The ritual of the gaslight in Gaslight (1940, British version).

Rev., Feb 9, 2017.

It is a source of almost endless interest, how movie directors, with art directors, work to manipulate, or instrumentalize various properties in their movies. Often, the trope metastisizes into a “trap,” or a cliché, and from there is fixed, then to be exploited by humor or whatever, but it is also true that tropes, in the life force of film itself, have a life of their own, and if they keep the life going, they can continue to turn out new ideas from the use of old things. Of particular interest to me are movies which make an idiosyncratic, even peculiar use of a particular property, exaggerated beyond any other in the film, and for that it gives the movie a strangely direct and driven feel. I have most recently discussed this in terms of the use of the garlic-onion plants of Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary, but another example would be the underappreciated version of Gaslight, the 1940 version made in England, and starring Anton Walbrook as Louie Barre, which has in general been overshadowed by the much more mainstream Hollywood version of 1944 starring Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer. In this version, right from the start, as we see Paula go into the parlor, we are shown the shot through plant fronds

gaslight 1then we see that the room is much more closely allied to an adjoining greenhouse, and the place is fairly suffocating with plant life

gaslight 2we also see that the wallpaper and the paintings, or artifacts with painting on them, are also all floral

gaslight 3but, then, as the drama builds, a strange whitish plant, profuse, all over, begins to creep into shots. Here, Barre discovers that his desk has been picked, and the plant is setting off an alarm at the left

gaslight 4then when they have a confrontation after an outing, the plants show up in the parlor too, profiling her figure, and her bearing in the scene

gaslight 5as he interrogates her, he is fairly consumed by plant life, all of it, as is traditional, indicating trouble (with the extra twist here that with a rococco picture in the shot this jungle is being contrasted to the escapism of rococo forests)

gaslight 6then when, after seeing to herself in a mirror, she passes over to him, she passes behind, and the shot captures, a full pass of the plant

gaslight 7they go out, but return, and she begs him not to call the servants, again she is profiled by the plants only this time it turns out that they are also displayed down in the main hall

gaslight 8when they go up into the parlor, which is on the second floor in this version, they are reentering the dangerous jungle, trouble everywhere, this shot fairly screaming

gaslight 9more begging, more profiling of her with the plants

gaslight 10This shot even contrasts the plant fronds with the tame landscape on the wall, as if taking the warning of danger from it, onto them, to warn her, or us with regard to our worry over her, about that handhold, which is not so friendly as she might, for the moment, think

gaslight 11we see the plants in the dark

gaslight 12we see her walking in and out of this jungle of interrogation

gaslight 13it presides over her when she, a rather frail woman, bends over, as if prostrating herself in front of him, to kiss the bible

gaslight 14and so it goes. The question, then, is, what do they mean? Why do they show up so much, but only show up at a certain threshold of the buildup of the action in the movie? The only other movie that I have seen this marked use of the same overdone rather desertlike plant is Silent Night, Bloody Night, and in that movie I conjectured that this particular type of plant is a variant on the norm of houseplant use as an alibi formation warning the residents of danger coming at them, to represent danger that is in the house, right now, and with direct threat to the woman, in particular of the house, and thus its form, its presence on screen, its informe out-of-sorts shape, all represent the woman in a state of nervous excitement, her heartbeat, her nerves, her sweat, her temper, everything riled up. Since in several of these shots the director profiles her fur with the plant it also signifies her frantic effort to go out and escape, so the plant comes back round to representing the hothouse effect has intensified to the extent that it is suffocating her. For all of this, this particular plants helps us as viewers relate to her by by way of a symbolic representation be able to visualize and partake in the nervous attacks she is suffering.

