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Spellbound (1945)

October 9th, 2007 · 6 Comments

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31 days of October. 31 articles devoted to the screen’s maestro of suspense and the macabre, Alfred Hitchcock (1899-1980). I’ll be jumping back and forth through five decades in this series. More than half of the films I’ve never seen before, but even the ones I have seen were viewed, researched and written about this month.

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In the psychiatric institute of Green Manors, a nymphomaniac is taken for a session with Dr. Constance Petersen (Ingrid Bergman). The icy psychiatrist explains, “Our job is to make you understand why. When you know why you’re doing something that’s bad for you, and when you first start to doing it, then you can begin to cure yourself.” Unable to make progress with the vamp, Constance is visited by an amorous colleague who tells her that what she needs in her life is an emotional experience, both as a doctor, and a woman.

The chief psychiatrist of Green Manors (Leo G. Carroll) is being replaced after 22 years of service. His successor is the young Dr. Anthony Edwardes (Gregory Peck), who Constance becomes smitten with on sight. Edwardes is an expert in the “guilt complex” and author of a bestselling book, but appears on the eccentric side, hearing spooky music when Constance traces lines on the table linen at dinner.

Edwardes spends his first day on the job taking Constance on a picnic. She falls in love with him, but notices that Edwardes suffers a nervous breakdown any time he sees the color white. She discovers that the man is not really Dr. Edwardes at all, but an amnesiac who believes he murdered Edwardes, and has assumed his identity. The man only has a cigarette case engraved with the initials “JB” to guess who he is.

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Constance doesn’t believe JB murdered anyone, and when he takes off for New York, she goes after him. With both of them now fugitives from the law, Constance seeks help from her mentor, Dr. Brulov (Michael Chekhov). With JB sleepwalking through the house with a straight razor, Brulov considers him dangerous. Constance wants time to analyze and cure him, and with only snow, black lines and dreams as her clues, begins running out of time.

Production history
Director Alfred Hitchcock had optioned the rights to a little known 1927 novel by Hilary Aidan St. George and John Leslie Palmer called The House of Dr. Edwardes. It was about a patient who assumes control of a mental institution during the absence of the superintendent. Under contract to producer David O. Selznick – who was himself in psychoanalysis – Hitchcock pitched the project as an intense thriller about the perils of psychiatry.

While in England making industrial films for the war effort, Hitchcock hammered out a treatment with collaborator Angus MacPhail. Now titled Spellbound, the story had little to do with the book. Hitchcock was more intrigued with the prospect of creating dream sequences on a scale yet to be attempted in film. Ben Hecht – who’d doctored Foreign Correspondent and Lifeboat – met Hitchcock in New York to write the script.

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Hitchcock was certain he could get Ingrid Bergman to star because she was under contract to Selznick. For the male lead, he wanted Cary Grant, who was not under contract to anyone, but turned the role down. Hitchcock settled on Gregory Peck, who’d only appeared in two films, but had been nominated for an Oscar in one of them, The Keys To The Kingdom. Shooting commenced in June 1944.

Once filming wrapped in August, Hitchcock requested Salvador Dali be put on the payroll. The surrealist painter was expensive, and Selznick didn’t understand what Hitchcock wanted him for anyway. He relented, paying Dali $4,000 for ten commissioned paintings or drawings of the dream sequences. Selznick was unsatisfied with the footage Hitchcock shot and ordered it reshot and recut, trimming forty to fifty seconds of Daliesque imagery from the film.

Spellbound was a blockbuster, grossing $7 million at the U.S. box office and receiving six Academy Award nominations, including a Best Picture nomination for Selznick and Best Director nomination for Hitchcock. Critics lavished the film with praise at the time, but in his interview many years later, even Francois Truffaut admitted to Hitchcock he was disappointed in it. “Well, it’s just another manhunt story wrapped in pseudo-psychology,” the director shrugged.

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From the earnest opening credits crawl written by psychiatric adviser May E. Romm M.D., Spellbound tries to be taken seriously as an intense study of the emotionally troubled mind. The script goes to great trouble to explain psychoanalysis to a 1945 audience, and makes sure everybody in the balcony can follow along. Even if the science wasn’t outdated, the movie explores it all in the most blatant, heavy handed ways possible.

Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck have a screen intelligence that I’ve always admired, but playing opposite each other, they don’t click. Michael Chekhov is terrific as the wizened old mentor, but there’s really no one else who comes along to help the stars out. Our villain doesn’t even appear until the last five minutes. A lack of a clear antagonist hurts the film more than anything.

Three people who elevate Spellbound above a B-picture are
Miklós Rózsa, Salvador Dali and Alfred Hitchcock. Rózsa supplies an elegiac, romantic musical score that reminded me why he’s by far my favorite composer of Hollywood’s Golden Age. The Dali imagery is almost blink-and-miss-it, but is unsettling, and the chief reason why this film is discussed today. As for Hitchcock, he understood better than any director that you save your best for last, and sends the viewer off on a high note here, yet again.

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“Freudian symbolism and Salvador Dali surrealism uncomfortably coexist in Alfred Hitchcock’s psychobabble classic Spellbound, which despite its pedigree – Hitch, Gregory Peck and Ingrid Bergman, Notorious screenwriter Ben Hecht – now stands as one of the director’s most laughably dated films,” says Nick Schager at Lessons of Darkness.

Brian Webster at Apollo Movie Guide writes, “Yes, the pat psychoanalytic answers seem all too easy by today’s standards, but that really doesn’t take away from enjoyment of this classic film. It’s an enjoyable multi-layered mystery that features strong performances by Bergman and Peck and a dream sequence designed by Salvador Dali.”

“You get pretty tired of hearing about guilt-complexes and the trauma of childhood by the end, but the love story and mystery are enough to sustain interest. This is definitely one of Hitchcock’s more intelligently written films and maybe that’s it’s flaw. To much talk, not enough danger,” writes Lisa Skrzyniarz at Crazy For Cinema.

“And then a girl came in with hardly anything on and started walking around the gambling room kissing everybody.” View the Salvador Dali designed dream sequence.

© Joe Valdez

Tags: Based on novel · Dreams and visions · Golden Age of Hollywood · Master and pupil · Paranoia · Psychoanalysis · Road trip · Train · Woman in jeopardy

6 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Damian // Oct 10, 2007 at 4:10 pm

    My friend Tucker always used to be amused by the fact that this film shows one of the all-time great screen actors (Gregory Peck) giving a truly awful performance. :)

    Personally, I love Spellbound and the three individuals that you point out who elevate it above B-picture status, Joe, is absolutely correct. I particularly love the penultimate “shot” in the film which, on some prints, even had a brief splash of the color red to heighten its impact (perhaps a reference to the final “shot” of the silent film The Great Train Robbery?)

  • 2 Joe Valdez // Oct 11, 2007 at 6:16 pm

    Damian: I wasn’t aware of the color elements in this flick. Thanks for pointing that out to my dozen or so readers!

    Megan: My introduction to Miklós Rózsa was his score for The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, which just blew me away. John Williams could not have given that film a more beautiful score. I think Rózsa’s music captures the “romance” of going to the movies perfectly.

  • 3 Megan // Oct 11, 2007 at 4:20 pm

    Watched this last night and did not really care for it, I’m afraid. But I do agree with you about the score — amazing!

    I wonder what would have happened if the roles of Bergman & Peck were reversed? I know it would take some rewrite, but I have a feeling the chemistry might have worked better that way.

  • 4 Pat Evans // Oct 15, 2007 at 4:20 am

    I was about to mention the color shot but I was beaten to this by Damian above. However, not all prints include this which may be why you didn’t note it.

  • 5 Fatmir Terziu // Oct 18, 2007 at 12:55 am

    The eye symbol and the cigarette sign have more to say to the Freudian discovery of the “substitutive relation”. However were has some more interest conflicts in the semiotic context overall, as images and language does not fitting together in many part. As the language of images completes the meaning, a dialogue between Dr. Peterson and her lover is vague. The music and sound effects complete this emptiness.

  • 6 The guy // Oct 23, 2008 at 9:40 pm

    i thot it was good

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