Disclaimer: These essays presume you’ve seen the film in question. If you want to avoid spoilers, watch the movie first!
Spellbound was Hitchcock’s first film with Ingrid Bergman and sadly they only made three together. Notorious (1946) is all-time great Hitchcock while Under Capricorn (1949) is mainly a missed opportunity. Spellbound is somewhere in between those two, a film of tremendous promise and some excellent sequences that nonetheless fails to deliver.
Yet Bergman is terrific in all her films for Hitchcock, in my view placing her among Hitchcock’s top three lead actresses (Madeleine Carroll and Grace Kelly are the other two). Not only did her comic sensibilities match up with Hitch’s, but the two shared their love of Europe and frustrations with Hollywood. Most importantly, Bergman was not only astonishingly beautiful but she could act. In Spellbound she effortlessly conveys the character of a cold, distant psychoanalyst who has never let herself feel love, yet falls irresistibly in love with Gregory Peck. Bergman takes the film’s ridiculous scenario (that a doctor would abandon her training and career to help a potentially dangerous patient because she’s in love with him) and makes it wholly believable. As we’ve seen in lesser films, Hitchcock needs charismatic actors that the audience can relate to, actors like Ingrid Bergman, Cary Grant, and James Stewart, in order to put across his sometimes ludicrous scenarios. Without them, his house of cards crumbles.
Just look at Gregory Peck. Hitchcock was making his second film with David O. Selznick, who insisted on using Peck. Because of his performances in films like To Kill a Mockingbird and Roman Holiday, Peck has come to symbolize a type of stoic, effortless, and admirable masculinity. It’s easy to forget that in several of his early films, he’s simply awful. Where Peck faltered at playing a man consumed with lust in The Paradine Case, in Spellbound he simply sell the idea of a man consumed by psychological torment. Many of Peck’s later roles would make good use of his stunning good locks and easy-going charm; here, he’s just lost, reduced to fainting spells in lieu of character development.
Hitchcock isn’t at his best either. Taking the setting of a lunatic asylum from a novel, The House of Dr. Edwardes, Hitchcock and writer Ben Hecht seized on the idea of psychoanalysis, which was eagerly agreed upon by Selznick. It’s worth noting that the normally obsessive Selznick hadn’t produced a film since Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940). He was embroiled in a messy divorce, in love with actress Jennifer Jones, and dealing with the death of his brother Myron, leaving Hitchcock relatively unsupervised for most of the film.
Hecht and Hitchcock created a fantastic opening that introduces us to a cast of characters at the insane asylum. There’s the brilliant but aloof Dr. Petersen (Bergman), a psychotic patient who hates men and tried to bite off a man’s lip, a suicidal patient, a hospital administrator who’s being forced out of his job (Hitchcock favorite Leo G. Carroll), and other assorted characters. It’s a wonderful, rich setting for a film, and the ante is upped when Gregory Peck arrives as Dr. Edwardes, the new hospital administrator. Bergman instantly falls in love with him, and almost as quickly realizes he isn’t who he claims to be. The table is set for a classic murder thriller in an old mansion, now an asylum filled with exciting characters. And then Hitchcock abandons that setting to embark on his by-now standard “wrong man on the run” chases.
It’s really baffling. There’s still some good stuff to come, but the film never matches the level of excitement it generates in the asylum. Once Bergman catches up with Peck, the film falls into a predictable pattern where they run, she psychoanalyzes him, he fights with her, they make up, and run some more. It’s lacking the grandiose spectacle of a film like The 39 Steps or North by Northwest, as they move from hotel to train station to a colleague’s home. There’s none of the imagination or drama of his best work.
The central motif is also too neat, especially for a film about the mind. To be fair, very few films had even addressed the issue of psychoanalysis before Spellbound. Peck is portrayed as open-hearted and charming, yet psychologically closed off. Bergman is brilliant yet aloof. Will they both learn from each other and become better people in the process? I wonder!
It’d be easier to stomach the yin/yang of their character arcs if the movie wasn’t so unusually down on women. Things said to Bergman over the source of the film include:
- “Your lack of human & emotional experience is bad for you as a doctor and fatal for you as a woman.”
- “Women make the best psychoanalysts until they fall in love. After that they make the best patients.”
- “We both know that the mind of a woman in love is operating on the lowest level of the intellect.”
This kind of outright chauvinism is rare in Hitchcock, confined only to a few movies here and there. It’s present in all of his films with Selznick, who was often revered as a maker of “women’s films.” What that seems to mean is he made movies that prey on female insecurities. I’m not saying that Hitchcock wasn’t chauvinist himself but when he had final say over a script, either he or his wife Alma usually made sure it was never so openly hostile towards women.
Certainly the film’s view of psychoanalysis is laughably simplistic as it talks about opening locked doors in one’s mind with the realization of a past trauma. At one point we even see those doors open as Peck & Bergman kiss for the first time and Hitchcock cuts to symbolic shot of multiple doors opening in sequence. It’s a beautiful image and a ridiculous double entendre as it references both Bergman’s psychological and sexual awakening.
