Although the horror genre owes an undeniable debt to Alfred Hitchcock, he really made an effort to stay away from the supernatural. The closest he came to a genuine ghost story was probably The Birds. Even then there were no phenomena that couldn’t have had a natural explanation, even if one is never provided. Vertigo and Psycho both develop supernatural overtones before explaining their respective mysteries within a framework of human psychology. Hitchcock was fascinated with the human psyche. You need only to count how many of his films deal with obsession, guilt transference to see that. Among his many films that dealt with disorders of the human mind, none play up the psychological angle quite as explicitly as Spellbound. Set largely in a mental hospital and having a psychiatrist as its main character, Hitch explores the then relatively new world of psychoanalysis in Spellbound.
It’s a time of change at Green Manors psychiatric institution. The head of the hospital, Dr. Murchison (Leo G. Carroll), has been forced by the board of directors in to retirement. The new head of the hospital, Dr. Anthony Edwardes (a shockingly fresh faced Gregory Peck) is a young but brilliant psychiatrist. From the moment she meets him the usually bookish and closed off Dr. Constance Peterson (Ingrid Bergman) is smitten. Despite an uncouth display at his first staff dinner, snapping at Constance for dragging her fork across the table linens, she agrees to take the next afternoon off to go for a drive and walk in the surrounding countryside. By the time they get back, the staff is abuzz with excited gossip about Constance and Anthony’s canoodling.
One of Constance’s patients, Garmes (Norman Lloyd), who is being treated for guilt complex issues tries to commit suicide. While prepping to perform life-saving surgery on Garmes, Edwardes collapses. At first it’s written off as exhaustion but soon the truth comes to light: the Edwardes that showed up to run the asylum is himself an amnesiac that the doctors suspect murdered the real Edwardes. In love with Constance and not wanting to drag her into trouble, he leaves before the police arrive to apprehend him.
Constance’s dilemma is clear: she tracks Edwardes to New York, where he’s passing himself off as John Brown, and confronts him. She wants to begin psychiatric treatment in secret, to cure him so that they can be together. Details and fragments about “John’s” history start to come to light: he has medical knowledge, he was possibly with the real Edwardes when he died, he was in an accident and sustained injuries that required skin grafts.
Their cover is quickly blown by an observant concierge who spots Constance’s picture in the paper. The couple takes flight, hoping to backtrack to where Brown met the real Edwardes, with Constance hoping that she can spur small memories to surface along the way and, in the end, unlock the big mystery behind the identity of the man who claimed to be Dr. Anthony Edwardes.
Notorious is considered superior to Spellbound, but I disagree. Bergman has far better romantic chemistry with Peck than she did with Cary Grant, and it was a pretty brilliant move on Hitchcock’s part to establish in the preamble psychoanalysis as opening figurative doors in the mind so that he can later use the same visual metaphor to suggest a sexual relationship between the two. At the moment it occurred I was wondering why the hell Hitch felt the film needed such a silly opening crawl. Like a lot of things in Hitchcock’s films, it pays off in a clever and unusual way. The film sets up a good mystery that it actually manages to pay off in a satisfying fashion, including multiple twists and turns in the last fifteen minutes that toy with our expectations and assumptions in a really fun way.
A lot of the usual Hitchcockian preoccupations are present: an icy woman who’s romantically closed off, a man who may or may not be guilty of a crime and it has the sort of suspense sequences that we come to expect from the master. I particularly like the scene where the police visit Constance and don’t see an incriminating letter right under their noses. Or the scene in the lobby of the Empire State Hotel, where the smug house detective think she has Constance figured out and she plays along with his assumptions. She manipulates him to get the information she needs and retains the upper hand during the entire scene without the detective ever realizing it. Classic Hitch.
Even aside from the Dali-inspired dream sequence, Spellbound is beautifully shot. It uses the same kind of dramatic lighting to evoke a state of mental imbalance that served Rebecca’s gothic atmosphere so well, and there a some nice, if somewhat gimmicky shots, like the view of Dr. Brulov through the bottom of a glass of milk.
As good as it is, it has a few very distracting elements that keep it from being truly worthy of the upper echelon of Hitchcock’s work. Edwardes/Brown’s obsession with white is more than a little overwrought, even for the 1940’s, and Miklo’s Rosza’s mostly beautiful and haunting score occasionally devolves into Plan 9-esque theremin weirdness. Still, when weighed against Spellbound’s strengths, these are relatively small complaints. That Spellbound feels quaint with after the sixty-odd years of psychiatric progress that followed is unavoidable. The psychoanalysis is just a classic McGuffin, anyway. Set dressing to give the film an excuse to be about its real subjects: identity and love. Is it possible to love someone without knowing fully who they are, or who you are, for that matter?
