Prescriptive Audio: Gender, Medicine and Musical Control in the 1940s Gaslight Film

Activity: Talk or presentation typesOral presentation


A subgenre of the 1940s female gothic cycle, Hollywood’s period ‘gaslight’ pictures combine crime and mystery plots with a focus on the subjective experience of the female protagonist that frequently aligns them with the woman’s film. Although both Experiment Perilous (d. Tourneur; c. Webb, 1944) and The Spiral Staircase (d. Siodmak; c. Webb, 1946) contain elements that fit this model, they also temper our access to the heroine’s subjectivity through the presence of a medical discourse introduced via her professional and romantic relationship with a male doctor – a doctor whose knowledge and authority also allows him to function as an unofficial investigator into the woman's persecution at the hands of a serial murderer.
The characterisation of both films displays an anxiety over the instability of gendered roles that is typical of 1940s crime narratives: they explore contrasting constructions of masculinity in their characterisation of the doctor-detective and serial killer, and conflate the figures of the infantilised patient, fetishised victim and love interest in their leading ladies. The soundtrack is a crucial element of this gendered discourse: it reinforces the doctor’s dominance whilst simultaneously allying his presentation with that of an unstable, emasculated killer, and acts both to create and contain agency within complex constructions of female victimhood. Music articulates the changing position of characters in relation to issues of crime, criminality and romance, complicating hierarchies of narrative control and challenging existing theorisations of subjectivity and ownership in the classical Hollywood score.
Period25 Jun 2014
Event titleMusic and Screen Media Conference
Event typeConference
LocationLiverpool, United KingdomShow on map
Degree of RecognitionNational