Listening Is Active: Joseph Cotten in Gaslight

Except for a couple of brief encounters in public settings, Joseph Cotten’s Brian Cameron and Ingrid Bergman’s Paula Asquist never meet until the final scene of Gaslight. Brian Cameron has been obsessed with the unsolved murder of Paula Asquist’s aunt for years, and is stunned when he sees Paula in the flesh: she is the spitting image of her beautiful aunt. This sparks his interest in the case again. He personally hires a cop to walk the beat on that block and report back to him. He hangs around in the bushes. He watches, he waits. He has no idea what is going on in that house. He has some suspicions. He figures out that the husband is probably sneaking back into the house from the back through a skylight on the roof. But why? Again, he has some suspicions, but he is not sure. It is the wife who is the great mystery. She is rarely seen out in public. The one time Brian saw her in a public setting at a fancy concert, she had a breakdown and had to be led weeping from the room. Is something wrong with her? Is she mentally unstable? Or is she under the thumb of something evil? Does she have any idea who her husband is? Brian Cameron himself isn’t sure who the husband is, but he has some ideas. He needs to find out. He senses that it is urgent, that something truly awful is going on in that house, and he needs to figure out a way to stop it.

By the time he decides to knock on the door at 9 Thornton Square, the situation inside has come to a head. He can sense it, the way good lawyers and cops can sense things like that. It is time for him to make his move.

He knocks on the door. The elderly housemaid says the lady of the house is not feeling well. Brian graciously ignores her, coming into the hallway, saying, “Oh, she’ll want to see me.”

A fearful Ingrid Bergman appears at the top of the stairway and tells him to go away. He comes up to meet her, and immediately launches into his story, which is designed to show his trustworthiness, and that he should be allowed to be there: he has something of use to her.

It is one of the first moments when a male (or female, for that matter: but his maleness is essential to cracking the belljar of that house) in the film treats her as someone with the authority to make her own choices. It is a moment where he knows he has to prove himself to her, show her something immediately that will gain her trust, and in so doing he admits that she has autonomy as a person, that trust is something that must be honestly earned. He understands that. The burden of proof is on HIM. His opening moments in this scene are deeply respectful of her autonomy as a person, although also tinged with urgency.

I am mentioning the setup because I am interested in why things are successful. All of Gaslight is successful, from the set, the lighting design, the costumes, the script, and the cast (from the leads down to the Cockney cop hired by Cotten). And so the whole thing works and flows. One of the most terrifying and accurate portraits of how brainwashing works in a domestic situation. But the last scene in Gaslight is killer-complicated. It ends up with a showdown with the husband, tied up in the attic. But it begins quietly, cautiously, in a tentative introductory conversation on the stairway. By this point in Gaslight, Bergman completely believes she is losing her mind, and trusts absolutely nothing about herself, not even her own perceptions of things. She cannot be allowed with any autonomy because she is too forgetful, too dangerous to herself. She has been thoroughly brainwashed.

Now Brian Cameron does not know this. It is what he sensed was going on: that this woman had somehow been duped by her husband into 1. marrying him in the first place, and 2. going mad so that he could then send her away. But all of his discovery and deducing happens in those opening moments on the stairwell. His body language is alert with listening and attention. He doesn’t do too much. He recognizes immediately that this woman is not well, but he also senses (knows) that this is her husband’s doing: that there is nothing whatsoever wrong with this woman’s mind. The scene is a masterpiece of writing as well: Brian Cameron doesn’t blaze into the house shouting, “YOUR HUSBAND ISN’T WHO HE SAYS HE IS.” He has to work up to it. Perhaps he hadn’t realized just how far gone the beautiful Paula really was, but in 2 or 3 seconds, he gets the whole picture.

You can watch Joseph Cotten, that beautiful sensitive actor, absorb it all, with no corresponding panic or condescension. He treats her like an adult, albeit a fragile one. He keeps speaking to her calmly, putting it all together for her, as he puts it together for himself. But he never ever takes his eyes off Ingrid Bergman.

In many ways, he has a thankless part, although crucial. He is the lone investigator who remembers Alice Alquist, he is the independent thinker who keeps searching for the answer to what happened. But most of his dialogue is there for exposition, to give us context as to who Alquist was, what the original crime and case entailed, and he also provides an outside eye on the house. We see it through his eyes when we step into his shoes.

His dialogue in the last scene is mostly questions. Or at least it starts out that way. He asks her about her husband. About the noises she hears, and what her husband has said to her. He asks the questions and listens intently to the answers. Most of their conversation is filmed in long takes, with quick cuts up to the gas lamp in the ceiling, flame either waxing or waning. But Bergman moves restlessly through the room, the camera following her, sometimes leaving Cotten behind, out of frame. But we can still feel his listening presence off-frame. Then he follows her into the frame. You know, without a shadow of a doubt, that Cotten is still acting his pants off even in those moments when he is out of frame. The scene does not stop for him, just because the camera is not on him. His listening is, in essence, what makes that final scene what it is.

