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Spellbound Review

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by Chris McEneany Jan 30, 2012

    Spellbound Review

    Alfred Hitchcock’s first fully-fledged American movie has been hailed as a classic, but it is far from essential to his true canon. Released in 1945 for MGM, Spellbound gained notoriety for its audacious themes of crusading psychoanalysis and fractured minds, its provocative and memorable use of Salvador Dali’s flamboyantly surreal imagery during its famed dream sequence, the inspired use of a “giant” hand to achieve another grand effect, and the almost subliminal use of two hand-coloured frames for still another striking image. However, the resulting movie, which starred the radiant screen queen of Ingrid Bergman and the up-and-coming megastar of Gregory Peck, was actually a bold, but rather childish attempt to address real concerns by dressing them up in scientific psycho-babble and wrapping them around a needlessly convoluted screenplay that, in all honesty, is a lot of fuss about nothing.

    But this takes nothing away from what was a valiant effort to bring the very real problems of shellshock and post-traumatic-stress disorder into the public consciousness. With troops returning home from in the aftermath of World War II swathed in physical and mental scars, and the advent of that oh-so-American pastime of visiting a shrink fast catching-on with the rich of both Hollywood and big business, it seemed only right that the subject of mental anguish be studied cinematically. Mad men and deranged killers had been seen on the big screen since the dawn of the medium, but they had been comic-book, pulp twists that were just described that way for thematic convenience. Audiences just needed to know that the escaped prisoner on the moors was a loony from the nuthouse. No filmmaker had attempted to unravel the true nature of somebody’s psychosis throughout the course of a plot before. Well, not in much depth anyway.

    But Spellbound came about as a direct result of something much more personal than the traumas that GI’s were exhibiting.

    MGM uber producer David O. Selznick, the man behind Gone With The Wind, was suffering with terrible depression. He’d become a virtual recluse and was rarely seen outside of his home, signing-off on projects from the shadows of a self-imposed prison. In desperation his wife, Irene, turned him towards a practitioner of this new-fangled psychoanalytical treatment in May Romm, and became so impressed at her ability to cut through his anxieties to unearth their root causes and fascinated by the methods involved that he was struck with the idea of capturing such a groundbreaking practice in the context of a thriller. In one of those bitter ironies, Selznick would suffer a terrible relapse during the subsequent production when his troubled brother, Myron, succumbed to the alcoholism that had controlled his life, ending it prematurely, and nudging chronic depression right back into David’s world. But the point still remained that there was both mystery and suspense to be found in the unravelling of someone’s mind, and the finished film was regarded as being something of a pioneer in the field, practically creating its own subgenre of the psycho-thriller.

    Hitchcock, liking the concept, had just the foundation in mind in Francis Beeding’s 1928 novel The House of Dr. Edwardes, which was set in mental clinic high up in the Alps. But that parlour-room mystery saga would be largely renovated and extended by Ben Hecht (Notorious, Kiss of Death) until only a handful of its original scenes remained, and the finished movie bore little resemblance to its literary forefather. In his gratitude to May Romm, Selznick saw to it that she gained a credit as Psychiatric Advisor, although Hitchcock then saw fit to remind her that “It’s only a movie,” when she ordained to object to a scene’s rather glib licence with genuine psychoanalytic theory.

    Questions of identity abound in Hitchcock’s work, from The Lodger and The 39 Steps to North By Northwest andVertigo to Psycho and Frenzy, with lots in-between so, on the surface of things, Spellbound should have found the rotund auteur on safe ground.

    The story concerns the arrival at Green Manors mental clinic of Dr. Anthony Edwardes (Gregory Peck) as the replacement for the establishment’s retiring director, Dr. Murchison (Leo G. Carroll). Almost immediately he begins a love affair with one of the resident stars of psycho-therapy, Dr. Constance Petersen (Ingrid Bergman), although it becomes patently apparent, very swiftly, that all is not right with the dashing newcomer. After a couple of spells of breakdown, which seem to be triggered by the sight of parallel lines on a white background, Constance gleans that he is not actually who he claims to be … and that the mystery-man is an amnesiac who may, or may not have murdered the real Dr. Edwardes. But, clinging to her love for him and her belief in his innocence, she endeavours to ferret out the dark secrets locked away within his shattered mind. The two are forced to go on the run, first visiting Constance’s former teacher, the renowned Dr. Brulov (Michael Chekhov), to start the mindgames rolling, and then to the snowy mountains where part of Edwardes’ apparent trauma was instilled. Childhood memories and mysterious skin-grafts crop up to add details to his hidden background, and then the shocking discovery of a body with a bullet in the back spins things out into a spiral of deceit and treachery. Poor Constance has her work cut out for her. Is this guy really worth all the effort?

    The film was a huge success in its time, and has remained a popular favourite with fans of Hitchcock and that giddy era of romantic adventures. Its unique selling-point was, of course, the unusual and surreal depiction of Edwardes’ crazy dreams. Dali was something of a cultural phenomenon during this period, and this was a dazzling piece of truly spellbinding marketing. The allure of the esoteric and the visually stimulating imagery that he wove into the movie is still, to this day, remarkably potent, and the probing of what it all means to Peck’s scrambled mind still appeals, even if only to giggle at the earnestness with which the various shrinks posit their theories.