It’s not quite the revelation that Rebecca was, but it’s a huge improvement over Notorious. The print is mostly free of major defects though there are a few scenes, primarily the opening credits and a suspenseful sequence midway through, that show moderate to heavy wear. Grain is strong but never intrusive. Contrast and detail are solid, even in the scenes filmed with a soft filter. Sadly, there’s one instance during the Dali dream sequence that showed a shocking amount of compression. Far from perfect, far from terrible, this is about what you’d expect a film of this age to look like.
The DTS-HD Mono track is also about as good as the other two releases in this wave, though the dialnorm seems to set a touch higher. Listen to the film at a regular volume level and the high shrieks of Rosza’s score come very close to distorting; turn it down a notch or two below the level you usually have it set and you’ll be fine. There’s a little crackle, hiss and the occasional pop but with minor adjustments to your volume knob, I’m sure you’ll be pleased.
Another MGM Hitchcock release, another stellar bunch of supplements. If my enthusiasm seems a bit reserved it’s due to the deluge of supplemental material on this wave of Hitchcock releases and not a slur on the quality of the supplements themselves. How quickly we become accustomed to wonders…
An entertaining and informative commentary is provided by film professor and author Thomas Schatz and film professor Charles Ramirez Berg. Although they have a tendency to tread from well-trodden ground, especially with regards to Selznick and Hitchcock’s adversarial relationship, they have a good rapport and a breezy, conversational style that makes this track easy to listen to. I would have liked them to touch a bit more on how Spellbound was the touchstone of the modern “psychological thriller,” and how it set the tenor for almost all of Hitchcock’s films to follow but there’s still a massive amount of information provided by the two very knowledgeable participants.
Salvador Dali is arguably the most famous and influential surrealist artist of the 20th century and his participation in Spellbound has is a big part of the reason the film endures despite its antiquated subject matter. Featurette Dreaming with Scissors: Hitchcock, Surrealism and Salvador Dali (20:22) spends too much time unnecessarily explaining who Dali was and too little on his actual collaboration with Hitchcock.
Guilt by Association: Psychoanalyzing Spellbound (19:39), on the other hand, does a much better job of establishing a context in which the film was made. The synergy of public awareness of psychoanalysis and the abundance of serviceman returning from overseas in need of psychological care were really the kernels from which the project grew. It’s an interesting feature but those looking for nuts and bolts behind the scenes material won’t find much of it here.
Focusing on the actress with the small but pivotal role of Mary Carmichael, A Cinderella Story: Rhonda Fleming (10:10) is an entertaining diversion from the headier themes explored in the other featurettes. Ms. Fleming is animated and entertaining and the feature never overstays its welcome. Hardly essential viewing, but fun nonetheless.
As before, the 1948 Radio Play (59:48) adaptation of the feature is included, this one starring Joseph Cotten in the Gregory Peck role and Italian actress Valli in the Bergman role (and is, at times, an uncanny soundalike). This is another stunningly well persevered audio program, though it loses more in the translation than most films do because of its emphasis on Dali’s surrealistic visuals.
Another clip of the Hitchcock Audio Interview (15:22) with Peter Bogdanovich makes an appearance, though this one seems to be culled from several different sources. There are abrupt changes in audio quality at several points that occasionally make it difficult to discern what the participants, especially Bogdanovich, are saying. That’s too bad, because Hitch’s comments on Spellbound are some of the most extensive and insightful of all the films in this wave of releases.
Unlike the trailers for Notorious and Rebecca, The Original Theatrical Trailer (2:07) of Spellbound is presented in 4:3 and is oriented in the center of the 16:9 screen. It seems to be the trailer from the actual 1945 release and not from a subsequent re-release. The source material’s in decent shape, but certainly shows its age at times with some moderate to heavy wear and tear.
In a lot of ways Spellbound feels like a dry run for what would be Hitchcock’s most personal film: Vertigo. Both films revolve around characters that harbor strong, almost obsessive, love for a person whose identity that can’t be sure of. Both feature surrealistic dream sequences designed by Salvador Dali. Perhaps it’s that personal stamp that gives the film an intimacy that I felt was missing in the more universally acclaimed Notorious. Along with Rebecca, Spellbound is one of the master’s most underrated treasures.
I love this movie, it will be great to see again. Great review.
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