I’ve heard Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945) described as a tale of the lunatics taking over the asylum, and that’s actually not a bad summation. Despite sounding like a glib dismissal, it neatly encapsulates the basic premise of this movie. Exploiting the then fashionable trend for psychoanalysis, and enthusiastically supported by firm believer David O Selznick, it’s a romantic mystery served up as a kind of Freudian stew – and a very tasty one at that. Like all of Hitchcock’s films made for Selznick the producer’s fingerprints are visible everywhere, but there are plenty of instances of that familiar visual flair to ensure that you never forget who directed it.
Amnesiacs always make good protagonists in any movie, the blanked out memories that need to be recovered before any sense of order can be restored automatically generate mystery, and so it is with Spellbound. Our hero (Gregory Peck) is referred to variously as Dr Edwardes, JB, and finally as John Ballantyne (I’ll stick with JB for the purposes of this piece as that’s the moniker he carries for most of the running time) while he struggles to find out his real identity, and more crucially whether or not he’s a murderer. His arrival at a New England psychiatric hospital posing as the new director is initially taken at face value. There are a few comments passed regarding his relative youth for such a responsible position, but there are no other eyebrows raised. What it does spark though is an unsuspected passion in the emotionally repressed Dr Constance Petersen, thus providing JB with one priceless ally. Such a deception cannot hope to endure long though and, sure enough, it’s inevitably revealed that the real Dr Edwardes is in fact dead and the impostor taking his place is very likely his killer. So, still in search of who he is and what he did, JB goes on the run with Constance joining him after a short interval. It’s here that the picture comes into its own, as Constance, with the aid of her old tutor Dr Brulov (Michael Chekhov), employs Freudian psychoanalytic techniques in a race against time to probe the depths of JB’s subconscious and discover the truth. It all culminates in the famous dream sequence, designed by Salvador Dali, whose interpretation lays bare all the secrets. The whole thing is pure, escapist hokum but it’s executed with such style and conviction that you’re completely drawn in. It’s a good illustration of how, apart from his technical achievements, Hitchcock was masterful at taking stories that were essentially tosh and coaxing the viewer into accepting their credibility for the duration of the movie.
I mentioned earlier Selznick’s enthusiasm for the subject matter, and I’d say that’s directly responsible for the film’s biggest weakness. Such was the producer’s zeal that he insisted on the involvement of an adviser on all things psychoanalytical. The result is an overly pious attitude towards the science depicted, from the cloyingly reverential foreword to the kind of mangled dialogue that even Ben Hecht was hard pressed to shape into something presentable. The contrast between the kind of clumsy exposition that Selznick wanted and Hitchcock’s talent for economical storytelling is clear to see in one scene near the end. In the space of a thirty second montage, consisting only of close-ups of Ingrid Bergman’s increasingly desperate features and a few imploring lines, the the trial, conviction and sentencing of JB is dealt with fully. Similarly, the whole, lengthy sequence at Brulov’s house could have proven intolerable in the hands of a lesser director. Instead, through the combination of a wonderfully idiosyncratic performance by Michael Chekhov, Hitchcock’s arresting visual style and the scoring of Miklos Rozsa (alternating between lush romanticism and the unnerving strains of the theremin), it stands as the strongest section of the entire film. Of course, in other places, some of the bravura touches could be said to serve no better purpose than to draw attention to their own inventiveness: the revolver discharged directly into the camera at the end springs to mind, but that’s such a memorable shot that it feels uncharitable and unnecessarily sniffy to complain about it.
It’s said that Hitchcock originally wanted Cary Grant for the lead, and Peck’s performance has been criticised for being a touch too aloof. I can understand where that’s coming from, Peck had yet to find his feet fully in cinema, although I also feel he was actually right for the part. Had Grant been cast I have a hunch he would have brought too much of himself, that innate self-confidence, to the role and thus rendered it less believable. As it stands, Peck had just the right measure of insecurity about him to get across the edginess of a man who doesn’t even know his own name let alone whether or not he’s a criminal. Whatever reservations anyone may have about Peck, it’s hard to fault Ingrid Bergman’s Constance Petersen. She brings real charm and innocence to the part of the slightly uptight academic who gradually learns that there’s a vast gulf between theory and practice when it comes to matters of the heart. There’s nothing the least bit goofy about her, she’s clearly a highly intelligent and capable woman but there’s also a touching vulnerability as a result of her sheltered lifestyle. Aside from the principal performers, there are a couple of excellent cameos in the mix too – the middle-aged cop and his partner discussing the issues he’s having with his mother who are in some ways reminiscent of the travelling salesmen in The 39 Steps, and Wallace Ford as the persistent pest in the hotel lobby – these don’t add anything at all to the narrative but they do enrich the whole experience.
Spellbound has had a variety of releases on DVD in different territories; my copy is the old Pearson release from the UK, which I think has been repackaged and subsequently issued by Prism. I guess there may be better versions out there but that old UK disc is pretty good to my eyes. There aren’t any problems with the transfer, which is clean, sharp and free from damage. There are a range of extras, from text bios and trivia to a gallery and a few clips of Hitchcock interviews etc – I’m pretty sure the latter is replicated on the other Hitchcock titles from Pearson. The movie itself is one of Hitch’s better than average 40s offerings, not as good as Notorious or Shadow of a Doubt but still technically accomplished and very entertaining. There are the familiar motifs (the wrong man on the run and the blonde Girl Friday) and the psychoanalysis angle is quite enjoyable. Like most of the director’s films, it has a high rewatch value regardless of how familiar the plot may be – recommended.
5 thoughts on “Spellbound”
“Hitchcock was masterful at taking stories that were essentially tosh and coaxing the viewer into accepting their credibility for the duration of the movie.” Actually, he was good at taking a plausible story, turning it into tosh and still convincing us to enjoy it. What a pro!
These old Hollywood movies with the easy Freudian analysis was the psycho-babble of it’s day. But it’s so entertaining, where modern psycho babble is just irritating.
All that cod psychology to be found in 40s Freudian thrillers is enormously attractive to me. I don’t know if it’s got to do with the time and distance involved in watching them now, but I agree that the kind of psycho-babble to be found in modern movies is a lot harder to take.
Not a fan of this film at all. It just did not work for me on any level.
I guess it comes down to how much tolerance you have for the cod psychology which underpins the whole story. I have a soft spot for that kind of thing and maybe i also caught the movie at the right time for the first time.
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