Gaslight is the story about a women named Paula Alquist, the niece of a famous murdered opera star. Paula was living with her until her murder. Paula then moves to Italy to study under her aunt’s teacher. After her time there, she realizes she is not a singer like her aunt, but has instead fallen in love with a man named Gregory Anton. They go away together to be married and move in to Paula’s Aunt’s old home in London, the same place she was murdered. Immediately Paula is reminded of the gruesome time there. Gregory assures her that they will make new memories there to help her forget about her past. Time passes and Paula begins to slowly lose what she thinks is her memory. Gregory convinces her that she has been taking things unknowingly. She also seems to have a habit of losing small items. This seems to concern both her and Gregory who is becoming increasingly short tempered, even aggressive. When on a walk in the park, Paula is noticed by Brian Cameron, a man who used to know her and happens to work for the police. Paula does not recognize him, but it seems to alarm Gregory. More time passes and Paula can swear that she hears footsteps when no one is home and that the gaslight continues to turn up or down. Paula decides she wants to go out for a night to see a concert at an old friend’s house, but Gregory insists she is not well enough to go out. When she decides to go out anyway, Gregory joins her. When at the concert they run in to Brian again, who seems to be staring at Gregory the majority of the time. Paula has a small manic episode in the middle of the concert and Gregory takes her home. It is at this point Gregory tells her that she is going insane, just like her mother. After Gregory leaves, Brian shows up at the home to help. He assures Paula that she is not insane and that Gregory is nothing more than a jewel thief after her Aunt’s priceless hidden gems. After a confrontation, Gregory is tied up and taken away.
Sorry, Wrong Number
Leona Stevenson is a sickly woman who seems to be bound to her bed. Her husband, Henry, is working late and so she tries to get a hold of him. When the operator is attempting to connect them, Leona overhears a terrible phone call that involves the details of a woman’s murder. Panicked, Leona calls the police and tries to save the woman’s life. The police are unable to help due to the vague information, and Leona then tries to go back to contacting her husband. We are then taken through a series of flashbacks. We learn that Leona is an heiress of a pharmaceutical company owned by her father J.B. Cotterell. When she meets Henry for the first time, he is a poor working class man. After the two are married, Henry goes to work for Leona’s father. Henry then starts to feel that he has little self-worth, all of his money belonging to his wife, his job belonging to her company, and living with her father. After engaging in a fight about him finding a new job to become independent, he learns that she has a heart condition. Leona then contacts a doctor that Henry had seen about her condition. The doctor reveals that he told Henry that Leona does not have a heart condition, but instead has a mental illness that causes her physical problems. Leona then gets a call from Waldo Evans, a man who works in the pharmaceutical development of the Cotterell empire. Henry convinces him to help scheme and steal chemicals for a third party, Morano. When Henry decides to go and do things on his own, Morano decides to threaten him and Waldo. Eventually Morano convinces Henry that he owes him 200,000 dollars for “hurt feelings,” to which Henry admits that he doesn’t have the money. Morano insists to get it from his wife one way or another, the easiest way from her life insurance policy. This led to a plot to kill Leona. She was the woman that the men were talking about killing. After the flashback ends, Leona gets a call from Henry. She had figured out part of the story after a call from Sally Hunt, and had Henry confess everything. Henry at the last minute regrets his decision to kill his wife, but it is too late and the assassin comes in to kill her while she is on the phone with Henry.
The Reverse Femme-Fatale
These two films stand in stark contrast to Stella Dallas and Wendy and Lucy. Where the former films were about strong women in hard times, both Gaslight and Sorry, Wrong Number are about weak or vulnerable women who have fairly well-to-do lives. Of course there are still hardships, Leona having trouble with her mental health and Paula witnessing the murder of her aunt. Both of these films depict women who seem to be subject to what life throws at them, rather than defining their fate. “The American films, which not only responded to their British counterparts but helped shape the Gothic genre in their own right, tended towards three themes in particular (often combining them): doomed romance, dark family inheritances often connected to greed and madness, and the supernatural melodrama. Certainly, these film borrowed horror tropes, like the fear of the dark, nightmares, haunted houses, thick cobwebs, and fog-drenched cemeteries. The home was often set as the central location, a site of both domesticity and terror — speaking to the genre’s overall themes of social order, repressed sexuality, and death — and this location was of course of equal importance to horror films and the “woman’s film” of the ‘40s and ‘50s. Like the latter, these Gothic films often featured female protagonists and plots that revolved around a troubled romantic relationship or domestic turmoil” (diaboliquemagazine.com).
These women are additionally subject to abuse or mistreatment. It is a strange thing to note that in the movies we viewed where the women tend to be strong, assertive, or independent, they are subject to being a product of their own destruction. Although they wind up happy for the one they love, the women are left hurt and alone. In the case of Gaslight and Sorry, Wrong Number, the women are portrayed as fragile and weak, both times needing men to save them, even if one of them does not wind up being saved. These films are very clearly a product of their times, demonstrating what a woman was capable of and what she ought to be. “The gothic, noirish and effective melodrama, with the theme of a menaced, terrorized, sheltered or threatened woman (or wife) by a deranged man (often a husband), was one of a number of similar films made in the 1940s” (filmsite.org).
The fact that this is the prototypical film formula of the World War II era demonstrates that the progression of film and film plot has shifted dramatically. If a movie like the upcoming Black Widow starring Scarlett Johansen were to be pitched in that time period I have high doubts that it would be produced. In fact I think that it is far more likely that the writer would be laughed out of the production room.
These films are part of our history. They demonstrate and communicate moments in time. They reflect philosophies of a certain people that give us insight into how life was lived and what people valued most. These films are representations of who we were. They are also the building blocks of what we have become. Even though so many of these movies values stand in contrast to what we do or believe now, it is important that we do not become overly critical of what these movies have told us. Rather we should study, listen, and learn, in order that we can continue to produce material that shapes the future of not just the film industry, but also a future that helps communicate our values and philosophies with others.