On Friday evening, I hosted an online discussion of the movie Gaslight, the 1944 thriller that gave rise to the pop psych term gaslighting, a term now used to characterize psychologically manipulative and controlling behaviors in interpersonal relationships, the political realm, and — of course — our workplaces.
This session was part of a film discussion series hosted by the University of Chicago’s Basic Program of Liberal Education for Adults, an intensive, non-credit, four-year course of study of the Great Books of the Western canon. The film night discussions are among the program’s complementary activities. I’m enrolled in the Basic Program, currently as a 3rd year student. It has been an enjoyable and challenging intellectual experience. (Go here for a personal account of the program during my first year.)
I offered to host a film night about Gaslight because I realized that, despite the growing use of the term gaslighting, it’s quite possible that many folks have never watched the movie. In fact, I hadn’t seen the movie in years and wondered if it would hold up as a dramatic story, rather than simply being the inspiration for the gaslighting term as used today. Fortunately, Gaslight gave us plenty to talk about, and we didn’t spend a lot of time on its contemporary relevance.
For those of you who would like to do your own viewing of Gaslight, the following notes are slightly edited from what I posted for those attending the film night:
How to Watch
- Search “Gaslight 1944 streaming” for options. You will likely pay a small rental fee, around $3.
- Gaslight is also available on DVD. Look for the WB Archive Collection print.
- Don’t confuse an earlier, 1940 British production with the 1944 American production. The 1944 production has received the most critical attention.
Short Intro from imdb.com
“Ten years after her aunt was murdered in their London home, a woman returns from Italy in the 1880s to resume residence with her new husband. His obsessive interest in the home rises from a secret that may require driving his wife insane.”
Main Cast and Recognitions
- Charles Boyer as Gregory Anton (Academy Award nominee)
- Ingrid Bergman as Paula Alquist (Academy Award winner)
- Joseph Cotton as Brian Cameron
- May Whitty as Miss Thwaites
- Angela Lansbury as Nancy (Academy Award nominee)
- Barbara Everest as Elizabeth
Directed by George Cukor
Also, Gaslight won an Academy Award for “Best Art Direction – Black and White” and received Academy Award nominations for “Best Motion Picture,” “Best Screenplay,” and “Best Cinematography – Black and White.”
A Starter List of Questions
I provided these questions in advance to the film night attendees. If you’ve never watched the film before and wish to screen it “fresh” as a drama, then I suggest viewing it before reading through these questions.
- What are your impressions of the opening sequences?
- Is this a slow-developing storyline or are you grabbed from the start?
- We know early on that Gregory is not a nice guy. How does that shape the suspense of the film? Charles Boyer was nominated for an Oscar. Is he a believable gaslighter?
- Ingrid Bergman won an Oscar for her performance. What do you think of her portrayal of Paula? Is her psychological descent believable? Before the final scenes, are there points where she appears to be comprehending what Gregory is doing to her?
- Are Pauline and Gregory believable as a couple?
- Put on your amateur psychologist hat (unless you’re a real psychologist). What psychological dynamics and psychiatric conditions are captured by the behaviors of, and interactions between, Paula and Gregory?
- Nancy, Elizabeth, and Miss Thwaites are significant supporting characters. How do they contribute to the overall story?
- Is the main storyline credible? Do you have to suspend disbelief at any time to go along for the ride?
- What do you think of the film’s use of foreshadowing, lighting, and music? Were these techniques effective or too heavy-handed?
- The heart of the film is set in 1880s London. What are your images of the city during that era?
- Brian Cameron is a Scotland Yard detective who sees an entry point back into a cold case. Does this work as a cold case drama?
- Compare the portrayals of men and women main characters in the film, especially against the backdrop of the historical period depicted. What gendered stereotypes appear?
- Do you have any favorite scenes in the film? (A personal favorite: What is the symbolism of the scene in the Tower of London?)
- Among popular film genres, how many different categories does Gaslight capture or at least hint at? Is the film “Hitchcockian”?
- Does the film portray gaslighting behavior similarly to how the term is now being used in our contemporary discourse — to characterize highly manipulative and controlling behaviors in interpersonal relationships, political communications, and workplace settings?
- Is Gaslight a classic, or is it simply an entertaining film that gave rise to a term that has entered our popular culture?
- For those drawn to the gaslighting theme, are there any other films or television series that you would recommend?
To Learn More
Search the film title and you’ll find plenty of good commentaries about it.
The Wikipedia entry is very informative, but be advised that it includes many spoilers.
To learn more about the dynamics of gaslighting, I recommend: Robin Stern, The Gaslight Effect: How to Spot and Survive the Hidden Manipulation Others Use to Control Your Life (2018 paperback ed.).
Also, I’ve posted many articles about gaslighting to this blog. For example:
2012-2020: When gaslighting went mainstream (2021)
Gaslighting exists, and it’s horrible, so we should invoke the term carefully (2020)
Institutional gaslighting of whistleblowers (2018)
Reissued for 2018: Robin Stern’s “The Gaslight Effect” (2018)
Gaslighting at work (2017, rev. 2018)
Inauguration Week special: “Gaslighting” goes mainstream (2017)
Is gaslighting a gendered form of workplace bullying? (2013)
Gaslighting as a workplace bullying tactic (2012, rev. 2017)