    There is a certain straining for effect, though, and you can feel that Hitchcock was wanting to break through the studio’s constraints, his vision of the film curtailed by Selznick’s penny-pinching. Somewhere in here there are the makings of much better movie than the one that he eventually delivered.

    Thus, I’m going to push against the critical tide here and state that Spellbound is simpering melodrama of the worst and most tedious sort, and it is certainly the Hitchcock film that I like the least. For me, it is apparent that while the director’s “mind” is heavily devoted to it, his heart is not. The performances from the two leads are nowhere near as good as almost every critic seems obsessed with claiming. Peck has very little to do, other than look dotingly upon Bergman and then drop the smiling platitudes for a swift show of nervous unease or the brooding menace that absolutely none of us are ever going to fall for. He passes out more times than Johnny Depp does as Ichabod Crane in Sleepy Hollow, and although it may be refreshing to have a leading man portray the weakling of the story whilst the lady does all of the heroic sleuthing, it all comes to nought when we have so little tangible suspense with which to spice up the proceedings. Hitchcock had wanted Cary Grant to play the damaged Edwardes, and he would have brought something different to the part, certainly, but I doubt if even he, a much warmer actor than Peck, could have done much with it. And Peck is surely the better man for the job when it comes to turning things darker and more malevolent, such as when he falls under the spell of the psychosis once again and descends the stairs to possibly tend to the good Dr. Brulov with that razor in his hand. Peck is a colder, sterner character actor and here, at least, he manages to exude a presence that is lacking in his romantic clinches and confused ramblings.

    And Bergman. Oh dear. She’s a simply luminous beauty, with an accent that feels like nimble fingers giving you a soft, sensual caress, and she is usually a grand actress, with her performances in Casablanca, Notorious and For Whom The Bell Tolls undoubted highlights in a glittering career. But here she is reduced to overacting and overplaying every sentence, every glance, and every little emotion. It is heightened far beyond what is actually necessary for the role, and it paints Constance as a fairly ridiculous character and makes a mockery of her professional standing. Her sleepless foray to the library, eyeing-up the light creeping out from beneath Edwardes’ door, and then contriving to fall into the amnesiac’s arms is a dreadful sequence of wasted talent and precious mood. There is simply no build up to this epic romance. We are asked to believe that she falls absolutely head-over-heels in love with Edwardes the second she sees him, and that they pledge this undying love for one another … about two scenes after they have first met. Now, I cannot buy that for an instant, I’m afraid. Even if the intention is to depict the irony of the power of the heart over the head in such matters, it comes across as swooning idiocy and their early romance is shovelled in our face as though Hitch is saying “Look, I don’t believe any of this either, so let’s just get it over and done with and get on with the story, eh?” This would all be fine, of course … if it wasn’t for the fact that the major problem with the film is the story. Or the godawful lack of one. Oh yes, the narrative may be dressed up with all manner of psychoanalytical babble and draped with a veil of mystery, and we may have plenty of set-pieces - the dream sequence (which incorporates a canny visual reference to Luis Bunuel’s eye-slitting Un Chien Andalou), the train station, the cut-throat razor, the skiing and the “big” hand reveal – but this is just superficial time-killing. There’s precious little urgency to finding out what is ailing Peck’s dark tragedian and almost every scene has the esteemed Dr. Petersen crooning, “Oh, darling, don’t worry. We will work it out. We will!” into his troubled eyes.

    Incidentally, Peck looks incredibly like Hugh Jackman in this. I’ve said it before, but the likeness here is truly uncanny.

    It is one thing having your plot centre on psychology, but does that mean that every damn scene and every exchange also has to revolve around the topic? This is just too heavy-handed and overly signposted to be taken seriously on any level. Even the sequence when Constance attempts to find her conflicted lover after he has high-tailed it to New York, by simply sitting in the busy foyer of his hotel and hoping that he will appear amongst the crowds (even if he doesn’t, Hitchcock does in one of his customary cameos), is a wretched excuse for unwanted self-indulgence on the part of Hitch’s set-piece-loving mentality and a laborious attempt to provide some light-hearted psychoanalytical juxtaposition. Constance sits there, initially harassed by a simply unbelievable shyster until a hotel detective shoes him away. The detective then sits down beside her and, in almost as annoying a fashion as the shyster, begins to glean facts about her and her purpose by using his own professionally honed brand of psychoanalysis. This is just needless padding-out for the sake of it. Films such as Manhunter and The Silence of the Lambs are totally circling through the spheres of broken minds … but they don’t have the need to spend every second of screen-time dealing with the trials of insanity. I admit that they may be examples culled from a vastly different era, with a completely modified sense of sophistication, but storytelling is storytelling and Spellbound tells its story over and over again to the point that each successive scene runs through the same cycle of nicety, nerves and nonsense like a recurring dream.

