Gaslight (1944) Beat Sheet Analysis
Why Save the Cat! Analyzes Classic Films
Blake Snyder did not invent story beats. Blake studied screenplays—including ones written before he was born—and discovered how brilliant writers inherently hit the same beats film after film. And so Blake codified these similar story beats, gave those beats easily remembered names, and offered his analysis of structure to help writers (who might not be as inherently brilliant as John Van Druten & Walter Reisch and John L. Balderston) create the foundations for their tales.
Written by: John Van Druten & Walter Reisch and John L. Balderston (screenplay); Patrick Hamilton (play)
Directed by: George Cukor
Genre: Dudette With A Problem (innocent hero, sudden event, life or death battle)
See how the Oscar®-winning Gaslight hits Blake Snyder’s 15 story beats!
Opening Image: A London lamplighter ignites a gas streetlight in Thornton Square while another person reads a headline: “Thornton Square Murder Unsolved”.
Theme Stated: A shocked and grief-stricken Paula Alquist (Ingrid Bergman, who won Best Actress in a Leading Role for this performance) is escorted out of the home to a waiting car. The man leading warns, “No, no Paula, don’t look back. You’ve got to forget everything that’s happened here. That’s why you’re going to Italy to Signore Guardi….You must think of the future, dear, not the past.” This is the story’s quite-on-the-nose thematic premise: living in the moment and not allowing the ghosts of the past to shape one’s present.
Set-Up: Having lost her aunt, the opera singer Alice Alquist, innocent hero Paula moves to Italy to learn to sing with Signore Guardi, though she soon realizes that she will never be able to fill her aunt’s shoes. It’s just one of the things that need fixing in her thesis world as she struggles to get over the murder. Guardi soon realizes that her distractions are due to the fact that she’s in love, and she plans to quit singing.
For Paula, it represents a chance to escape the tragedy that haunts her. Excited, she meets up with her lover, who just happens to be her accompanist, Gregory Anton (Charles Boyer, who was nominated for Best Actor in a Leading Role for this performance). Before settling down, though, she wants to spend a weekend at the lake, and while on the train, Paula meets Miss Thwaites (Dame May Whitty), who is familiar with the murder, as she also lives in Thornton Square.
Catalyst: As Paula and Gregory discuss where to live, Gregory suggests London. This proposition will force Paula into action, as she must now return to the place of her trauma and confront it head-on if she is to honor the man she loves.
Debate: Still, Paula isn’t sure. Should she face her past? Will Gregory help her get through her grief? After arriving at the home on Thornton Square, Paula begins going through her aunt’s possessions. She spies a single glove, telling Gregory that her aunt gave the other glove to a great admirer long ago. It’s still difficult for Paula to surround herself with reminders of the past, so they decide to put the items in the attic for the time being, where the other belongings of her aunt are stored.
Break into Two: Now, Paula is ready to attempt to move forward with her life. As Gregory sits at the piano, an old letter falls out of the sheet music. Paula discovers it was written by someone named Sergis Bauer two days before Alice Alquist was murdered. This sudden event prompts a strange reaction from Gregory, who takes the letter, which is the moment Paula enters her antithesis world.
Fun and Games: A new maidservant, Nancy (Angela Lansbury, who was nominated for Best Actress in a Supporting Role for this, her first film performance), is hired, and we meet Elizabeth, the cook, who is going deaf. Gregory gives Paula a brooch from his mother before putting it in her bag, telling her that she has been forgetting things. The promise of the premise is evident as Gregory begins to manipulate Paula and shape her perception of how she sees things. When the two visit Windsor Castle, Paula digs in her bag, realizing that she can’t find the brooch. Is she really losing things like Gregory said?
B Story: Stepping outside, she comes across a man who seems stunned to see her, tipping his hat. This is Brian Cameron (Joseph Cotten), whose nephew tells him that he looks like he’s seen a ghost. Brian’s interest in Paula will eventually expose Gregory’s machinations and help Paula to move forward with her life, reflecting the theme.
Fun and Games (continued): Gregory continues manipulating Paula, causing her to think she has been fatigued and forgetful lately. He asks Paula for the brooch, and she admits that it was lost. Gregory continues to toy with her, and that evening, she notices the gas light going dim in her room; she wonders if she is imagining things after Nancy says that she did not turn on the gas anywhere else in the home. Paula’s paranoia continues to worsen as she hears footsteps in the locked attic above her.
