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Like practically anything by Alfred Hitchcock, Spellbound is a fascinating film. Whether it's any good or not is a different matter -- to Savant this particular title has always seemed a Selznick-warped bad joke of dated ideas, a condescending soap opera where every other line is an unintentional howler. And I don't think that a snooty superior attitude is required to have this opinion, as Spellbound itself says it all. A quality production from top to bottom, with great music and an interesting collaborator in Salvador Dalí, there are more than enough reasons to like this silly movie about psychoanalysis.
Mystery and romance unfold at a psychiatric institution, where Dr. Constance Petersen (Ingrid Bergman) both analyzes and falls in love with her patient, John Ballantine (Gregory Peck), an imposter who behaves like an amnesiac. Ballantine may actually be a murderer. Can Constance's intellect and growing love uncover John's terrifying secret, before more innocents die?
Unfortunately, Savant only remembers Spellbound as the movie that was laughed off the screen back at UCLA, by an audience who had just sat enraptured through Nicholas Ray's marvelous They Live by Night. Here's a dialogue sample:
Bergman, breathless: "Liverwurst."
Music rises, scene fades.
Something of this kind happens every twenty seconds in Spellbound. There's too much silliness to write it all off to the questionable taste of micro-managing producer David O. Selznick. The film simply doesn't have a good story or a handle on any aim beyond star glamour.
Psychoanalysis was the rage in 1940s films, when the analyst figure stopped being a bearded professor in a dark room, mumbling incoherent riddles and theories. Suddenly the screen was engulfed by bush-league Freuds that brought light into the lives of the mentally disturbed, merely by making impassioned speeches on the screen. The pattern often followed something like The Dark Mirror, where Lew Ayres investigated deranged twins. Simply by verbalizing the hidden childhood source trauma, the afflicted person's mental disturbances vanished like magic. Some films gave the analyst a god-like ability to distinguish good from evil, and others presented their professors as suspect, as in Cat People and Nightmare Alley. But due in part to its lofty cinematic pedigree, Spellbound's absurd treatment of the subject stands out as embarrassingly naïve.
Spellbound's analyst is a female Sherlock Holmes, a seer who can interpret bizarre evidence in the form of dreams and hallucinations (all energetically depicted by Hitchcock). The dreams, of course, are a schematic series of puzzle pieces, each neatly filling in a piece of the mystery, as if a mentally ill person were a torn treasure map. Dr. Petersen is one of those 'professional' women whose unresponsiveness to males is interpreted by her peers, and endorsed by the film, as frigidity. She can't be a true woman or a good analyst until she 'opens herself up', so to speak, and stops acting in such an academic manner. The best scene in the film has Constance turn the tables on a hotel detective who assumes she's a schoolteacher or a librarian. His smug goodwill would normally be just as unwelcome as the attentions of the drunk from Pittsburgh. She uses it against him.
Spellbound is far less sophisticated than Poe's The System of Dr. Tarr and Professor Feather, or The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, both stories about imposters in madhouses. Here the clinic is populated by deranged patients. Each has an exaggerated malady both humorous and instantly diagnosable. Rhonda Fleming's nymphomaniac, for instance, is more an amorous decoration than a character. As with Bergman's character, Fleming embodies the male fantasy that females are sexually hysterical by nature. The affliction dogging John Ballantine is a psychiatric variation on the 'Hollywood illness'. His trauma is limited to bouts of anxiety and cold sweats, giving Gregory Peck ample opportunity to flex his acting muscles. He becomes a confused child greatly in need of Mama Ingrid's loving attention. If anything, keeping Peck in a state of agitation just makes him more attractive -- it's not like his problem brings on bouts of drooling or incontinence. He's a hunk with a "sigh!" - cosis.
The picture of psychiatrics in general, and by extension all doctors, is absurd. No medical ethics of any kind are in evidence at this clinic, as the doctors openly verbalize the personal amusement they get from their patient's problems. They trade snippy judgments of each other that the authors expect us to accept as evidence that the docs are as looney as the loons. The conversational humor among the staff backfires entirely, making every side comment, even by Bergman, seem arch and condescending. Aiming for sophistication, the dialogue is trite and callous. The doctors discuss poor Mr. Garmes' (Norman Lloyd) guilt complex right in front of him, as if he weren't even present. No wonder Garmes wants to commit suicide.
