Spellbound (1945, Alfred Hitchcock)


There’s no use denying that Spellbound, despite its considerable popular success in the mid-1940s, is one of the Alfred Hitchcock films that has — unusually — aged rather poorly, though there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that modern criticisms of the film were already anticipated by the director, who was in fact always rather dismissive of it in later interviews. Though it was a project he partially originated, it was not one that he produced and had real control over; in fact it was his second proper film for David O. Selznick, his employer throughout the first eight years of his American career who’d produced Rebecca — winning himself a second consecutive Best Picture Oscar — then proceeded to loan Hitchcock out to other studios for several years and to considerable financial gain (for himself, not so much Hitchcock). The films that the director made between Rebecca and Spellbound at UA (for Walter Wanger), Universal, RKO and Fox were formative, vital experiences and experiments, but with the exception of the masterful Shadow of a Doubt none were the massive leaps forward that Rebecca had been, and nearly without exception they can be seen as high-level “B” pictures.

Yet strangely, all of them also share the virtue of being more intelligent and admirable than Hitchcock’s theoretically triumphant return to the Selznick studio itself. No doubt it’s a slick, attractive affair, with gorgeous location shooting and set design, beautiful movie stars and extravagant music and special effects, if disappointingly little atmosphere. (The excuse that it takes place at a medical facility seems empty; no filmmaker in history had less fun with the idea of a crooked old asylum than Hitchcock.) During the interim, Selznick had taken a considerable amount of time off to recover from the immense stress he was under during the Gone with the Wind period, during which time he underwent psychotherapy. And like a hipster teen who’s just discovered jazz, he apparently couldn’t shut up about it and wanted his next project with Hitchcock to be not just focused on Freudian psychology but to be essentially an unabashed valentine to it. Hitchcock seems to have been skeptical of the cause but nevertheless volunteered a source property he owned, Francis Beeding’s 1928 Gothic novel The House of Dr. Edwardes, which is about — in essence — a madman taking over an asylum. From this skeleton Ben Hecht generated a surprisingly goofy script that relies deeply on convenience, implausibility, and excessively expository and overly literal interpretations of what could potentially be haunting ideas and images. There’s nothing Gothic about it; the world it occupies is remarkably ordinary, at least for Hitchcock (and Hecht).

The finished film is inevitably the result of the same back-and-forth memos and arguments and power struggles (between a conflict-averse but calm director and an impetuous producer) that created Rebecca; but the pair fails to duplicate their success here, and sadly never would (unless you count Notorious, from which Selznick eventually extracted himself, surely to the project’s lasting benefit). As it stands it follows a variation on the novel’s heroine Constance, played with startling charm and naturalism by Ingrid Bergman in the first installment in her happy three-film collaboration with Hitchcock; she’s a controlled, independent therapist who’s unfazed by the mockery of her male coworkers and is abruptly thrown by the welcoming of a new boss — Gregory Peck’s “Dr. Edwards” — to whom she’s intensely attracted, even after it turns out he isn’t her new boss at all but is a military doctor who went off the deep end before apparently becoming the prime suspect in the murder of the actual new boss. But that’s not all! What is the secret of this man’s past? Well, it’s something in his childhood, an accident he partly caused, but also — simultaneously, somehow — it’s that he witnessed the real Edwards dying in an accident, and yet it wasn’t an accident, and yet he still wasn’t responsible. It’s soapier than any other of Hitchcock’s celebrated works, and its intensely complicated, illogical plot and characterizations serve as a nice rejoinder to anyone who thinks Vertigo is confusing.

It’s a movie that works best, ironically, when it’s most conventional; given the bloated budget of Selznick International without the logical constraints of Rebecca, Hitchcock goes to town on his usual cat-and-mouse wrong-man story of a couple on the run with a scale and excitement that occasionally calls ahead to North by Northwest, sans fireworks. There aren’t any good jokes — except one in which Bergman is randomly harrassed in a hotel lobby by a stranger from Pittsburgh and a nosy house detective in rapid succession — and you could freeze to death from the lack of genuine sexual tension between Bergman and Peck, though credit where it’s due: he does sometimes open his mouth slightly when they kiss. Hitchcock tries to compensate for the awkwardness between them with bells and whistles, like the striking but out-of-place shot of a series of doorways opening after their first kiss, or the oddly disturbing sequence in which she is tormented by the light emanating from his bedroom as she ascends a staircase, an allusion of sorts to the milk scene in Suspicion.

At any rate, it’s a breezy good time to follow the two of them as they try to stay a few steps ahead of the law; of course it’s identical in this respect to a litany of prior Hitchcock features made in both England and (already) America, but he returned to this well repeatedly because it really is riveting and thrilling. It’s also sort of fun to see Hitchcock tackle, simulate, allude to New York in the 1940s. But then Constance buys a ticket to Rochester and the film stops dead for almost the entire remainder of its running time. She leads the man she now knows as “J.B.” there because it’s the residence of her old mentor Dr. Brulov (Michael Chekhov), a cuddly plot device who’s written and performed in so sentimental a fashion it’s hard to believe either Hecht or Hitchcock had anything to do with it. He’s exactly the kind of movie character Hitchcock would ordinarily either avoid altogether or mock by quickly turning audience expectations on their head and making him a villain — and even that, by this point, was a trick he’d used too frequently. He had also, in Saboteur, already used the trope of the kindhearted elderly man who understands the whole scope of the plot as if by magic. Instead, the character is used as a thoroughly straightforward grandfatherly Santa Claus with his former pupil’s best interests at heart as needed: he’s protective when the couple arrives at the same time as a pair of cops, but of course knows exactly what’s going on as soon as he glimpses them, but also doesn’t trust Peck one bit, but also agrees to analyze his dreams. Chekhov’s by no means a chore to watch, but in his infallible infinite wisdom and folksy, accented dialogue he feels like a character who dropped in to the wrong movie after being cast in The Three Faces of Eve.

