“Gaslight” (1944) starring Charles Boyer, Ingrid Bergman, Joseph Cotton, & Angela Lansbury

Named for this movie, “gaslighting” has become a recognized form of controlling and manipulative behavior. It involves an exploitative person manipulating those who suspect him/her into doubting themselves and questioning their own perceptions, so that they distrust their own suspicions of the manipulator. This behavior is now classified as a form of psychological abuse.

[1] The first scene establishes the dreary tone of the film. It is nighttime in London and a murder goes unsolved.

[2] Charles Boyer has in this film a thankless role, that of a devouring immoralist who has only two possible moods– brief burst of anger needing to be controlled and an exuded charm that must be slightly overdone at times.

[3] The actress – who would soon become blacklisted after her marriage to Italian director Roberto Rossellini – can convey every emotion and nuance of her character through her amazingly expressive eyes. 

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

The original Broadway stage play and source for the screenplay was Angel Street by Patrick Hamilton, which opened at the John Golden Theater on December 5, 1941 and ran for over a 1,200 performances! The original stage cast included Leo G. Carroll, Vincent Price, and Judith Evelyn. After the death of her famous opera singer aunt/guardian, Paula Alquist (Ingrid Bergman), goes to study in Italy to see if she has any talent as a singer as well. She falls in love w/ a charming/older man who works as a composer, Gregory Anton (Charles Boyer), and they return to London and take up residence in her aunt’s townhouse. Gregory limits her having visitors and going out. He keeps saying that his wife is unwell to anyone who asks. She begins to notice strange goings-on: missing pictures, strange footsteps at night, and gaslights dimming. Paula feels like she may be going out of her mind!

Bergman (who won an Oscar for her role) spent some time in a mental institution to research her role, studying a woman who had suffered a nervous breakdown. This was a suggestion from Cukor, who is known for his ability to draw out fine performances (esp. from women). As my mom commented, this was rare type of role for Bergman. I learned that the actress was initially reluctant to take on this role, as she considered herself to be very strong/independent. She worried that she’d be unable to convincingly play a timid/fragile woman.

Dame Angela Lansbury was only 17 y.o. when she made this- her movie debut! Lansbury (who was nominated for an Oscar) had never acted before her screen test, but she impressed director George Cukor w/ her natural talent. The scene in which the sassy/flirty maid Nancy lights a cigarette, defying her mistress Paula, had to be postponed until near the end of production. The social worker who was monitoring Lansbury refused to allow her to smoke (while she was a minor). New scenes not in the original play were added to this version. Brian Cameron (Joseph Cotten) was changed from a stout, sardonic elderly man to a young, handsome one (as a potential love interest for Bergman). For his part, Cotten relished the chance to play a heroic role, as he had done shady/negative roles in the few years before.

Cukor asked producers (who were reluctant) to hire Paul Huldschinsky to design the Victorian sets. Huldschinsky was a German refugee who fled his native country because of WWII. He knew much re: upper-class European decor, b/c his family had grown wealthy through their newspaper business and his wife was the heiress of a railroad fortune. When he moved to the U.S. most of that money was gone and he got by working on smaller pictures. However, his luck changed w/ this picture, and Huldschinsky won an Oscar for set design.

“The Strange Woman” (1946) starring Hedy Lamarr

Bored with being a film star, Hedy became an accomplished amateur scientist, designing in the early 1940’s the basics of spread spectrum and frequency hopping for radio waves – a concept embodied in every wi-fi and cell phone in use today.

…I feel like the writers read Jane Eyre and Gone with the Wind in the same sitting and said “let’s combine the two”. FYI “Strange” was the term used for “adulteress women” back in the day.

I really see this movie as about a woman who learns that she can “pretend” her way into being a better person. She may seem sociopathic or narcissistic to some, but she is desperate to survive and thrive in a world where she has no education, no money, and only her looks and charm in a rough land.