And it is not the listening of a man who knows the answers. It is the listening of a man who is struggling to put the pieces together, in the moment, and under the gun. The respect he treats her own perception of things (it matters how she perceives things: he knows she has perceived the truth all along – it is the husband who has twisted things so that she feels she is losing her mind) slowly starts to open her up. Her restlessness begins to subside, although her eyes keep darting around. She still doesn’t trust herself, she still is under her husband’s opinion of her. But when actual evidence starts to come up – the letter in the desk – understanding begins to dawn. On the heels of that is grief. Her entire love affair was a sham. And on the heels of that is rage. How could he do this to her?

Brian Cameron handles these waves of emotion quietly and fearlessly. He is not put off by anything she does. The woman has been traumatized. He does not infantilize her either. He just keeps speaking, quietly, urgently, telling her that No, she is not crazy, Yes, the lights have been dimming, and Yes, that is her husband doing it. He is sorry that “everything has been taken” from her, but he is calmly insistent in his reasonableness. In that way, he shows her the way out. He does not traumatize her again.

They do not have a lot of time. Her husband will soon be returning. Cotten, along with all of the other balls he has in the air, plays the urgency as well. Bergman is immune to the ticking of the clock, she is more caught up in the maestrom of the revelations, but Cotten, you can tell, never forgets that this respite will soon end. It is dangerous here for her. For both of them. The gun is gone. The time has come.

The scene moves from room to room, the camera flowing along with Bergman, Cotten following. She sits on a chaise longue, the interesting shape of the back swooping up in the foreground, covering most of her, revealing most of him. She is lost in her own delusions, but is slowly starting to come back to reality, to feel her own reality. She rarely looks at Cotten. She doesn’t even know his name at this point. She is so pliable that anyone could have come along at that moment, told her anything, and she would have followed, believed. But because it is him, with his intelligent kindness and calm questioning, not to mention his considered and intent listening … she starts to shed the effects of the brainwashing. Cotten plays this scene to perfection.

Listening is active. Talk to any actor and they will say that listening is the #1 most important thing in acting. Funny how difficult it is to do, although perhaps it is not so funny. I know very few “good listeners” in real life either. Listening, more than talking, requires you to be present, 100% present in the moment. There is no next moment, there is no knowing what is coming ahead … there is only listening.

Good listening makes a scene happen even more than histrionics or big gestures.

The big gestures are essential to good acting as well, and Bergman has never been better than in Gaslight. She is explosive and intense.

But without Cotten’s in-the-moment active listening, her big gestures would occur in a vacuum. The scene would be cliche. She would walk away with the entire scene. Easily. With one hand tied behind her back. She has the “big moments” after all, right? She has to scream, and suddenly laugh, she has to rage, and fall silent. It’s set up as her big moment: the moment the edifice cracks.

He is the engineer of that, however. He makes it possible through not only his listening, but how he listens.

Listening is one of the hardest things to do, in life, and onscreen. People pretend to listen all the time. They have their eyes on you, they nod at what you say, but you feel their brain and attention is elsewhere. Yet you could never nail them on it specifically. It’s hard to put your finger on it. But being listened to is one of the most intoxicating and unique experiences in the human race, and without it, without actors who know how to listen – most of the major famous scenes in our literature could not take place.

New actors speak of how doing a scene with, say, Robert DeNiro, catapulted them to a new level in their acting. Not because of the ego-massaging fact of ACTING WITH ROBERT DENIRO, but because of how he is able to listen, and how his listening then sets them up to be seen in the best possible light. Good listeners make other actors seem better. Being listened to in a real way forces YOU to become real. This is true in life, and it is true in acting as well. It is the listener who is support staff, but it’s like a pass in a basketball game that leads to a scoring point. You need that pass. It’s not just the guy who takes the shot at the hoop.

Joseph Cotten never takes his eyes off Ingrid Bergman except for once or twice, and then it is very specific. He looks up at the lamp. He looks up at the ceiling. He thinks. Then he turns his focus back onto Bergman.

It is a powerful thing. Listening like that. It is the most important thing in acting, and the most underpraised.

It makes everything possible.

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4 Responses to Listening Is Active: Joseph Cotten in Gaslight

  1. Vanwall says:

    Nicely done! Cotten was a sort of listening figure in almost every film he was in, hell, even when he’s commenting on silly, useless women in “Shadow of a Doubt”, you can see behind his eyes he’s listening to an inner voice, a neat trick to play three roles at the the same instant. His voice is almost hypnotic as well, trying to share that listening aspect with the viewer. In his westerns, his listening is channeled into passivity, but you know his characters have wide open ears if not wide open eyes.

  2. sheila says:

    Yes, you’re right, Vanwall. Listening is one of his key gifts. He does it naturally. He doesn’t make a “thing” out of it. He knows that that is what the scene requires. He clicks into his scene partner, and the scene then seems to play itself.

    I love the furrows in his brow, too. He is not a passive listener. He is always thinking, collating, analyzing – all without ONE WORD.

  3. “But being listened to is one of the most intoxicating and unique experiences in the human race, and without it, without actors who know how to listen – most of the major famous scenes in our literature could not take place. ”

    I love this. Lovely piece.

  4. sheila says:

    Jacqueline – thank you so much!!

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