Meanwhile, Brian speaks to busybody Miss Thwaites about the goings-on in the home, and they watch as Paula attempts to go outside on her own, only to be thwarted by Nancy’s continued questioning. Brian, who works at Scotland Yard, digs into the case, using Miss Thwaites to gain access to Paula by posing as Thwaites’s nephew.
At the same time, Gregory argues with Paula, who accuses Nancy of looking at her strangely. Gregory turns Miss Thwaites and Brian away to Paula’s dismay, but tells her it’s because they’re going out for the night… something Paula apparently “forgot” as well.
Midpoint: Excited, Paula sings and dances around the room, professing her love for Gregory. Immediately after, Gregory shows Paula that a picture has been taken off the wall, causing her to think she had done it and had hidden it. She begins to question herself, and Gregory summons Elizabeth and Nancy, forcing them to swear on the Bible that they did not remove the picture.
The stakes raise and time clocks tick as Paula finds the missing picture where she had apparently hidden it; things are getting worse for her, and it’s only a matter of time before she loses her mind. When Gregory tells her she’s not well enough to go to the theater after all, it’s a false defeat.
Bad Guys Close In: Paula is despondent, worried that she can’t tell reality from imagination anymore. When Gregory goes out again at night, she hears footsteps above her once more. Later, Paula is dressed up to attend a musical performance that they have been invited to. Gregory says they can’t go, but finally relents when he realizes Paula will not be deterred.
At the performance, Brian watches from behind, suspicious. As Paula enjoys herself, Gregory tells her that his watch is now missing. He takes her bag, pulling out the watch (that he had placed there secretly). Paula begins to sob, drawing the attention and ire of the other audience members. Gregory is the external bad guy that is forcing her inner bad guys of doubt and despair to manifest and overtake her.
At home, Paula tries to piece together where her confusion had all begun, and says it was when she saw the letter to her aunt. Gregory insists that there was no letter, and he recalls Paula looking down at nothing. Taking advantage of her fragile emotional state, Gregory tells her that her mother died in an insane asylum when Paula was a year old after similar things happened to her. Though Paula begs him not to go, he leaves, only to be followed by Brian and the constable, who try to figure out what Gregory is doing.
In the house, Paula sees the gas lights go dim again and hears footsteps. When Brian visits, Paula claims to be ill and won’t see him until he produces the matching glove her aunt had given away many years ago, for he was the mysterious admirer as a young boy. Now having Paula’s trust, he searches the home and also witnesses the gas light dimming. Relieved, Paula realizes that she might not be going mad after all. Brian asks if Gregory has any weapons in the house, and Paula only knows of one: the revolver in his desk.
All Is Lost: As Brian breaks into Gregory’s desk to retrieve the revolver, Paula panics, but her fear is soon turned to confusion as she finds the letter from Sergis Bauer inside. The whiff of death is in the air as the gun is missing. It’s a false victory for Paula as she realizes her husband is Sergis Bauer. By driving her mad, Gregory could have her committed to an asylum, allowing him to lay his hands on her aunt’s jewels.
Dark Night of the Soul: Paula understands that nothing was true from the beginning, that she’s been fighting a life-and-death battle all along without knowing it. Brian restates the thematic premise when he tells her, “Your whole life depends on what you’re going to do now—nothing less than your whole life.”
Just then, the two realize that the gas has been turned up. As Gregory leaves the attic, he finally discovers the jewels… they were sewn on Alice’s dress the whole time. Now, nothing will stop him from obtaining them.
Break into Three: Paula is now ready to confront Gregory. He comes back home and discovers that his desk has been broken into, a shocking turn.
Finale: Gregory confronts Paula about his desk, but she insists that she didn’t break into it, now playing his game. When Gregory questions Elizabeth, she, too, says that she didn’t see anyone. Paula seems to question herself, but in her synthesis world, she’s doing the manipulation now.
Brian appears, surprising Gregory, and the two fight. After Gregory is apprehended and tied up, Paula confronts him alone. He asks her to get a knife and free him, but she digs, deep down, and turns the tables on him, pretending that she can’t tell reality from fiction well enough to help him. She’s stronger than she was at the start of her journey.
Final Image: As Gregory is taken away, Brian consoles Paula, giving her words of comfort and hope. Paula faced darkness and uncertainty at the start of the story; now, she is ready to walk into the light, confident of who she is.