-Excerpts from reviews on Amazon

I came across this film from a Facebook group; it is in the public domain (as are most films directed by Edgar G. Ulmer). It has a mix of historical melodrama, film noir, and feminism. In 1824 in the port city of Bangor, Maine, Jenny Hagar grows up w/o the love and guidance of her mother (who left her and her drunken/violent father). As a girl, she tries to drown her friend, Ephraim, but then saves him (while other kids look on in wonder). A wealthy local man, Judge Saladine, stops his carriage upon seeing this commotion. His young daughter, Meg, asks if Jenny can go to boarding school w/ her; the judge considers it for a moment, then says Jenny can come work/live in his household. Jenny’s father, Tim (Dennis Hoey), admits that he’s not equipped to raise a child properly. However, Jenny turns down the offer. She demonstrates both her anger at the inequity of her circumstances and her determination to rise by her bootstraps. Jenny tells her father not to worry, b/c “I’ll grow up to be beautiful!” Douglas Sirk (uncredited) directed the opening sequence.

Men like me… and it’s men that have the money in this world! -Jenny declares to her father

After her father hears of Jenny (Hedy Lamarr) walking out w/ a young sailor, he beats her so roughly that she runs to the richest man in town. The owner of several businesses, Isaiah Poster (Gene Lockhart), sent Ephraim (his son) away to college to keep him away from Jenny. After Jenny is cleaned up by his housekeeper, Mr. Poster marries Jenny that same night! He discussed the matter of her safety w/ Judge Saladine (Alan Napier) and the town pastor, Rev. Thatcher (Moroni Olson). Napier would later become famous as Alfred the Butler, in the 1960s series- Batman.

It wasn’t by knowing how to set a table that Cleopatra got along. -Jenny comments to her friend Meg

Jenny pledges a generous amount to the church, earning the respect of her neighbors. She starts doing charity work in the community, visiting those in need w/ food and kind words. Jenny remembers where she came from and she means to do something about those she left behind. When Epraim (Louis Hayward) returns home, he’s still deeply in love w/ Jenny, and she encourages his attentions. Mr. Poster is eager to have his son gone. After her husband falls ill, Jenny nurses him herself. Mr. Poster recovers and other town leaders come to him for help w/ a violent riot. Jenny is so concerned for her older friend, Lena (June Storey), that she takes her in after her tavern is burned down. Unlike Scarlett in Gone With the Wind, Jenny doesn’t care for propriety; she despises it, recognizing that its standards are applied far more strictly to women than men. Some of Mr. Poster’s lumbermen are called in from the hills to serve as a police force. Jenny becomes infatuated w/ one of the men; he is Meg’s (Hillary Brooke) fiance, John Evered (George Sanders).

There are similarities between Jenny Hager and Scarlett O’Hara, but Jenny’s intentions and the root of her flaws are much darker and more mysterious.

So often in films, femme fatales are portrayed to have no conscience, no sense of compassion for others, and yet Jenny does.

…Ulmer has crafted a moody and daring picture that strikes devilish notes without banging the drum too loudly. Striking scenes and imagery are many…

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

“Mangal Pandey: The Rising” (2005) starring Aamir Khan, Toby Stephens, Rani Mukherji, & Ameesha Patel

Aamir Khan plays Mangal Pandey passionately with a complete conviction. All the scenes between Aamir and Toby are a delight to watch. Toby doesn’t fail to impress with his acting or his Hindi-speaking lines.

Stephens’ brief speeches about the ruthlessness of a private corporation pillaging a country seem all too relevant to our own time… The film is wildly entertaining, filled with the color and beauty of Bollywood- superb cinematography, epic sets and crowd scenes, music-and-dance numbers that pop out of nowhere, and a love story…

-Excerpts from reviews on Amazon.com

This is an epic set against the backdrop of what the British called the Sepoy Mutiny; for the Indians, it was the First War of Independence. It took two years to complete this film b/c of the research that went into its production. “Company Raj” (the British East India Company) had been plundering the country, treating the locals unjustly, and causing widespread resentment. During battle in one of the Afghan wars in the mid-1800s, Mangal Pandey (Aamir Khan), an Indian sepoy, saves the life of his commanding officer, Capt. William Gordon (Toby Stephens- son of Dame Maggie Smith). He is indebted, even giving Mangal his pistol. The first act is focused on the friendship; historians have pointed out that this was unlikely. A few years later, the Company introduces the Enfield rifle, which comes w/ a new cartridge rumored to be coated w/ grease from cow and pig fat. This cartridge has to be bitten before it is loaded, which ignites resentment and anger among the sepoys; the cow is sacred to Hindus and the pig is forbidden for Muslims.

