Spellbound (1945)

*. I think Spellbound disappoints most people. It certainly disappointed me the first time I saw it. The reason is simple: it’s best known for featuring dream sequences “based on designs by Salvador Dali,” but these amount to only a couple of minutes of screen time and they don’t give us anything but recycled imagery from the surrealist canon. Indeed, there’s even an in-joke with a man cutting a tapestry painted with an eyeball in homage (or mockery) of Un Chien Andalou. Which had, after all, been nearly twenty years earlier.
*. Aside from the dreams I think the only other thing people know about Spellbound is that it makes a total hash of psychoanalysis. Which is something Hithcock and screenwriter Ben Hecht were both well aware of (Hitch called it “pseudo-psychoanalysis”), despite the movie getting a sort of seal of approval from David O. Selznick’s therapist.
*. Some of what was shot for the dream sequences ended up being cut but it seems like not much was lost. Bergman’s claim of twenty minutes was almost certainly a big exaggeration, though it’s a number that I find still being tossed around in the literature. According to James Bigwood, referenced in Patrick McGilligan’s Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness in Light, it “might have been forty or fifty seconds longer than it finally wound up.” This makes sense. Dreams speak in a kind of super-condensed shorthand, especially in Freud’s theory of dreams, so it would be crazy to drag one out for twenty minutes. Off the top of my head I can’t think of any movie dream sequences that go on nearly that long. Mia Farrow’s inception-night dream in Rosemary’s Baby, for example, or William Hurt’s peyote spirit walk in Altered States only last for about as long as the dreams do here.
*. It’s long been a bit of movie mythology that Saul Bass actually directed the shower scene in Psycho. He didn’t, but it does seem as though William Cameron Menzies designed and directed the dream sequences in this movie. There’s probably some truth to the tales of how Hithcock planned everything out in advance, either through storyboards or in playacting scenes (which he apparently did a lot of with Ben Hecht while working on the script for this movie). On set, his direction was often reported to be automatic. Peck even mentioned thinking he was asleep.

*. So I’m not upset about the lost dream sequences. What’s more disappointing is that a love triangle involving Murchison (Leo Carroll) lusting after Petersen (Ingrid Bergman), which Selznick was really pushing, was dismissed by Hitchcock. I can’t figure out why. Watching Spellbound today it’s the sexuality of Petersen that is the most interesting part. She’s another of Hitchcock’s ice queens (or “human glaciers”), only this time she melts. Which is to say she takes her glasses off and lets her hair down and falls in love. She also mentions wearing more “feminine clothes,” though I think she’s well turned out right from the start.
*. Wouldn’t it have made more sense then to play up the angle of her being the unattainable prize driving the killer mad? As is pointed out on the DVD commentary by Thomas Schatz and Charles Ramirez Berg, all the doctors at Green Manors are “clearly infatuated with her.” She’s a woman in a man’s world, and not just any woman but Ingrid Bergman. Who could turn into Rhonda Fleming, Dr. Petersen’s unleashed id, if the right guy came along.
*. We can laugh at the love-at-first-sight business, but let’s face it, if two people as beautiful as Bergman and Gregory Peck were to meet up in such an environment it wouldn’t take long for them to pair off. It’s natural selection. Leo Carroll couldn’t be seen as any kind of competition, though that might have given him some extra motivation.

*. Almost everyone refers to this movie as being the first to deal with psychotherapy (Hitchcock himself called it “the first attempt at psychiatry in film, don’t you know”). This may be technically correct on some level, but it made me think of Cat People (1942), which also has a therapist looking to treat a character’s anxieties by way of a kind of dream analysis. Either way, psychoanalysis and psychotherapy was a hot topic, meaning it was commercial.
*. Miklós Rózsa did the score and it won an Oscar. Neither Selznick nor Hitchcock thought much of it. The theremin (the use of which Rózsa pioneered) strikes an appropriately odd note, but I think the love theme is too conventionally romantic most of the time, and this is hardly a conventional romance.
*. There are the usual Hitchcock preoccupations. The backbone of the story is a manhunt, with an innocent man, girl in tow, on the run from the authorities. Improbabilities in the plot more gigantic than usual, and perhaps more gigantic than in any other movie he made, are only waved at. Unfortunately there are few signature suspense scenes to liven things up, and we rarely feel any sense of threat. Pauline Kael dismissed it as “a disaster” and “a confection whipped up by jaded chefs.” I feel where this is coming from.
*. The twist, and it is quite a significant twist, is that the hero is Bergman’s Dr. Petersen. She is strong, resourceful, intelligent, brave, and very cool under pressure. For all his rugged good looks, Peck is just luggage, and given to fainting spells. Which makes it all the more disappointing that at the end it looks like she’s going to become Mrs. John Ballantyne. Or will she? I mean, it looks like she’s going to be the breadwinner so maybe she can just keep Peck as a toy boy. That seems most appropriate.

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