Once calling Spellbound
"another manhunt story wrapped up in pseudo-psychoanalysis,"
Hitchcock has certainly crafted many better films,
but his second Selznick production has merit and
is required viewing for Hitchcock completists. The
plot doesn’t measure up to Hitchcock's
usual standards, but once again Hitchcockian themes
unfold before his infallible camera-work and Salvador
Dali’s artistic design proves to be the star.
Check with anyone who's
seen Spellbound, and the scenes most
remember will be Dali's surrealistic dream sequences,
ironically re-shot when Hitchcock
wasn’t on the set by cinematographer Bill Marzies
(uncredited). Without Dali’s fame, those scenes
would never have been made. Being a huge admirer
visual style, Hitchcock
wanted Dali to design the dream sets from the beginning.
He realized that dreams are surreal, and no artist
was better at capturing this than Dali, who had
collaborated with Buñuel
on his first two film; however, Selznick was concerned
with the financial bottom line. Thus, he saw the
addition of Salvador Dali as a marketing ploy and
granted a contract to the famous artist.
didn't get everything he wanted from Selznick though.
He wanted to break away from the traditional blurry
focus techniques that signal dream scenes and wanted
the dreams to show a sharpness and clarity that
the "real life" scenes didn't convey--an idea that
fits in perfectly with the theme. Compromises had
to be made, as Hitchcock
reveals to Truffaut:
"My idea was
to shoot the Dali dream scenes in the open air so
that the whole thing, photographed in real sunshine,
would be terribly sharp. I was very keen on that
idea, but the producers were concerned about the
expense. So we shot the dream in the studios."
Not all of Dali's ideas made
the final cut either. An interesting ballroom scene
with hanging pianos from the ceiling was left out,
wonderfully referenced with camera stills and written
accounts on the Criterion DVD release, and Dali's
idea about having statues cracking with ants emerging
and having Ingrid Bergman's body covered with ants
was rejected by Hitchcock.
It wasn't a direction he wanted to take, and the ant
scene too closely resembles Dali's first surrealistic
film dabbling from a scene in Un
chien Andalou where ants emerge from a
hole in a man's hand. Left in is the most famous visual
reference from that 1929 Buñuel collaboration--the
Spellbound dream in a gambling hall
where giant scissors cut through an eyeball on a curtain.
What gets left out didn't please Dali, as he remarked
in 1976, "Le best parts in Hitchcock que
I like he should keep, that much was cut."
As you can imagine, the
partnership between producer David O. Selznick (Gone
with the Wind) and Alfred
Hitchcock was about as smooth as the rocky overlook
Hitch's first collaboration with the maverick producer.
After a less than satisfactory experience on that
Oscar winner, Hitchcock gratefully was loaned to
other studios for several film projects during the
war years before agreeing to direct the studio's
"psychiatric picture" to fulfill his contractual
obligations and for the money. Hitchcock
himself had mentioned to Selznick that he retained
the screen rights to Gothic novel The House
of Dr. Edwardes that he thought could be
transformed into a good thriller. I was about a
serial killer than does away with the head of a
mental institution and assumes his post.
Never one to treat the original
source material as "sacred," Hitchcock
makes the material his own while retaining part
of the novel's premise. Green Manors mental institution
awaits the arrival of Dr. Edwardes, who will be
taking over the helm from Dr. Murchison (Leo Carroll,
later to play a CIA chief in North by Northwest).
Bookish and competent Dr. Constance Peterson (Ingrid
Bergman) knows plenty of psychological theory, but
remains inexperienced in practical application and
in real life romantic relationships. Not that she
doesn't get offers. In fact, middle aged Dr. Fleurot
(John Emery) carries a torch for her, but Peterson
consistently rebuffs him. She protects herself behind
locked doors, and only the man with the right key
And so he does when Dr.
Edwardes (Gregory Peck) arrives. It's love at first
sight; however, something's amiss. He freaks out
and goes a little mad when confronted with white
sheets, cigarette cases, the initials J.B., fork
marks, lined robes and blankets, and railroad tracks.
And he doesn’t even to be familiar with his own
theories from Labyrinth of the Guilt Complex.
What we have is classic voyeuristic Hitchcockian
suspense, where innocent people are once again thrust
into a vortex of misfortune, lovers are thwarted
by psychological problems (foreshadowing Vertigo
and Marnie), and good and evil co-exist
side by side.
Meticulous in detail, Hitchcock’s
screenwriter Ben Hecht constantly touched base with
prominent psychoanalysts for accuracy, and it shows
with all the psycho babble you could read in textbooks
of the time, all of which is foreshadowed in an
extended written prologue that now seems dated:
Our story deals
with psychoanalysis, the method by which modern
science treats the emotional problems of the sane
. . .
Ingrid Bergman does some fine
understated acting, often communicating with simple
eye movements, like her quandary about approaching
Peck’s room late at night. Note also her uncomfortable
body language when a stranger (Mr. Pittsburgh) tries
to make a move by practically sitting on her lap in
the hotel lobby--she very naturally rebuffs him with
a believably firm feminine response. Bergman and Peck
don't strike the same sensual sparks that Bergman
and Grant do in Notorious,
but that's hardly fair--the Spellbound
script isn't nearly as compelling. Poor Bergman continually
has to psychoanalyze everything to the point of exhaustion.
At one point It's darkly comic when Peck angrily shouts,
"Stop it! Babbling like a phony King Solomon. You
sit there full of half witted double talk that doesn't
make any sense." I can almost see Hitch chuckling
at those lines.
use of the word sane instead of disturbed
Once the complexes that
have been disturbing the patient are uncovered and
interpreted, the illness and confusion disappear.
. . and the devils of unreason are driven from the
Despite its relative weakness
and clumsy didactic psychoanalytic posturing, there's
much to enjoy in Spellbound. If nothing
else, look for stylistic Hitchcock
touches--the traditional overhead boom shot (most
famous in Notorious),
great internal framing shots with detailed composition
(including a deft framing shot within a mirror that
will be exploited further in Psycho),
and even more Freudian visuals than usual. Everyone
will remember the classic Dali dream sequence, but
I also enjoy smaller cinematic moments like the
bromide milk drinking scene where Hitch's camera
peers out from the bottom of Gregory Peck's glass.
The plot of Spellbound
remains substandard, and the contrived ending feels
like it was tacked on to satisfy Selznick's Hollywood
sensibility, but once again Hitchcock’s
camera is the star of the film elevating its status.
Making this film even more desirable, The Criterion
Collection packages substantial extra treasures,
including a fascinating illustrated story of Dali's
contribution from source materials, a 1948 radio
adaptation, well researched printed essays, and
a thorough but often pretentious commentary by Hitchcock
scholar Marian Keane. Hitchcock
aficionados will want this for their collections,
and others may consider; after all, a mediocre Hitchcock
film is far superior to 95% of the new releases