Paula Alquist (Ingrid Bergman) falls in love with Gregory Anton (Charles Boyer), a musician, and once they are married, he persuades her to move into the house she lived in as a child, which has been closed since her aunt was murdered there.
At first very happy, Paula soon becomes confused and insecure. While Gregory appears to be solicitous and caring, in reality he is cutting her off from all contact with anyone but himself, and making her doubt herself and her sanity. He convinces her that she is always losing things, that she sees things that are not there, that she is unstable and untrustworthy. Every night he leaves to play the piano in an apartment he has rented, and while he is gone the gaslights flicker and she hears mysterious noises from the attic. Gregory persuades her that these are just her delusions.
Just as Paula’s fragile hold on reality is about to break, she is visited by Brian Cameron (Joseph Cotten) of Scotland Yard, with information about Gregory. But can she trust him? Or is he just another illusion?
This classic of suspense is a good way to begin a conversation about vulnerability and manipulation. Gregory is almost able to drive Paula mad by making her think she is mad already. By cutting her off from any outside reality, by cooly denying what she sees and hears for herself, by telling her over and over again that she is helpless and incompetent, she begins to turn into the person he tells her that she is.
Families who see the movie should talk about these questions: “Gaslighting” someone is now an accepted psychiatric term, based on this movie, and its predecessor, the play “Angel Street.” What do you think it means? How does Gregory get Paula to doubt herself? How does the director help the viewer get some sense of Paula’s feelings of disorientation and doubt? Can someone make another person doubt him or herself as Gregory did? Can someone affect other people positively along the same lines, helping them to believe in themselves? How?
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy “Dial M for Murder” and “Suspicion.”