However, we do come at this point to the film’s most famous scene, as well it deserves to be because it’s by far the most interesting thing about it: the elaborate, expensive, impressively outlandish dream sequence designed by Salvador Dali. It’s also the reason so many modern viewers come away disappointed by this film; everyone’s seen those sketches and photos of that wild set anchored by the “eye curtains,” and the haunting image of the masked man holding the oblong wheel. These photos and clips make Spellbound appear far more adventurous and intriguing than it really is, and lead some to expect a de facto Vertigo prediction in terms of its wanderings around the Dream State. The first problem is that the dream barely covers two minutes of screen time, interrupted by imbecilic “cute” banter between Peck and Bergman; and secondarily, every last one of the evocative images brought forth by Dali has its meaning explained in precise detail by the scripted voiceover. This is largely a plot necessity, at least as envisioned by Selznick — remember, an endorsement of psychotherapy and Freud’s theories about the subconscious were his specific reasons for making this movie — but it’s still disappointing to see something potentially remarkable cut at the knees, immediately, by such unimaginative literalism, not that the “explanations” provided really make a lot of sense anyway.

Because Dali’s name was seen as a way to attract further prestige to Spellbound, Selznick later took credit for inviting him to work on the film, but this is rather implausible, especially because Hitchcock remembered his aesthetic reasons for seeking Dali out in believable detail during his lengthy interview with Francois Truffaut (and other Hitchcock works can make equal claim to having owed something to Dali’s work); but also because Selznick seemed to want the scene to take as little time, and cost as little, as possible. There are sketches indicating that the sequence was meant to be much longer and more engrossing, which would have been nice, but it most likely wouldn’t have helped this back section of the film drag any less. Still, it looks great, and — as would please Selznick — you do see all the money that was expended up on the screen; and it does add to the sense that Spellbound is “a cut above” as entertainment, which was probably just as important to Selznick as the psychology. One interesting thing about Hollywood’s most notoriously finicky producer is that, like Irving Thalberg, his obsession with class occasionally met up with a simple, bravura populism and showmanship that seemed almost Corman-like; he went where the money was, after all, and don’t forget that he produced King Kong. So while Un Chien Andalou might not have been particularly to his taste, the ability to say that Salvador Dali had worked on one of his movies surely was — and kooky touches like a brief burst of color during the climactic gunshot couldn’t hurt. And indeed, the film made good money and was nominated for major Oscars.

It sounds as if there’s little here to recommend, but there is; it’s Hitchcock, it was one of his most popular pictures at the time, and it’s well-directed and gripping as always. (There isn’t a single surviving Hitchcock film that’s not somewhat enjoyable, at least in parts.) If anyone else had made this film it could be seen as a sort of minor camp classic with its silly dialogue, intriguing ideas and technical prowess, something on the order of Michael Curtiz’s Doctor X except a lot, well, classier (there’s even entrance and exit music!)… and frankly, less eventful. It’s a good deal of fun to watch, just far less sophisticated than usual for the director, and it’s easy to see that — while the Master was far from infallible — much of this can be pinned to Selznick’s determination to turn it into an infomercial.

Best of all is the opportunity to watch Bergman in such an unguarded performance; accomplished and brilliant in so many other films, Bergman shone uniquely in her work with Hitchcock. You can sense her relaxing, thrilling in the role; wonderful as she is in Casablanca and Gaslight, it’s a relief to see her being allowed to do something besides endure various kinds of anguish and stare enigmatically into the distance. The upshot is that she and Hitchcock would find the perfect collaborative opportunity in their next film together, Notorious, and she would be permitted to display a larger, more believable gamut of emotions than in possibly any other movie she made with anyone besides Rossellini. In the meantime, she’s so engaging in Spellbound that you can almost overlook how terribly miscast Gregory Peck is: never emotional enough to be sold as a full-on maniac, but also too dead-eyed and strangely intense to be sexy or human.

Part of the fun for Hitchcockians here is spotting suggestions of other movies in his oeuvre, and one of the most surprising instances comes early on, when Miklós Rózsa’s score seems to be ringing out with an extract of music from Vertigo, made fourteen years later. Rózsa’s score, more broadly, is remembered for its early use of the theremin — a factor it shares with another score he wrote the same year, for Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend — but while the music won an Oscar, it has worn the years rather badly; maybe that’s through no fault of its own, with the overuse of the theremin as a sci-fi cliché and Beach Boys staple in the decades since, but it may not be a coincidence that Hitchcock and Rózsa found their collaboration unpleasant and difficult, and Rózsa — despite having three more Academy Awards in his cabinet than Hitchcock — long remained bitter over their disagreements.

Hitchcock and Selznick were not exactly peaceful collaborators either, and with the release of Spellbound the actually successful portion of the director’s period under contract to Selznick had ended. Selznick’s fate, in fact, was sealed by a series of poor decisions in his personal life, and by his crazed intention to duplicate or out-perform Gone with the Wind. This would be his last film nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture. Hitchcock, meanwhile, was becoming too massive a name, and too much a master of harnessing talent, to be under contract to anyone. He was destined to spend a brief period in the wilderness, then would prove unstoppable. Meanwhile, Spellbound is a low-tier stopgap for him, and a symbol of the problems inherent to his lack of independence — the opposite of Rebecca, which had illustrated how he once could thrive under the same circumstances — but it’s nevertheless a good, entertaining film whose best moments are undoubtedly as memorable and even iconic as anything in this phase of the director’s canon.

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