In previous posts, I’ve talked about therapy and how it’s rarely the “a-ha” moment that most movies present. In Spellbound Peck relives his trauma and finally remembers what caused his problems (he accidentally killed his younger brother as a child), causing him to remember everything and be “cured.”
I’ve had maybe one experience like this after nine years of continuous therapy, and all it did was make me realize where some of my issues came from. I still have them, and I still fight with them every day.
Most of it can be attributed to my anxiety. From the moment I wake up until I go to sleep, I’m plagued with anxiety. I’m convinced that I’m not doing it right. All of it. I should take my dog to the park. I shouldn’t buy coffee since I have coffee at home and I need to save money. I shouldn’t spend so much time on Facebook. I should spend more time on social media to promote my own work. Every decision I make is wrong, every impulse is incorrect, and there’s always a voice in my head telling me that I’m fucking everything up. My girlfriend is mad at me (even though I know she’s not). My business is failing (even though my Kickstarter just made 213% of its goal). My dog is unhappy (even though we went to the park for an hour today). And on and on and on and on and on. Every second of every day is a battle between me and a voice in my head telling me that I’m fucking pathetic and I always make the wrong decision.
I rarely see portrayals of anxiety or therapy onscreen that I can relate to. Certainly Gregory Peck going into a fainting spell isn’t something that looks familiar to me. Perhaps the closest I’ve seen is in the film 10 Cloverfield Lane, a good-not-great thriller with a bizarre ending (seriously, WTF). But John Goodman is great in it (as he always is, christ the guy is ALWAYS good), and one small moment stands out to me. Goodman plays a man terrified by apocalypse who has trapped a young woman and man in his bomb shelter and tells them that they can’t leave because something catastrophic has happened outside.
After Goodman has an outburst at the dinner table, he takes a deep breath and clenches and re-clenches his fists. The other characters stare at him, but I got it right away. Either the writer, or director, or Goodman himself, has some experience with this type of anxiety. The way it balls itself up in your hands and your feet, and you have to clench or shake out your extremities to rid yourself of that feeling. It feels like a physical ailment, and only feeling your tendons moving through your skin, that feeling of purging the bad vibes, will help.
I get it, man. Dear god I get it.
So I meditate. I try to remind myself that I’m in control and can remove myself from anxious situations. And I tell myself that nothing’s wrong, that I’m doing my goddamn best and I shouldn’t be so hard on myself. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. But after nine years of therapy, it’s starting to work more often than it doesn’t. I guess that’s progress. It’s not like in the movies. But what is?
Spellbound is best-remembered for the dream sequences where Hitchcock had the ingenious idea to hire surrealist Salvador Dali. In addition to his early European film work (like the silent masterpiece Un Chien Andalou), Dali had previously contributed some sketches for a drunk sequence in 20th Century Fox’s Moontide (1942) and he would later contribute ideas to Vincente Minneli’s Father of the Bride dream sequence. Just how much Hitchcock and Dali each contributed to the dreams in Spellbound is the subject of much debate, with some claiming that Dali only made a few sketches for the production to use, others saying that he was on set crafting costumes and sets, and still others claiming that Hitchcock wasn’t even present when the dreams were shot. It’s almost impossible to know.
I do know that the sequences were originally going to be much grander, before a nervous Selznick cut the budget to almost nothing. And given these limitations, they work remarkably well. The scenes are unmistakably Dali, complete with his sense of perspective and melting objects. And while their literal nature bears little relationship to how we actually dream, they accomplish Hitchcock’s goal of breaking out of the soft-focus mold of “dream sequences” so common in Hollywood. After Spellbound, the dream sequence would never be the same.
Hitchcock saves his best trick for the end of the film: after Bergman has figured out that Dr. Murchison was the villain all along, there’s a great drawing-room scene where she confronts him. He admits his crime and points a gun at her, asking why he shouldn’t kill her, cheekily remarking that the penalty is the same for one murder as it is for two.
The shot then switches to Murchison’s point of view as we see Bergman nervously talking, explaining why he won’t get away with it. In the foreground we see a hand holding a gun (actually a giant hand with a giant gun, large enough so 1940s lenses could focus on it). The gun stays pointed at Bergman until she slips out the door. Then a moment of hesitation before the gun turns to point directly at us, the audience, and by extension, Murchison. The gun fires and there’s a quick two frame burst of red in an otherwise black and white film. Murchison has killed himself and we see it from his point of view. It’s a brilliant idea, one that presages Kurosawa’s use of red smoke in High and Low, as well as Spielberg’s red coat in Schindler’s List.
Spellbound is still fast-moving and enjoyable, thanks mainly to the supporting actors and the radiant Ingrid Bergman. And while its approach to psychoanalysis is often laughable (Hitchcock wasn’t big on self-examination and left all the heavy lifting in the script to Ben Hecht), it’s still one of the first films to deal with this issue at all. It’s a fun, well-made film that one suspects could have been a real masterpiece.
Spellbound is not streaming on any services. It’s available to rent on iTunes or Amazon, or is available from your friendly local library.