But, then, on a deeper level, why were plants, which are already there, intensified, and then specied out, to represent a further state of nerves? I think the answer to this question is found in the fact that this movie version of the story is more stagey, and fixed in the entire encapsulation of Number 12 Pimlico Square, and, then, at the same time, there is more violence in the site, and has been on the site. The fact that everything takes place within four walls means that everthing in those walls are squeezed tighter, to mean things in a more sharp way. The fact that the house is also a scene of the crime, and a space of desolation and destruction, that has been restored, marks it as a haunted space which is then repopulated in a way that nonetheless all but forces Walbrook to reenact his crimes in that space his life with his wife. In the prelude to the movie, we see it sold as a straight up murder story. None of the evasions of the American version, an aunt abroad, a former love affair, etc., it is straight up, there was a woman, and someone killed her for her jewels, so the very room, the parlor where all the movie takes place, is a murder scene

gaslight 15and then, it is also a scene of desolation, as in searching for the jewels, he tore up the whole place

gaslight 16and even was so insane as to cut up all the furniture, to strip the chaises, to tear out their stuffing

gaslight 17In these scenes, we see violent action, and frantic searching. We also see the stuffing, which, formally and materially, compares to the particular plant property we are talking about. For that, I posit that this particular type of plant, at a threshold in the buildup of the action when she is being upset, and searched, and interrogated, and might even feel like she is under threat of murder, she is profiled by a property that reminds us, visually, even if “unconsciously,” of the former violence in the house as a scene of the crime.

But, then, bookended directly on the early sequence of the violence in the house, there is a tighter involvement of the cop in the movie, as he hears about the house being reinhabited, and since he was on duty during the crime, he knows all about it, and is interested in getting back in there. It’s possible he is simply working with the haunted idea that a killer might return to a scene of the crime, and a scene of the crime is marked, likely, therefore, to become the scene of another crime. He only comes into play spatially when we get to the bit about Barre having rented Number 14, and then come in over the roof, to search for the jewels in the attic. Oddly, in this version, we never see the attic, we never see him search, the solution to the problem in the concept of gaslighting, which is caused by what goes on in the attic, the lights going down, then up, her hearing noises, is not resolved in the attic, it is marginalized in this telling. But we do see the inspector creep up through the vacant number 14, and, interestingly, it is not quite entirely vacant, as he passes in front of a mirror

gaslight 18This is a lateral emptying out of the space, taking us into the evasive space by which Barre was able to circumvent his wife’s suspicions, and use the inspiration of the emptiness of the space to launch against her a gaslight project, to empty her out of selfconfidence and sanity, so he can get his nefarious things done. Thus, we see that the parlor space where the drama takes place, the agency space, is undergirded by a desolated murder scene, that is, a negative cult space, which then haunts it, but it is also haunted by a counterspace, or crawlspace, to its side, which casts her into a mirror space, turning away from the drama. And, in fact, there are many more mirrors in this outing, than in the Hollywood version. We see that, well in this it shares with the Hollywood version, a mirror, doubling the density, but also opening it up to bifurcation

gaslight 19when, in a staged fight up in her room, he does a rather oddly deceptive gesture, the cover his face with his hands in horror, but then slyly peeking out, to steal something

gaslight 20he commits the theft by making sure that she is looking away, and does so by glancing in the mirror, and we see her not only back to us, but in the mirror, thus doubly embrasured in the removals from upfrontness in the fictive space of the movie

gaslight 21later, she spies on him, by looking back at him through a mirror (and the presence of mirrors folding out from some of the usual furniture has to be classified as examples of those symbolic hybrid forms that movies sometimes developed to bespeak their relational peculiarities

gaslight 22there is also another odd shot when she ponders upside down reflected in an object

gaslight 23though the use of mirrors can only be called transitional, and incidental, in so far as they bespeak the presence of the counterspace lateral to the scene of the crime in which they live the presence of them mirror splices up and dematerializes the space to create a greater distance between them, as in the concept of the house of mirrors. But I said transitional, and that is because the actual role of the mirror is to serve as a transitional device between the wildflower houseplant and the gaslight fixture. Without in any way counting appearances up, this version of the movie seems much more reliant on the actual device of the gaslight lamp as an instrument embodying and carrying the drama. The gaslight that burns in a shape not that different from the wildflower frames the opening titles

gaslight 24the gaslight oversees the flirting that goes on, right under her own roof, with the maid, in her presence, him committing a domestic crime in a place where he had formerly committed another crime