Spellbound goes far beyond the fantasy medicos of the Dr. Kildare series. No conflict of interest results when Dr. Petersen takes a heavy romantic interest in her patient. Patients and doctors are conceived from a condescending point of view. The only revelations Spellbound offers are thoset of a spoiled-brat producer whose self-centered & elitist view of the world bears little relation to reality.
Even when honed by Hitchcock's visual skills, Selznick's production hype makes the picture even more ridiculous. Miklos Rosza's famed score is his generic noir melody line orchestrated to blast out with rhapsodic love chords every time Bergman and Peck get within twenty feet of one another. Heavy music underlines symbolic scenes like the opening of the 'doors of romance'. The visuals are polished, but laughable in context.
It would be easy to put all the blame on David O., but some of Hitchcock's future films, particularly Marnie, parrot the same attitude toward visualized 'trauma triggers' -- the color red instead of parallel lines, etc. The academic arguments of scholarly film authorities don't wash for Savant. I don't believe that Hitchcock was working on an elevated plane of altered signs and meanings, weaving a cinematic web of psychology that makes Spellbound a profound experience. I'm as convinced as anyone of the great art in films like Vertigo and Psycho. But Hitchcock's films sometimes suffer when his eagerness to experiment with technical and structural gimmicks interfere with dramatic logic, as in Stage Fright and I Confess. With the autocratic Selznick barging in, reshooting and rewriting scenes, Spellbound is Hitchcock's classiest mish-mosh. Even after making allowances for its dated script, no art thesis can change the fact that the show plays as an amusing mess. 1
Not that Savant's not ready to see it again. The attractive Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck are a pleasure to watch, and the visual and aural trimmings make Spellbound a glossy Hollywood hallucination.
MGM/Fox's Blu-ray of Spellbound comes ten years after Criterion's fine DVD special edition. That release had some really fine extras. MGM's presentation benefits from an attractive HD transfer in near perfect condition, with excellent, full-bodied sound to put across Miklos Rozsa's Oscar-winning music score. Let the Theremin wailing begin!
MGM's commentary is by author-scholars Thomas Schatz and Charles Ramirez Berg. I didn't care much for the featurettes Psychoanalyzing Hitchcock and Dreaming with Scissors. The first has too many spokespeople saying short statements to from a fully thought-out thesis. The one about Salvador Dali is crippled by not being able to license any Dali art whatsoever. Criterion's Dali extras are definitive... on that disc we learn that the (rather silly) dream sequences were shot, cut, and discarded, and then re-shot by an un-credited William Cameron Menzies!
A third featurette on Rhonda Fleming is an interview with the actress, whose tale about being discovered and instantly put in a Hitchcock movie sounds rather sanitized. Ms. Fleming prefers to skip over the three movies she made before Spellbound, which include a walk-on in director William Castle's low-budget sleeper success When Strangers Marry. Interestingly, Castle gained attention by openly imitating Hitchcock's style.
Also included is the 1948 radio play with Selznick clients Joseph Cotten and Alida Valli, a Hitchcock audio interview and an original trailer. It's a decent package, and the beautiful Blu-ray will be difficult for Hitchcock fans to pass up.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Spellbound Blu-ray rates:
1. For the record, Savant thinks the Selznick-Hitchcock collaborations are some of his least interesting -- Rebecca is slow, strained and overrated, and The Paradine Case is an almost total bore. What's disturbing about Spellbound is how it tarnishes later Hitchcock works. Leo G. Carroll makes a snap judgment about Ballantine murdering Dr. Edwardes, and then assuming his identity out of guilt, to keep his victim 'alive.' This is Psycho in a nutshell, except that it's trite where Psycho is profound. Psychoanalytical mumbo jumbo repeatedly threw Hitchcock for a loop ... after Spoto's critical bio, are we to conclude that The Master of Suspense was himself a misanthropic psycho, masquerading as a film director making cynical movies about psychos?
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T'was Ever Thus.