    Worst of all, we don’t have any villains. Not proper ones, anyway. And let’s not forget that this is supposed to be a murder-mystery. The way is stands, this sort of plot would have been ideal as one of the later Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce Sherlock Holmes adventures for Universal, but as a large-scale and lavish production from one of Hollywood’s other grand studios, it comes up repeatedly short. In fact, it would have been infinitely more entertaining if it had been a Holmesian yarn. We could even have had one of those amazingly cringe-worthy but strangely classic final speeches from Rathbone in which Holmes says to his humbled companion something along the (parallel) lines of “You know, Watson, we’re entering a new age. A new world of detective work. A world in which the detective can unlock the door to the human mind and explore the labyrinth that lies within. Who knows what secrets we may discover?” And bumbling Watson would huff ‘n’ puff and ask, “Did our friend, Freud, say that, Holmes?” And good old Sherls would reply, “No, Watson. He didn’t. I just said it. Do try to keep up, there’s a good fellow!”

    One thing that does work for me, though, and is the reason why I believe the film holds such a “spell” over people is the marvellous score from Miklos Rozsa. There is a tremendous sense of romance about the main theme, which smothers the relationship between Constance and Edwardes with golden era charm, and this serenades the imagery during a good chunk of the film – whimsical, maybe, but beautifully symphonic and full of the sort of emotions that both Peck and Bergman manage to continually derail. But, for me, the best element is, by far, the splendid use of the Theremin. I’ve discussed the spectral and magical qualities of this incredible instrument many times before, and Spellbound is one of the key movies to employ its hypnotic and otherworldly voice. Elsewhere, Bernard Herrmann employed it for the intergalactic mystery and majesty of The Day The Earth Stood Still, Dimitri Tiomkin, in the same year, used it to elicit a spine-tingling frisson for The Thing From Another World and its profoundly eerie cadences and alien warbles have been heard in a multitude of horror and SF fare, even providing the playfully haunting signature theme for TV’s Midsomer Murders. The composer would use it several times more; finally with his swansong score for Rob Reiner’s spoof-noir, Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid. But here, Rozsa uses it to enhance the bewitching sensations that run through Edwardes’ mind, helping to unlock the secrets that reside somewhere deep within his psychosis. Whenever those parallel lines appear in front of him, Edwardes is transported into a miasma of broken memories and dark motivations … and the Theremin wails and quivers, soaring with skin-crawling finesse.

    Neither Selznick nor Hitchcock were present during the recording sessions and only afterwards when he heard the score for the first time did the producer make any comments upon it, and then his pedantic manner, via notes delivered by his secretary (“How many violins did you use? Could we have more of the theremin?”) drove Rozsa mad. He had the last laugh, of course. Out of ten Oscar nominations, Spellbound would actually win only one – and that was for the Best Score! Later, Hitch would write to Rozsa, telling him only half-jokingly that he didn’t much care for his music … because it distracted audiences from his direction!

    It is always great to see Leo G. Carroll, of course, and he makes sure to provide a solid bedrock from which the paranoia and weirdness can spring. But when people claim that Michael Chekhov steals the show with his amusingly two-faced performance as the insightful old school head-shrink who susses-on that there is a lot more to this queer amnesiac than first meets the eye, and reluctantly agrees to help Constance, they are being enormously charitable. Chekhov is playing the comedy professor, bookish, whiskery and eccentric … but his musical voice and his condescending manner soon have you wishing that Peck would pass the razor over so that you could finish the job.

    And then there’s the hilarious legal battle montage and the woeful finale to contend with …

    Well, I’ve implied all along, but I’ll spell it out now – just because a film is made by Alfred Hitchcock does not automatically mean that it has to be a classic. Coming off the back of The Lady Vanishes, Rebecca and Lifeboat, which are supreme examples of the thrilling mystery caper, the gothic suspenser and the tense ensemble drama respectively, I don’t think that it is all that surprising that Hitch drops the ball with his first American picture. His budget kept on getting slashed by Selznick which meant that the fantasy element of the dreams was curtailed from four sequences to just one, and that the location work that Hitch had originally conceived for them – wanting hyper-real and glisteningly sharp photography to contrast with the shadow and mood of the sets – were axed in favour of simpler visuals incorporating sets and miniatures. His penchant for mixed-up and confused identities was stymied by a suffocating love story … and the dearth of villainy he was able to muster meant that the film lacked a cogent sense of menace. Nobody, for one minute, believes that Peck’s character, whoever he may be, is ever going to hurt anyone, which eliminates a lot of true suspense. So all that we’re left with is a daft and overwrought love story, with a few dashes of belaboured intrigue.

    As wacky and wild as it may have been back in its day, Spellbound is a Sunday afternoon potboiler, and nothing more. It deserves a place in anybody’s Hitchcock collection, of course, but this is because of the visual innovation, the lush and imaginative score and the historical relevance of Hollywood exploring the field of psychoanalysis … and not because of the story.