The film was offered to Bollywood superstar, Shah Rukh Khan, but he declined (thank goodness). Director Ketan Mehta first thought of making this film in 1988 w/ Amitabh Bachchan. Hugh Jackman turned down the role of Gordon; this required Stephens to speak w/ a Scottish accent and also in Hindi. A very young Kiera Knightley was considered for the role of Emily Kent, who is new to India and develops a crush on Gordon. After Aishwarya Rai turned down the part of Jwala (due to contract issues), Rani Mukerji was given the script to consider taking the part. Mukherji, however, liked the character of Heera and asked if she could play her instead. Khan requested to cast Ameesha Patel as the young widow, Jwala, after he saw her on a BBC game show. Patel wears no make-up; this was Khan’s suggestion.

We only sell our bodies; you sell your souls. -Heera explains to Mangal re: the difference between her girls and the sepoys

The BJP wanted to ban the film, as it showed Pandey visiting a prostitute (though their scenes are platonic in the movie). As Lol Bibi (veteran actress Kiron Kher) points out, her house is only for white men (mainly the British officers). Though this is not a “typical” Bollywood film, it contains songs and dances. One number by Heera and other nautch (dancing) girls, Main Vari Vari, created controversy due to Mukherji’s outfit (where her cleavage was covered by transparent fabric). This song serves a dual purposes- to entice the British officers and to show how conflicted Mangal feels re: trusting Gordon (and biting the new bullet). A.R. Rahman was the music director on this movie; the music flows w/ the story. My favorite song is below- Rasiya.

In your Ramayana there was one villain “Ravana” who had ten heads, company has a hundred heads and they’re all joined by the glue of greed. -Gordon replies when Mangal asks re: the Company

I think this movie is a must-see, though it is uneven (particularly when it comes to editing). The narration (in Hindi) done by veteran actor Om Puri is repetitive; I think it was used to appeal to Hindi speakers who may not be fluent in English. There is a mix of English and Hindi spoken in this film, which I’m sure was accurate for the period. The bromance is much more stronger than both the romances. The relationship between Mangal and Heera was underdeveloped, but I could see the chemistry between the actors. I liked the wrestling scene and hand-to-hand combat between Mangal and Gordon. The sepoys and villagers confronting the British one night w/ their torches stood out to me. However, the scene where Gordon stops the sati (bride burning) looks disorganized. Mangal Pandey: The Rising was shown at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival. The screenwriter is British of Parsi heritage- Farrukh Dandy- associated w/ black (as in minority in UK) and left-wing intellectuals and activists.

You have tasted a black man’s loyalty – now taste his fury! -Mangal declares to Gordon

On second viewing, I noticed how colonialism was compared to slavery (which we may associate w/ the American South and West Indies). Hewson beats a waiter and insults him w/ “kalla kutta” (“black dog”). One of the villagers near the cantonment, Kamla, works as a wet nurse for one of the British officer’s wives. When she gets home, there is no milk left for her baby. Perhaps the most direct correlation to slavery is made in the market scene; Emily is appalled to see an auction of men and women (incl. Heera). It turns out that the Company buys girls, too!

“Water” (2005) starring Seema Biswas, Lisa Ray, & John Abraham

[1] The film is lovely in the way Satyajit Ray’s films are lovely and the best elements of Water involve the young girl and the experiences seen through her eyes. – Rogert Ebert (The Chicago Sun-Times)

[2] Not a dry eye in the house by the time the film ends! Unforgettable and grand in my view; a fabulous achievement for all involved!

[3] The beauty of this movie is the incredible acting. The performances are so touching and so eloquent that you are drawn into the story and the feelings of the women.

-Comments from viewers on Amazon

[1] Despite the bleak conditions portrayed in the movie, there are moments of wonder and comedy and great love. 

[2] The script articulates the tragedy and hypocrisy these women must bare, but it also illustrates the quiet revolution we must all experience in order to grow, in order to change. 

