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The Criterion Collection // Unrated // September 24, 2002
List Price: $39.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by DVD Savant | posted September 24, 2002 | E-mail the Author

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Like practically anything by Alfred Hitchcock, Spellbound is a fascinating film. Whether it's any good or not is a different matter - to Savant it has always been 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 one needs a snooty superior attitude to think this, 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, and who may be a murderer. Can Constance's intellect and love break through John's 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 They Live by Night:

Peck: "What kind of sandwich do you want, ham or liverwurst?"
Bergman, breathless:
Music rises, scene fades.

Something like this happens every 20 seconds in Spellbound. There's too much silliness to write it 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 the 1940s, when the film analyst stopped being a remote professor in a dark room, and brought his 'magic' to bear on movie problems. Suddenly the screen was engulfed by budh-league Freuds bringing 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: just by verbalizing the hidden source trauma of the afflicted, the mental disturbances vanished like magic. Some films gave the analyst the power to distinguish good from evil, and others presented their analysts as suspect, as in The Cat People and Nightmare Alley. But because of its lofty cinematic pedigree, Spellbound's naive treatment of the subject stands out.

Spellbound turns the analyst into a female Sherlock Holmes, a seer who must 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 simply as one would reassemble 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.

The best scene in the film has her turn the tables on a hotel detective who assumes she's a schoolteacher or a librarian. She uses his smug goodwill, which normally would be just as unwelcome as the attentions of the drunk from Pittsburgh.

Spellbound is 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 with deranged patients whose exaggerated maladies are humorous and instantly diagnosable. Rhonda Fleming's nypmhomaniac, for instance, is more an amorous decoration than a character, and, like Bergman's character, a male fantasy that imagines that females are sexually hysterical by nature. John Ballantine's affliction is the 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. All he becomes is 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 affliction comes with drooling or incontinence or anything.

The picture of psychiatrics in general, and by extension doctors, is absurd. There's no medical ethics of any kind at this clinic, as the doctors openly verbalize the personal amusement they get from their patient's problems, and trade snippy judgments of each other that the authors must think is subtle evidence that the docs are as looney as the loons. The film's conversational humor among the doctors backfires entirely, making every side comment, even by Bergman, seem arch and condescending. Aiming for sophistication, the dialogue is trite and callous. Poor Mr. Garmes (Norman Lloyd) has his guilt complex discussed in front of him, as if he weren't there - no wonder he wants to commit suicide.

Spellbound goes far beyond the fantasy medicos of the Dr. Kildare series, by showing no conflict of interest in Dr. Petersen taking a heavy romantic interest in her patient. Any seriousness the show affects about real analysis, is lost, as both patients and doctors are conceived from a condescending point of view. The only picture Spellbound offers is that of a spoiled-brat producer whose self-centered & elitist view of the world bears little relation to reality.

All the Selznick production hype, even when honed by Hitchcock's visual skills, make 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 three feet of one another. Heavy symbols, like the opening of the 'doors of romance' are visually polished, but laughable in context.

It would be easy to put all the blame on David O., but some of Hitchock's future films, particularly Marnie, parrot Spellbound's attitude toward visualized 'trauma triggers' - the color red instead of parallel lines, etc. The academic reasonings of authorities like scholar Marian Keane don't wash for Savant - I don't believe that Hitchcock was working on an elevated cinematic 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 of films like Vertigo and Psycho, but an unevenness often shows in Hitchcock, when his eagerness to experiment with technical and structural gimmicks interfered 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 mishmosh. Even after allowances are made for its dated script, no art thesis can change the fact that Spellbound 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 trimmings make Spellbound a glossy Hollywood-hallucination that does a good job pretending to make sense. I looked at other reviews to see if anyone else had the same reaction to this picture ... and judging by its glowing reputation, I'm expecting some good responses saying how I've missed the boat this time. I'm looking forward to them.

Criterion's DVD of Spellbound is thirty numbers back in the series, evidence of the company's commitment to holding up a release until it's 'just right'. And the extras are exemplary, even for Criterion. Entrance and Exit music cues have been added, giving Miklos Rozsa fans an extra treat. There's also an NPR radio piece on Rozsa's use of the theremin. There's an audio interview with the composer as well. Marian Keane's careful scholarly analysis is given a commentary track. The galleries of stills and documents is exhaustive, and the booklet contains two essays, by Leonard Leff and Lesley Brill.

The two major extras are a 1948 radio performance with Joseph Cotten and Alida Valli, and an extended text - clip mini-docu on the making of the Salvador Dalí dream sequences. Savant was surprised to learn that they were shot, cut, and discarded, and then re-shot by an uncredited William Cameron Menzies!

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Spellbound rates:
Movie: Fair
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: extensive - see above
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: September 23, 2002


1. For the record, Savant thinks the Selznick-Hitchcock collaborations are not at all his best movies - 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 judgement about Ballantine murdering Dr. Edwardes, and then taking his place out of guilt, to keep his victim 'alive.' This is Psycho in a nutshell, but trite where Psycho is profound. Psychoanalytical mumbo jumbo threw Hitchcock for a loop ... after Spoto's critical book on Hitchcock, 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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