You know what, dues are made to be paid and that’s what I’m doin’, I’m payin’ my dues. Sometimes, the benefits far exceed the cost. For example, I’m doing this thing called MoviePass and it’s $35 a month to see one movie a day, any movie once in selected theaters–which, for New York City, is 90% of them. I’ve seen at least 21 movies (says the app, but I think it’s more) in the past three months. So that’s about $275 in tickets for $105. [By the way, I’m not getting paid for this plug, more’s the pity, but if you want to leave a comment with your email I can invite you and possibly get a free month.] Hitchcock is the kind of guy where you’re paying your film-literacy dues but you’re happy to do it. They ain’t all winners and Spellbound (1945) is certainly a Tier 2 outing by the great director, but even that’s good for an entertaining time at the movies. Cue the overture!
Dr. Constance Peterson (Ingrid Bergman) is a emotion-free psychoanalyst at a Vermont sanitarium called Green Manors. The idea is to unearth hidden traumas so that the patient can understand them, put them in perspective, and be healed of that trauma’s crazy side effects. There’s a change today at Green Manors as Dr. Murchison (Leo G. Carroll), who had only recently had a bit of a breakdown from overwoork, is being replaced with Dr. Anthony Edwardes (Gregory Peck), a specialist in guilt complexes. When he arrives, it’s instant sparks between Peterson and the good doctor. But, uh oh, it turns out Edwardes isn’t Edwardes, but some other fella who gets a case of the swoons every time a couple of lines come his way. Not only that, but Edwardes or whoever thinks he’s killed the real Edwardes but can’t remember the first damn thing about himself. Well, the intrepid Dr. Peterson isn’t going to let her one and only love interest go to the big house when there’s an outside chance she can analyze him back to normality. And that’s just what she does, ladies and gentlemen, with the help of her old tutor Dr. Alex Brulov (Michael Chekhov).
Did Hitchcock introduce the world to psychoanalysis? Those movies, like Spellbound, Under Capricorn (1949), or Marnie (1964), with crazy women don’t seem to have held the same popularity as those with troubled men, like Vertigo (1958) and Psycho (1960), but that might have as much to do with the thrills of the narrative (or the lack thereof). All but Vertigo take on the subject of psychology directly and treat it as read. [Excluding from consideration Under Capricorn which was set in the 19th century.] Whenever the topic arises, the characters take on a professorial tone and read out these facts in the way a person might talk about changing a tire. “Oh, it’s perfectly clear if you think about it.” How interesting it is that in the sixty intervening years so little has changed. People still accept these ideas so readily and apply them so liberally, that it’s a wonder society remains intact.
Lets take a scene from Spellbound. Peck has a dream and the psychiatrists in the room explain that dreams are meaningful because it is the brain’s way of telling you something that you’d rather not face consciously. Fair enough. So, they say, tell us your dream and we will make sense of it. He then relates the dream. They say that a roof represents a mountain and perhaps he was skiing like in those valley resorts. later Peck is running away from a winged creature. A harpy? No, my dear, an angel. So perhaps it is Angel Valley. “No, I remember,” pipes in Peck, “it is Gabriel Valley!” Why do they think Peck is right rather than his own powers of word association coming up with other, unrelated, nay even random observations to apply in the real world. Perhaps getting to those kinds of genuine breakthroughs is possible with a lot of probing, trial, and error, but the idea that you can analyze your friends, loved ones, or Miley Cyrus based upon your own limited observations is hilarious. It’s like saying you can govern a country because you can balance your checkbook. It’s presumption, rank presumption! I said good day sir. I said good day!
But otherwise, the movie is quite charming and very Hitchcock. The screenplay is by Ben Hecht, who also wrote Hitchcock’s Notorious (1946) (one of my very favorites), and follows the kind of trail a close observer might expect from a Hitchcock film. A bit twisty. Like some of his other films, Spellbound suffers from a preoccupation with a love story that is basically senseless and rather uninteresting. In the better Hitchcock films, the love story is roughly non-existent (Dial M for Murder (1954), Psycho, The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), Rope (1948)) or an integral part of the plot (Notorious, Rear Window (1954), Vertigo, North by Northwest (1959)) making for real, heavy conflict and competition. In Spellbound, it’s an angle to give the characters some reason to stay around one-another. Perhaps it’s just that I didn’t buy it between Bergman and Peck because I don’t see Peck as attractive to anyone who doesn’t have daddy issues. [NB: That was a joke.]
But in comparison to some of the other Ingrid Bergman fare that I’ve been enjoying of late (my reviews of Gaslight, Under Capricorn, and Notorious), Spellbound is not her best work. It isn’t that she’s particularly bad, but that the character is the most patronized (by the audience) of any of the others. Her abilities are constantly called into question because she’s a woman and in the most dismissive way. In the three other films, she is the victim of serious and nearly-fatal manipulation which makes her plight a sympathetic one. In Spellbound, we aren’t quite sure about Peck and think she just might not be using her best judgment in the situation. The reason given both by characters and the plot is that she is a woman with an affection for Gregory Peck and our sympathy is “Yeah, this is a movie, so she’s probably right.” Making matters worse, she begins the film as the icey rational creature of science. As Dr. Brulov says, “Women make the best psychoanalysts before marriage and the best patients after marriage.”
This is also one of Hitchcock’s unfunny films. In the darker films like Psycho and The Birds, there’s plenty of action or suspense to make up for that, but Spellbound isn’t particularly thrilling. This is more like an adventure in psychoanalysis where the dynamic duo bounce around to different locations to hold therapy sessions that lay down the pieces that need picking up. What comedy there is comes from the other psychiatrists who are humorously brutal in their diagnoses and a couple backhanders that Bergman supplies. So really, all we’re left with is the adventure and the chemistry and only the adventure is particularly convincing.
Perhaps something of interest is that the dream sequence was created by Salvador Dalí and rather apparently so. It’s a brief sequence and, because this is 1945, remember, shot from quite far away. It’s matte painting they’re interacting with. A modern movie would probably be able to weave through that setting and dwell on the art of it, but if you’re imagination is good enough, you can do the same for Spellbound.