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

Water (shot in both Hindi and English) was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar at the 79th Annual Academy Awards. The Vancouver Film Critics Circle named Deepa Mehta (an immigrant from India) the Best Canadian Director of 2006. Many viewers have praised the look of the film. The natural beauty of the setting is captured by cinematographer Giles Nuttgens, a Brit who won an Oscar for his work on Hell or High Water; he worked with w/ Mehta on her other trilogy films: Fire and Earth. The music (which adds to the story) was composed by A.R. Rahman; the lyrics were written by Sukhwinder Singh.

I would prefer to be known as a storyteller. I don’t set out to provoke reactions. I don’t even feel vindicated, but the irony does not escape me. It is like my father used to say: the two things you could never predict were the day of your death and the success of a movie. -Deepa Mehta (on Water‘s success)

Filming began on Water in 2000 with Akshay Kumar and two actresses who worked w/ Mehta before- Shabana Azmi and Nandita Das. This film was stalled due to protests in India; sets were vandalized (in organized attacks from Hindu nationalists) and Mehta’s life and those of the actors was threatened. Production was restarted in 2004 in Sri Lanka w/ model-turned-actor John Abraham (before he hit it big in Bollywood), Seema Biswas (an indie/theater actress), and Canadian actress Lisa Ray (who was in Bollywood/Hollywood– also directed by Mehta). Ray studied to improve her Hindi, as it is not her first language; her mother is Anglo-Canadian and her father is an Indian immigrant to Canada.

The unknown girl who plays Chuyia (Sarala Karlyawasam) didn’t speak Hindi; she is Sri Lankan and never acted before this film! She does a great job, as everything comes across as natural and believable. Chuyia (only 9 y.o.) is a catalyst for change and the viewer’s entry into this ashram of widows; she doesn’t know what to expect either. There is a hierarchy among the women who live humble lives of poverty. Chuyia finds a mother-figure in the spiritual Shakuntala (Biswas); she tries to help the child adjust to this bleak life. Chuyia forms a friendship w/ the beautiful young widow, Kalyani (Ray). By chance, Kalyani meets a handsome young man, Narayan (Abraham), who is another change-agent. Chuiyia upsets the order of things w/ her spirited personality; Narayan brings in revolutionary ideas from Gandhi (incl. that widows should be allowed to remarry).

“The Wanderers” by Ann Ziegler (Theater J)

The play opens w/ an almost 40, married couple who live in Williamsburg, Brooklyn w/ their two young kids- Abe (a secular Jewish man) and Sophie (from Jewish and African-American heritage). Abe and Sophie talk re: growing up together. We learn that though they are both authors, Abe is more well-known/critically-praised (having won several awards before turning 30). Sophie decides to start writing again, so Abe will have to help out w/ the kids more. Both of them are somewhat dissatisfied w/ their marriage; Abe starts emailing Julia, a famous actress (who recently came to one of his readings). Sophie hears Abe (a man of many words) go on praising Julia, but she doesn’t seem jealous or even concerned. Abe comes off as insecure/neurotic (as one might expect of a writer), Sophie is more grounded and sensible.

Next, we meet a seemingly different pair- Schmuli and Esther- who are a wide-eyed couple in their 20s. They also live in Williamsburg, but as part of an insular/tight-knit community of Satmar Hasidic Jews. They met only once before their wedding; Schmuli was so shy that he just looked at Esther’s shoes. In time, they have two daughters, and the constrained life of a housewife starts getting to Esther. She wonders if she could also have a job, and Schmuli is shocked. Esther recalls the very different life her best friend, Rifka, chose. Esther, pregnant w/ her third child, goes to visit her old friend up in Albany. Rifka has a newborn who will be her last child. Esther is very surprised when Rifka explains to her re: birth control pills. She had always thought that God was the only one who decided re: such matters!

You don’t need to know anything re: Judaism to watch (and enjoy) this play; its themes and situations are universal. It’s not only about marriage, it also has much to say re: being a creative person (writer), connection (or disconnection) from one’s roots/religion, the effects of one’s relationship w/ parents (incl. absent ones), and the allure of celebrity. I think most viewers will find something to relate to in this story. Esther and Abe face the same question- will they stay in their current life or choose another? And will that choice make them happier?