which he means he has seen a woman that looks like Alice Alquist, a woman that fascinated him when he was just twelve years old. The woman he actually saw, of course, was Paula. His supervisor points out that there is naturally a family resemblance between Paula and her aunt, whose house she owns through inheritance. In other words, there is absolutely nothing unusual about the situation at all. Therefore, Cameron’s suspicions are just a “feeling” he has, one that is completely unwarranted.
Tying Up the Murderer
In the 1940 version, Rough and Cobb are just private citizens, so it makes sense for them to tie up Mallen until the police arrive. But in the 1944 version, Cameron and his assistant are the police. Tying Anton to a chair so that Paula can pretend she is crazy and doesn’t know she has a knife to cut him free, and then untying him and taking him to the police station seems artificial and forced.
The Meaning of the Word “Gaslighting”
It is clear that the word “gaslighting” has shifted its meaning slightly from the movies that gave birth to it. In the movies, Mallen/Anton tries to drive Bella/Paula mad by hiding things and then making her believe that she was the one that hid them. Today, when people use the word “gaslighting,” it usually refers to someone that is repeatedly saying things that are false in order to get us to doubt our own perceptions or judgment. The act of hiding something and trying to make us think we have hidden it ourselves is absent.
Until I recently watched these two movies again, I thought that Mallen/Anton tried to make Bella/Paula think that she was hallucinating when she saw the gaslight dim. And that would certainly conform to the meaning of the word “gaslighting” as we use it today. Moreover, it would be the link between what happens to the gaslight in the movie and the meaning the word has recently acquired. But in neither movie does that happen. Mallen/Anton is completely unaware that the lights dim when he is in the attic, and Bella/Paula never mentions it to him. Nor would it have made sense for him to deny it had she done so, for Elizabeth confirms the dimming of the light in the 1940 version, and Nancy does so in the 1944 remake. It is the one thing that is not a part of the gaslighting Bella/Paula is subjected to.
Bertrand Russell once noted that a lot of people suppose that when a sentence is uttered, first you understand what the sentence means, and then you decide whether you believe it or not. He disagreed with this. According to Russell, the belief comes with the understanding, and an extra effort has to be made to disbelieve it.
If Russell is right, this could explain, at least in part, why we can become vexed when someone asserts something we disagree with. In so doing, he is forcing us to believe, if only slightly and for a moment, something that we regard as false. It is an imposition. That we have to make an effort, even if only in our mind, to reject what he says is irritating.
But suppose we have no strong views opposing what someone says to us. With repeated assertions, we may come to believe what we are hearing for lack of the will to resist it. In Scream (1996), Neve Campbell is upset about the way people in her town, including her friend Rose McGowan, believe all the rumors of her mother’s infidelity. McGowan replies, “Well, you can only hear that Richard Gere-gerbil story so many times before you have to start believing it.”
Though seeing is believing, assertions to the contrary can make us doubt even our own perceptions. In A Guide for the Married Man (1967), Robert Morse is a womanizer who is schooling Walter Matthau on how to cheat on his wife. One lesson is that if his wife begins to suspect something, Morse says he should “deny, deny, deny.” But, Matthau responds, what if she knows? Morse repeats, “deny.” But Matthau persists, what if she really knows? Morse is unmoved. “Deny!” he insists firmly. This is followed by a skit illustrating his point. A woman comes home to find her husband in bed with another woman. While she is throwing a fit, her husband and the other woman get dressed. When the wife asks how he could do that, he acts as though he doesn’t know what she is talking about. The other woman leaves. He finishes making up the bed, continuing to pretend as if nothing has happened. Then the husband goes into the living room, sits in a chair, lights his pipe, and starts reading the newspaper. The wife looks into the bedroom, where no trace remains of the deed. She then looks at her husband, who is reading and smoking, while sitting in his favorite chair. With resignation, looking helplessly into the camera, she says, “Charlie, what do you want for dinner?”
And so it is that we needed a word like “gaslighting,” even if its meaning does not perfectly correspond to the events in the movies.