So, if you recall from a few weeks ago, one of the reasons paintings or artworks appear in a film is to signify the presence of a character who is not present, usually due to a suspicious death. In the next week, I’m going to cover a few excellent examples of “ghost-art.”
One of my favorite ghost paintings appears in Gaslight, the 1944 Victorian psychological thriller starring Ingrid Bergman, Charles Boyer and Angela Lansbury (in her debut film). In the movie, Ingrid Bergman’s character, Paula Alquist, who is already psychologically frail due to the murder of her actress-aunt, Alice Alquist, is almost driven insane by her evil husband. I’m not going to give away any spoilers, because the film’s ending is so deliciously wicked, I can’t help but smiling even now.
Anyhow, most of the action of the film occurs in the London townhouse of Ingrid’s murdered aunt, Alice Alquist, who was a great star of the stage. When Paula and her husband arrive in the house, it’s dusty and full of old furniture- creating a scary ambiance Dominating the sitting room is this gigantic portrait of the dead Alice above the mantelpiece, in full jeweled costume as the Empress Theodora, apparently her most famous role. I can’t help but think of that famous Sargent portrait of Ellen Terry in full Lady Macbeth regalia. Most likely, that portrait inspired this movie portrait.
The painting is magnificently creepy, and a constant reminder of the murdered woman. So, it’s taken down, so poor Paula (and incidentally, the murderer) is not constantly watched. The portrait is put in the attic, where it also plays a key role near the end of the film.
It’s obvious that the portrait is the ghostly presence of Alice Alquist. All the action in the film, in one way or another, surrounds her, even after death. She “watches” the torture of her niece helplessly. She is also a constant reminder of the audience of the murder, of the dark history of the house and its inhabitants and most importantly of her own demise, which sheds light upon the depravity of the killer. As a character, Alice Alquist is never seen, but her presence is larger than life. It dominates the life of Paula and her husband, as surely it dominates the room the painting sits in.
Just like in Laura, in Gaslight, the huge portrait above the fireplace is of a strong-willed, beautiful woman who was killed out of no fault of her own. It creates the "realness" of a character who isn't seen. Apparently there is no ghostly presence as alluring, beautiful or deserving of obsession as a lovely, dead woman.
I could not find the painter who created the portrait. I assume it was done by one of the studio painters. Since it’s not based on an actor, it may have just been done out of memory or imagination. Like I said before, it's probably somewhat based on the Ellen Terry portrait, seen above. As far as I know, it’s certainly not an actual Victorian portrait. It lacks the subtlety. Still, it creates the perfect mood for the film- opulent, excessive and a bit creepy.