(1945) Directed by Alfred Hitchcock; Written by Ben Hecht; Based on the novel The House of Dr. Edwardes by Hilary Saint George Saunders and John Palmer; Starring: Ingrid Bergman, Gregory Peck, Michael Chekhov, Leo G. Carroll and Rhonda Fleming; Available on Blu-ray and DVD
“Selznick at the time thought I only wanted Dalí for publicity purposes. That wasn’t true. I had felt that if I’m going to have to do dream sequences, they should be vivid.” – Alfred Hitchcock (from interview with Peter Bogdanovich)
“I sometimes wonder whether I am not – as all my friends insist – a sadist.” – Alfred Hitchcock (from 1946 interview “Mr. Hitchcock Discovers Love,” by Frank S. Nugent, excerpted from Alfred Hitchcock Interviews, edited by Sidney Gottlieb)
What makes a Hitchcock film a Hitchcock film? I’m not the first, nor the last to raise this question, and I don’t profess to have the answers, but there are several key elements that distinguish his work. Hitchcock often used some sort of “MacGuffin,” a red herring that sends the plot careening in unexpected directions to keep the characters off-guard. He also employed POV shots (what Hitchcock referred to as “the purest form of cinema”), which would actively engage the viewer, immersing someone in the mind of the heavily flawed protagonists. His customary cameo,* short on screen time but long on impact, also became a trademark. Spellbound fit the bill for these criteria, and long intrigued me for its famous Salvador Dalí-designed dream sequence (more on this in a moment), yet it somehow eluded me until now.
* Fun Fact #1: Watch for Hitchcock’s blink-and-you-miss-it cameo, exiting a hotel elevator with a violin case.
Ingrid Bergman stars as Dr. Constance Petersen, a promising young practioner at Green Manors, a psychiatric hospital. She’s immune to the charms of her older male colleagues, conveying a demeanor of professionalism and emotional detachment. Her icy veneer melts, however, in the presence of the new hospital director, John Ballantyne (Gregory Peck), who shakes up the establishment’s status quo. In opposition to the other men in the facility, he’s young, casually charming, and handsome. They strike up a relationship, which appears to transform Petersen’s stodgy appearance overnight. There’s just one little thing: he lapses into a trance whenever he sees parallel lines (no, I’m not talking about the cover of the 1978 Blondie album), momentarily losing consciousness. As Petersen succumbs to her infatuation with Ballantyne, she takes it upon herself to become his therapist, to uncover the underlying trauma. Complicating matters is the reality that the new director isn’t the man he appears to be, but someone who assumed the identity of Ballantyne. She’s faced with the prospect that the man she’s in love with could be a murderer, and that uncovering the mystery of the false Ballantyne’s amnesia, could jeopardize her safety and professional reputation. She enlists the aid of her mentor, Dr. Brulov (Michael Chekhov, in a standout performance). Brulov comes across as absent-minded and eccentric, belying an intellect that’s constantly working to uncover the mystery around Ballantyne. Fearing Petersen has lost her objectivity regarding Ballantyne, he subjects her companion to his own barrage of tests.
While Hitchcock frequently revisited Freudian (and pseudo-Freudian) themes and psychological concepts in his films, Spellbound is arguably one of his most blatant. With its mental asylum setting and focus on psychoanalysis,* the film contains a stew of repressed memories, guilt complex, post-traumatic stress, and sublimated sexuality. Bergman’s Dr. Petersen, as she first appears in the film, is a model of repressed sexuality. A knife, scissors, and shaving blade take on phallic properties. As if to reinforce her male colleagues as part of an exclusive men’s club, they appear in a scene, sitting around a table, smoking cigars. As she opens up to Ballantyne, it’s not difficult to see the obvious yonic implications of the scene of a hallway and successive opening doors, signaling their burgeoning relationship. Hitchcock actively engages the audience, toying with our perceptions. In the film’s climactic scene (SPOILER WARNING), a character shoots himself (as seen through a POV shot), and there’s a brief flash of red (two color frames in an otherwise black and white film), creating an almost subliminal effect on the viewer.
* Fun Fact #2: According to the DVD commentary, Mary Romm, credited as the film’s psychiatric consultant, was producer David O. Selznick’s analyst.
Miklós Rózsa’s music adds another dimension to the suspense and romance, with its recognizable themes. The soundtrack boasts one of the earliest appearances of the Theremin, an early electronic instrument with an inimitable, otherworldly sound. Its presence heralds each time Ballantyne lapses into a dissociative episode.
* Fun Fact #3: According to the DVD commentary, Spellbound would have been the first film appearance of the Theremin, but after production was delayed, Lost Weekend (also scored by Rózsa) became the first.
Sigmund Freud described dreams as “the royal road to the unconscious,” which would account for the significance of Spellbound’s much-touted dream sequence.* Hitchcock takes this concept and runs with it, in his collaboration with artist Salvador Dalí. It doesn’t disappoint, with its surreal images and distilled Freudian themes. The giant scissors cutting across the depiction of an eyeball (according to the DVD commentary by Thomas Schatz and Charles Ramirez Berg) is an allusion to Dali’s former collaboration with Luis Buñuel, Un Chien Andalou. The parade of surreal visions includes curtains with eyes that conjure omniscience and judgement, distorted landscapes/perspectives, and a bent wheel held by a masked paternal/authority figure. The original sequence ran 20 minutes, of which we only see snippets. When Selznick was displeased with the footage,* production designer William Cameron Menzies was called in to complete the sequence. As a result, we can probably attribute the final product as much to Menzies as Dalí.
* Fun Fact #4: Hitchcock initially wanted the dream sequence to be shot on the studio backlot, in bright sunlight, with the intention that the images would appear sharper, compared to the more diffused footage of the rest of the film.
** According to David O. Selznick’s harsh assessment, “The more I look at the dream sequence in Spellbound, the worse I feel it to be. It is the photography, set-ups, lighting, etc… all of which is completely lacking in imagination.” (excerpt from Selznick’s memo in the 2008 featurette, “Dreaming with Scissors: Hitchcock, Surrealism and Salvador Dalí.”)
Like any good psychological thriller, Spellbound doesn’t show its hand until the climax. We’re kept in the dark about Ballantyne’s innocence as long as possible. The element of doubt hangs precipitously over our heads, and Hitchcock exploits this, using his formidable bag of tricks. Spellbound is essential viewing for Hitchcock fans, psychological thriller enthusiasts and anyone interested in the depiction of psychoanalysis in movies.
* On a side note, apropos of nothing, I opine that “You have mogo on the gogo,” the delightfully arcane phrase spoken by Ballantyne, should find its way back into modern vernacular.