Why is it that Gaslight doesn't work? Its a fine film featuring one of Ingrid Bergman's best performances- she plays the slowly disintegrating Paula with all her charm and considerable acting ability. Charles Boyer playing her husband is a smooth villain- a seducer, a snake in the garden with a real sting. The supporting cast are fantastic- Joseph Cotton is as always a good actor- so is Dame May Whitty reprising her dotty old woman from Hitchcock's Lady Vanishes and Angela Lansbury also does well in her first role. But it still doesn't work- it feels contrived to modern eyes- it feels like there is less suspence than their should be. George Cukor even directs it well- filling rooms with objects in order to symbolise visually the increasing paranoia of his heroine- but it still doesn't work. Something doesn't come off- and many modern reviewers have that same sense that there is something missing, something that would be better in the film which isn't there.
The first thing you might think of is that it doesn't have the pace of a modern thriller- and that's accurate. It doesn't have much pace at all- the basic storylines are fixed pretty much as soon as we land in London around a third into the movie and from there on we merely follow them. There isn't much in the way of deceptive plot twist or new angle- the story is what the story is and most of the viewers watching it can see it for what it is. But again that doesn't really answer why the film doesn't work as it should work- the plot may develop slowly but the idea of someone being convinced that their mind is slowly disintegrating is a fascinating one. The idea that that lie might convince someone, that they might be persuaded that they were mad and hence be driven out of their mind is crazy but interesting. It makes you reflect on what the nature of madness is- and to some extent it happens with various diseases like depression that someone can be driven out of their mind by persistant taunting. In this case Bergman's character is driven out of her mind by her husband and her servants who play her husband's game.
So what is it that doesn't work? Ultimately I think what doesn't work in this film is the situation. Its hard to beleive that Bergman would or could have believed that her husband's lies were true. However much we believe her acting, the premise behind it seems unbelievable. Its unbelievable because of two things- firstly because the mood of the film at the beggining and the end is romantic and not mysterious. Its hard to switch Bergman's character from what she is to what she becomes. Secondly and more importantly the mind revolts at her submissiveness. This is love on bended knee, not love of equals and as such she is in a position to be convinced of her madness. She is swept off her feet and then forced into the position of a slave. That isn't love as I understand it- its not women as I understand them. The ultimate problem with Gaslight lies in the fact that its central character is not a human being but a fairytale, a princess. Perhaps the element of fantasy at its first showings worked, hence the wide acclaim, and Bergman could portray a woman under great psychological stress and subject to deceit, as Notorious demonstrates, but this film doesn't work because the drama of its central character is implausible.
The issue here is that the genders are drawn too stereotypically for me to believe the story. Bergman's Paula is too ready to collapse into male arms and heed her husband's seductions. Boyer's husband is too much the evil cuckold. Minor characters too are too stereotypical- Cotton's detective isn't given anything to do beyond look handsome and be virtuous. The whole scenario starts as an interesting idea but because all the characters are cardboard it ends up being less than what it could be. Gaslight's failure is interesting because it demonstrates the need for completeness and complexity within cinema- the later Notorious works so much better because the characters aren't as simple and don't conform as easily to gender stereotypes. Gaslight ultimately has an interesting concept but fails because it has no psychological core- and it lacks that core because of its inability to evade the world of fairy tale and enter the world of reality.