When it’s on: Tuesday, 30 December (12.45 am, Wednesday)
Women make the best psychoanalysts until they fall in love. After that they make the best patients.
A confession. I had pencilled Spellbound in for today’s write-up whilst not looking forward to it very much and wondering whether to choose something else, something easier, instead. There’s a temptation to deride it, Alfred Hitchcock’s massive hit from 1945 that was mimicked and parodied to death in the following years, an exploration of psychoanalysis that comes with its fair share of moments that today come across as very nearly laughable, framed within a fine and entertaining drama.
At its heart, Spellbound is a noirish thriller, covering themes of psychological guilt that would become a staple of the genre, only here it’s dressed up with layers of prestige – Hitchcock behind the camera, David O Selznick producing, psychiatric advisers attached to give the impression of authenticity, a large budget and the presence of two consummate A-list actors at their most beautiful. It was inspired by a novel, The House of Dr Edwardes, though very little remains from it save some character names and the concept of power held by psychiatrists, which is presumably what drove Hitchcock to purchase the filming rights.
Made for Selznick International Pictures as part of the director’s outstanding contractual obligations, Hitchcock and Selznick clashed constantly – think two able and controlling men exercising their own agendas and demanding overall hold over the project. The latter’s positive experiences of psychiatry meant that he wanted it to be treated as a serious science, ordering a Shakespearean quote to be added to the credits in order to enhance its credibility, as well as the advisers being on set. It was Selznick who wanted the impressionistic ‘doors opening’ sequence as Ingrid Bergman realises she is in love with Gregory Peck, the doors of perception flying open, though it looks gimmicky now and Hitchcock preferred the actors to convey the emotions without having the extra – and rather obvious – meaning tacked on for viewers. As for Hitch, it would appear he treated the whole deal as props for a thrilling plot, adding his trademark visual flair (the glass of milk sequence, the disembodied hand turning the loaded gun back towards the camera) and championing the film’s famous dream scene that was designed as a surreal nightmare by Salvador Dali.
The plot follows psychiatrist, Dr Constance Peterson (Bergman), academic and aloof, who is preparing to see the back of the asylum’s head, Dr Murchison (Leo G Carroll) and welcome the arrival of his replacement, Dr Edwardes (Peck). Constance is a great admirer of Edwardes, in particular his published research, but is surprised to find that he’s much younger and better looking than she anticipated. Then things begin to unravel. Quickly, it’s established that Edwardes is himself psychologically disturbed; he can’t look at lines on a white background without suffering distress. Before too long it emerges that he isn’t the Doctor at all but an imposter, indeed he starts to believe he might have killed Edwardes and taken his place. What’s worse, if he is a murderer, then what’s to stop him from striking again, perhaps Constance or her mentor Dr Brulov (Michael Chekhov)? Edwardes, or ‘JB’ as he starts calling himself, flees to New York, followed by Constance who’s desperate to get to the root of his problems before anyone else gets hurt.
Taking any of this seriously is a stretch. Peck’s fits and starts at the sight of anything white that has lines running across it becomes hokey very quickly, particularly as Miklos Rosza’s score employs a theremin during these moments to emphasise the character’s deranged mood swings. Fortunately, the two leads have such instant chemistry and appeal together that the silliness takes second place to the sight of two very attractive and charismatic performers who look as though they want to rip each others’ clothes off whenever they’re together, the psychobabble buried beneath longing looks and touching. The pair had an affair during the production, the kind of fact that makes you want to exclaim ‘well, of course they did!’ as the spark between them is so obvious.
The film is probably best known now for its famous dream sequence, a creative collaboration between Hitchcock and Dali that essentially gave away the plot’s secrets, though it’s designed in such an oblique way that it only links with the revelations as these are exposed. Originally twenty minutes’ long, the scene was cut ruthlessly to a fraction of that running time by Selznick, removing much of its complexity and imaginative leaps, though what remains is powerful and visually arresting, the cutting of a painted eyeball with scissors, the appearance of a masked and malevolent club proprietor, the card game with its extra large playing cards and distorted camera angles to make the scene appear more dreamlike.
Almost as good is the evening meeting between JB and Brulov, at a moment in the film when the audience’s suspicions of the former are at their peak. Holding a switchblade razor, JB in a trancelike state, almost sleepwalking, goes to see Brulov in his study. Ignoring the razor, the middle-aged doctor fetches JB a glass of milk whilst the camera remains fixed on the blade, which remains in the forefront of the shot. We then see JB drink the milk, the camera’s perspective from his eyeline so that the glass moves into shot, then the liquid, Brulov emerging as the milk goes down. The viewers are left in doubt as to what happens next, until Constance wakes up the following morning and finds Brulov, prone, on his couch…
There’s no doubt that Spellbound has its moments, some great scenes that are well worth remembering and talking about; the film’s only moment of colour is a jarring flash of red that has real dramatic impact. But it’s flawed, deeply so, the product of a creatively profitable yet fundamentally clashing pair of personalities. Within Hitchcock’s canon it’s far from his best work, but it is interesting.