gaslight 25the movie is much more attentive to the authenticity of the gaslight as a device of technology in a bygone era, with a more careful depiction of its form and variations

gaslight 26gaslight times ten is used as a transitional dissolve device when they go out, meaning she is not under less, but only more stress and pressure

gaslight 27the gaslight presides, profiling her suspicious eyes, as well as the linkage between fur and plant

gaslight 28he stands by the gaslight (about this in a bit)

gaslight 29she lives under the gaslight, in a haunted intimate space

gaslight 30and we see the gaslight go up and down more often

gaslight 31all of this feeds as it were a path of glass through the movie from the space and its history, to the mirror as representing the space overlain by a counterspace of deception, then representing deception in its many forms in the house, carried over to the wildflower plant, to represent her state of nerves in a state of suspicion. This is a much more lamped movie, the lamp is instrumentalized more. But, then, even better, it is extenuated through other objects more too. There are a lot pictures in this version of the story too, but what distinguishes my treatment of this version and the Hollywood is that while in the latter I found that the pictures played a central role, in this one, I am less certain. I think rather the pictures exist as supportive objects to the lamp, and as carriers of gaslight into all conversational moments, by way of the fact that here they are more often circular, that is, the cameo is the gaslight formation of a picture. We see these all over early on. The gaslight profiles a rococo oval, which itself represents going down the primrose path, and, even, in the context of his flirtation with the maid, his erotic adventure with her

gaslight 32when he plays the piano he is surrounded by oval and round pictures, under glass

gaslight 33they are everywhere, here I count nine oval or circular pictures

gaslight 34this shot indicates that the cameo picture might in fact be a revolving-door device to encapsulate in it not only the gaslight concept, but the mirror concept, and also, which I wont talk about here, the clock time-passing concept

gaslight 35when you are looking for a saturation of the space by a particular special property, you look for interesting inclusions of it in other objects too, and, sure enough, here is a piece of furniture, in his room, which seems to have a cameo style picture embedded in it

gaslight 36it can even be said, since in this scene he is back with the maid, and speaking, very directly, about making an assignation for sex, and doing it right out in the open, under her very roof, that the oval pictures serve to embody or present as dislocated body, and a suggestion of a body imprint, the thought of sex, as here they do seem to array that way under a rococo oval

gaslight 37it is also true that simply as a tangent from this point, we actually see them, in this version, out on a date, but where does he take her, but to a pub where there is a can can dance, so this is another can can movie, and the dancers are making all sorts of very orchestrated trick moves with an erotic punch and in this context their skirts also echo back to the profile of the lady’s skirt and the wildflower houseplant, feeding a hint of sexuality into the mix

gaslight 38as things progress, it is also true that in his most forceful and threatened moments, threatening the brother, for example, Walbrook is negatively framed by the oval of a picture

gaslight 39 and, again, when accused

gaslight 40This means that pictures profile his obsession as it continues to wrankle in his mind, they reflect his gaslighting, and his attempt to cast gaslight on her. They represent his countering, his deception, and his evil infidelities. So, a transition from gaslight to picture, means that (though there are several points where the pictures show up, I do not sense any agency in them) all picturing is subordinated to an intense tight desire on the director’s part to keep us inside his mind as represented by the place, and his haunting of it, in guilt, as a return to the scene of the crime, and his fixation on finding the rubies. This brings us to the last, and maybe the most interesting aspect of this movie, compared to the others. Walbrook’s Barre, having already committed a crime in this space, haunted, becomes a fetishist, through intense, rigid ritualization. He makes use of the space in a much more formally ritualized way. It is quite a surprise. At one point, he has the maids come up, and stand in attention as if at church, as he, at the table, reads from the bible

gaslight 41amazingly, they sit through it, and, then, when it is done, bow and pray too, even getting on their knees and praying to the fireplace, which is strange indeed

gaslight 42this is not just a table, but a shrine place, a place of cult. It might be the very spot in the room where the lady he murdered fell, he is on the surface just engaging in obfuscating ritual for him to keep control over the house, but it feels uncanny and neurotic, as if he is covering up that truth from himself. Then, when at the other point he insists on the maid kissing the bible it is, there is no question, a serious religious ritual, and he, crowned, evilly halo’d by the gaslight, is the chief priest of the cult

