Grade: BSpellbound (1945)

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Stars: Ingrid Bergman, Gregory Peck, John Emery

Release Company: The Criterion Collection

MPAA Rating: NR

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Hitchcock: Spellbound


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Once calling Spellbound "another manhunt story wrapped up in pseudo-psychoanalysis," Alfred 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 of Buñuel’s 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.

Hitchcock 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 in Rebecca, 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 can enter.

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 . . .
(Note: Hitch’s use of the word sane instead of disturbed or insane
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 human soul.
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.

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 today.
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