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Month: May 2013

Gaslight (1944)

Gaslight (1944)

“Jewels are wonderful things; they have a life of their own.”

A manipulative jewel-fiend (Charles Boyer) weds the niece (Ingrid Bergman) of a woman he murdered years ago, intending to slowly drive her mad in order to safely search her house for her aunt’s hidden jewels — but a curious detective (Joseph Cotten) living nearby soon begins to suspect Boyer may have something to do with the aunt’s unsolved murder case, and investigates the situation.


  • Angela Lansbury Films
  • Charles Boyer Films
  • Detectives and Private Eyes
  • Domestic Abuse
  • Gaslighting
  • George Cukor Films
  • Historical Drama
  • Ingrid Bergman Films
  • Joseph Cotten Films
  • Play Adaptation

Response to Peary’s Review:
As Peary notes, this “venerable psychological melodrama” — based on a popular 1938 play by Patrick Hamilton, originally starring Vincent Price — is a “terrifying study of how a husband can dominate and abuse his wife through manipulative words and actions as easily as with fists”. He writes that while “Bergman won Best Actress Award for her convincing portrayal of a victimized woman”, it’s “Boyer’s slimy cad who makes an unforgettable impression” — indeed, in his Alternate Oscars, Peary names Boyer Best Actor of the Year, and argues that he is “marvelous as this sick fiend who drives Paula [Bergman] to the edge with his accusing eyes and manner, but quickly and nervously pulls back each time he goes so far that she might see through him”.

In his more in-depth analysis of Boyer’s performance, Peary writes that this “villain… is unique in the cinema and one of the most dastardly men ever portrayed… yet… one monster that no one will dispute exists in the real world”; he “never lets up on [Paula], always acting smug and patronizing, using her name as if it were an icepick: ‘You are inclined to lose things, Paula…’; … ‘Are you becoming suspicious as well as absentminded, Paula?'”

In addition to strong lead performances by Bergman and Boyer, the film remains a satisfying thriller thanks to “unusually powerful direction by George Cukor”, as well as highly atmospheric cinematography by Joseph Ruttenberg and an “intricate scenic design”. With that said, the level of tension in the storyline suffers a bit from our knowledge at the outset that Boyer’s character is a murderous cad — and that Cotten (giving an undistinguished performance) will eventually come to Bergman’s assistance; the bulk of the film’s suspense lies in wondering how and when Bergman will finally come to realize she’s being duped. But while Peary argues (in Alternate Oscars) that throughout most of her performance she merely acts “docile and dazed” — and “only at the end… does [her] character switch from being infuriatingly ignorant to interesting” — I disagree: luminous Bergman is as compelling, convincing, and nuanced here as always.

Watch for a young (17-year-old!) Angela Lansbury in her debut role as a tarty maid, and Dame May Whitty (providing mild relief from the film’s otherwise relentlessly gloomy air of oppressiveness) as a snoopy neighbor.

Note: Peary points out that “an earlier [cinematic] version [of the play] was made in England in 1939-40, but MGM kept it out of circulation to benefit its own film”; this original version — co-starring Anton Walbrook and Diana Wynyard — is a worthy film in its own right, and recommended as an interesting comparative study. The two films are available as a double-feature on the 2004 DVD release.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Ingrid Bergman as Paula
  • Charles Boyer as Gregory (named Best Actor of the Year by Peary in his Alternate Oscars)
  • Joseph Ruttenberg’s atmospheric cinematography
  • Paul Huldschinsky’s Oscar-winning sets
  • Strong direction by Cukor

Must See?
Yes, for the lead performances, and as a fine thriller. Also be sure to check out the original 1940 British version.


  • Genuine Classic
  • Noteworthy Performance(s)
  • Oscar Winner or Nominee

(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)


David Copperfield (1935)

David Copperfield (1935)

“You have to be educated, David, and take your place in the world.”

After the death of his mother (Elizabeth Allan), a young orphan named David Copperfield (Freddie Bartholomew) escapes from the clutches of his evil stepfather (Basil Rathbone) and step-aunt (Violet Kemble Cooper), and goes to live with the family of kind but chronically in-debt Mr. Micawber (W.C. Fields); when Micawber is carted off to debtors’ prison, David makes his way towards the house of his kind Aunt Betsey (Edna May Oliver) and her eccentric friend, Mr. Dick (Lennox Pawle). Upon growing up, David (Frank Lawton) falls in love with a ditzy but beautiful girl named Dora (Maureen O’Sullivan), not realizing that his long-time friend Agnes (Madge Evans) — whose father (Lewis Stone) is being manipulated by an unctuous clerk named Uriah Heep (Roland Young) — is secretly enamored with him.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Basil Rathbone Films
  • Charles Dickens Films
  • Coming of Age
  • Freddie Bartholomew Films
  • George Cukor Films
  • Lewis Stone Films
  • Maureen O’Sullivan Films
  • Orphans
  • Roland Young Films
  • W.C. Fields Films

Charles Dickens’ beloved eighth novel (published in serial form between 1849-1850) was admirably condensed into 133 minutes of running time by screenwriters Hugh Walpole and Howard Estabrook, and released as a Christmas-time treat by MGM Studios. All but the nitpickiest of literary fans will surely appreciate how lovingly their favorite scenarios and characters have been brought to life by a roster of the finest studio actors — most notably Edna May Oliver as a nuanced, refreshingly kindhearted Aunt Betsey; Freddie Bartholomew as a sensitive young David:

… Roland Young as the inimitably oily Uriah Heep; jolly-faced Lennox Pawle (was this his one claim to cinematic fame?) as the lovably loopy Mr. Dick; Maureen O’Sullivan as the impossibly childlike but angelically beautiful Dora; and, of course, W.C. Fields as Mr. Micawber (whose failure to drop his American accent somehow doesn’t affect the veracity of his performance in the slightest).

With that said, the storyline itself, while carefully crafted, is a tad too episodic and melodramatic for its own good; the noble intention of staying as true as possible to the lengthy source material means that — inevitably — far too many characters and subplots are ultimately introduced, thus diluting the power of the narrative. Meanwhile, grown David (played competently but without much charisma by Lawton) doesn’t really register as a complex individual; he comes across more like the lynchpin around which multiple scenarios conveniently revolve.

Indeed, when it comes to Dickensian adaptations, I prefer David Lean’s Great Expectations (1946) — and (to a somewhat lesser extent) Lean’s Oliver Twist (1948) — both darkly atmospheric renderings of inherently gripping tales. Yet David Copperfield, expertly directed by George Cukor, remains a unique classic in its own right — and as long as one watches it with its literary and historical contexts firmly in mind, it remains an enjoyable treat.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Superb casting of all characters — most notably Roland Young as Uriah Heep, Edna May Oliver as Aunt Betsey, Freddie Bartholomew as young David, W.C. Fields as Mr. Micawber, Lennox Pawle as Mr. Dick, and Maureen O’Sullivan as Dora

  • Atmospheric cinematography and direction

Must See?
Yes, as a beloved early literary adaptation.


  • Genuine Classic