gaslight 43and in this shot he stands over his wife almost in an official role, as the priest presiding over the cult, unmoved by her show of her body, which there is no indication, at any time in the movie, he is interested in in the slightest

gaslight 44this is one of the sharp strengths of the movie, the ritualism. The way that movie combines space, gaslight and ritual also reflects on the use of cameo portraits as a possible English equivalent in overstuffed Victorian homes to the connection between icon worship and cameos of loved ones in the domestic space of upper class Russians (see The Romanovs), and as such makes of him a foreign born lampadnik, a lighter of icon lights, a religious ritual person, whose stiffness in ritual will be his downfall. In the American version, the kissing of the bible comes off as a whimsy, it is not entirely convincing, Boyer does not seem like that religious of a man, or that he would believe in that sort of thing, but, there, he has turned the scene of the crime in a cult place, and enacts religious-like rituals, he thinks to drive her crazy, but not quite aware that he too is in guilt being driven crazy by his search. It’s pretty wonderful. And, then, too, this focus on ritual, in what might be called ovaled space, reinforces that for him, and the for the movie, all of Pimlico Square is a cult space, the zero’d in focus on his obsession

gaslight 45and then that is it strange, funny, ironic that his whole eyes wide shut deceipt in stealing her brooch, to make her crazy for thinking she has lost it, this glance that in the end captures entirely his self-gaslighted state

gaslight 46this brooch IS the carrier of the rubies that he was looking for all that time, and which are spilled out in the room, precisely where he murdered the woman to find them in the first place

gaslight 47as a result of which, he ends up on the carpet, in the floral pattern, just like the old lady had, when he killed her, then ripped up the room in the prelude

gaslight 48this, then is my analysis of the instrumentation of properties in Gaslight (1940), what stuck out was the individualistic use of a wildflower houseplant to represent her in a stage of upset, but then that turned out to be a transit object to negotiate the space between her suspicion and his deception, which then translated through mirrors, gaslight lamps themselves, and then pictures in glass in the shape of gaslight (forgetting for the moment all the other use of pictures), to bring it all round, by way of ritualism, to convey throughout, on most frames of the film, his obsession with the rubies, but also his own self-gaslighting, having become, in fact, sick in his obsession as guilt or whatever over the crime committed previously in that room drove him crazy.

But one coda. I have spoken of his ritualism. In this version of the telling, the whole business about the missing picture is almost presented in a tangential way, but only when compares to the relatively fuller treatment this idea receives in the American version. In this version, he brings it up again, she is upset, there is an empty spot on the wall, flanked by two more oval forms

gaslight 49we now see that gaslight in form pervades their interaction, but it strikes me that they are both going through this event as if by script, as if it is another occurrence of something that has happened way more often than supposed in the Bergman version, and she immediately drops into hypnotic form, and goes through the haunted motions. That is, like his bible-reading breakfasts, like his kissing of the bible, this is yet another one of his parlor rituals by which he displaces gaslight from him onto her, to make her think herself crazy

gaslight 50and then in a highly ritualized way, she goes up to the landing, in a scene exactly copied in 1944, and finds the picture, but, again, in a much more ritualistic way

gaslight 51and she is, on that level, profiled by a Roman bust, which signifies his power over her, and that the house is presided over by a hypnotizing and evil pater familias, not an actual husband. For all of this, while the American version focuses primarily on Ingrid Bergman’s persecution and suffering, the steelier English version is more of a portrait of a mad criminal having returned to the scene of the crime to try by the agency of his wife to find a solution to the problem he killed for, in that parlor, and, for that, more a portrait of him attempting gaslighting, but getting caught up in his own gaslighting, brought down by guilt to behave in ever more ritualistic ways, that ends up getting him caught up. In this version, gaslight is not just an incidental side-effect of his devious plot to find the jewels, it is the very illumination of his mad mind as he struggles through the psychological peril of revisiting a crime site for a second try at succeeding at it.

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