{Second Take} [1944] Gaslight

The horrors of World War II upended Western civilization. War ravaged nations. Governments attacked their own citizens. Neighbors lost trust in one another. Between secret police and state propaganda, the fighting extended from the battlefield to the town square as control of speech and thought intersected with the war effort. While vilifying enemies is a normal aspect of war, the citizenry also turned on itself: Germans and French aiding in their neighbors’ deportations to concentration camps, the internment of Japanese-Americans, and the similar British internment of German and Austrian citizens represent the heights of public paranoia and scapegoating.

The uneasy atmosphere unavoidably influenced the popular culture of the time. Some of it was overt, like anti-Japanese and -German hysteria in early Bugs Bunny cartoons or dystopian fiction such as George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, while other works borrowed only the general feelings of fear and paranoia, like George Cukor’s film Gaslight from 1944. Cukor’s movie is adapted from a 1938 British play by Patrick Hamilton and preceded by a British film adaptation from 1940. Hamilton’s play and the British film, directed by Thorold Dickinson, were titled “Angel Street” when they originally reached American shores. Getting these details right matters, because this story is about memory and perception.

Today’s audiences may have heard the term “gaslighting” before (particularly in this fractious political season of unrepentant Trumpian falsehoods), and may rest assured that this is from where the phrase is derived. When Gregory nearly drove his young wife Paula to insanity by isolating her and manipulating her environment, he perpetrated an unforgettable trauma in the memory of film and culture. Indeed, he was going beyond the call of his contemporaries to police thought, and taking it one step further by performing what may be film’s first psychological inception (sorry, Chris Nolan).

One wonders if anyone at MGM had seen or read the story their production company purchased. If they had, and possessed any sense of irony, perhaps they would have reconsidered their demand to destroy all copies as well as the negative of Dickinson’s film. In true Orwellian fashion, MGM attempted to control the present by eliminating the past: down the memory hole with the 1940 movie. May no one ever compare the two films, nor even remember the original! MGM wanted to treat the moviegoing public like Paula, restricting its access to the world, lying to its face, and forcing it to doubt its own powers of recollection. Later, MGM would again attempt to manipulate the public’s perception of its environment by suing Jack Benny for parodying Gaslight on a 1959 episode of his TV program. Continue reading “{Second Take} [1944] Gaslight”

[1944] Gaslight

Regardless of whether or not sonder is a “real” word, the feeling is essential to existence. Directly from The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows:

“…the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own—populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness—an epic story that continues invisibly around you like an anthill sprawling deep underground, with elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives that you’ll never know existed, in which you might appear only once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background, as a blur of traffic passing on the highway, as a lighted window at dusk.”

In short, sonder is the response to a life of isolation, of predictable dread, and of mental instability. Nineteen forty-four’s Gaslight asks the audience to follow a life unexamined, but not one suspended by choice. Ingrid Bergman as Paula wonders whether her whole existence is sonder from herself. Her sadistic husband, Gregory (Charles Boyer), begins to encourage the idea of the whole world as random passersby living vividly; that everyone else’s ambitions are justified, while hers are shameful and squarely unique; that everyone else is the main story and that she is the extra in her own life. One might argue sonder is a stalwart of the human condition, predating the confines of its definition. A more narrow-minded skeptic would respond that the unbearable and crushing feeling of aloneness is a technocratic achievement, tipped in a free-falling direction with the advent of the Internet. Others might argue for tautology – “it is what it is,” and that without definition, the concept does not exist at all. Gaslight proves the first one more believably true. Without the Internet to spread the definition, Paula, trapped if not for deus ex detective, would have felt like a spectator to her own life. She is sonder. Continue reading “[1944] Gaslight”

[1945] The Bells of St. Mary’s

In a previous post, I mentioned that, in the mid-1940s, the sequel was not the default for film production as it is today, both as a conscious method of storytelling and because the limited data did not support it. This ethos did not extend to the concept of character clearly, as The Bells of St. Mary’s resurrects Father Chuck O’Malley from his award-winning role in Going My Way. The concept is not problematic; the Father is a warm-hearted, level-headed, American folk hero whose predilections for conversation and reason helped to permeate the average American experience. This is one thing about which the studio can be and was sure.

Yet in Oscar hopscotch, thematic shifts have required course correction. In 1945, unlike in 1944, The Bells of St. Mary’s did not win Best Picture or Best Actor. Instead, those awards scuttled over to The Lost Weekend, a noir classic, often evoking superlatives as Billy Wilder’s best work or Ray Milland’s most striking performance, perhaps. The meta-drama within the sequence from 1944 to 1945 supports this blog’s theory that the award for Best Picture (and in some spirit other Academy Awards) is awarded based on mood, politics and especially an effort to document gestalt for the year in question. That a wholesome, Christian film won in 1944 over another noir film, and the roles reversed just a year later provides clear evidence in support of the theory.  Continue reading “[1945] The Bells of St. Mary’s”

[1943] Casablanca

I’ve already covered the iconoclasm of a famous quotes when writing about In The Heat of The Night, but it is patently obvious that Casablanca more thoroughly explains this point.

Casablanca is a golden film because in its case the parts far outweigh the sum. As a package, the film is more of a medium for acting, screenwriting, directing, cinematography, set design, costume design, sound editing and sound mixing, which together make a film, but separately craft a legend.

We are almost 75 years from Casablanca‘s initial theatrical run and its lore runs through film history as a standard, a candle that can cast no shadow too far upon any film that wishes itself iconic. But the film itself is a heist half-noir whose myopia falls comically short of leaving a lasting impact thematically, but more than makes up for it in its acting – specifically Humphrey Bogart. Bogart, besides having a memorable name (second only to Englebert Humperdink), pre-memorializes himself in Casablanca, perhaps changing the course of cinema down his path for the better part of two decades. He personified the damaged, irascible man as a likable character perhaps most convincingly throughout Casablanca, but certainly throughout the next 15 years. He was the damaged, lovesick, homesick man represented by so many living and fighting abroad during World War II.

The film also continues to hold allure as a film to semi-fictionalize its reality without dehumanizing it. It is a film about humanity during a time of inhumanity; personal triumph and failure over anti-Reich propaganda. Set far enough away from the European theatre, but with enough connection to it through its characters and mood that the sensation of urgency delivered through dialogue seems authentic. But we must not forget that the entirety of the film’s “plot” hinges on two pieces of paper. We would do best to forget that this entire film isn’t a character study or a masterclass in thematic pacing.  Continue reading “[1943] Casablanca”