Dr. Anthony Edwardes (Gregory Peck, To Kill a Mockingbird) is the new director of a mental hospital located in Vermont. Not soon after his arrival, Edwardes meets a psychiatrist, Dr. Constance Peterson (Ingrid Bergman, Casablanca), and they fall in love. But Peterson realizes that Edwardes is an impostor suffering from amnesia. When the body of the real Dr. Edwardes is discovered, the fake Edwards is accused of murder and it’s up to Dr. Peterson to unravel the mystery.
Reaction & Thoughts:
“Good night and sweet dreams, which we’ll analyze at breakfast.”
For all its visual gimmicks and psychological mumbo-jumbo, Spellbound travels a fascinating road. Though often seen as merely the first Hollywood movie about psychoanalysis, this Alfred Hitchcock thriller is in fact one of the most intriguing studies on the topic of guilt, a recurrent motif in the director’s oeuvre.
Spellbound is also about love. Even though producer David O. Selznick’s (Rebecca) main goal was to make a mainstream-friendly movie about psychoanalysis (Selznick was undergoing psychiatric treatment for depression), Hitchcock and writer Ben Hecht (Nothing Sacred) had something else in mind — they decided to amplify the weird aspects of the odd relationship between the two main characters.
In spite of the Freudian gibberish, Spellbound remains first and foremost a (strange) love story wrapped around a murder mystery. Romance and suspense are tightly intertwined and impossible to separate: when the psychiatrist finally solves the mystery, she not only cures her guilt-ridden lover, but also frees herself to love him openly and honestly — love, guilt and murder are mixed in fascinating ways.
The film’s themes and ideas are enhanced by clever and inventive visuals. First, there is Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck’s first kiss, in which Hitchcock shows us a bunch of doors opening to illustrate Bergman’s sexual awakening. Although Hitchcock would later cringe at the mere mention of this sequence (it didn’t come out the way he envisioned it), I loved it — it’s a wholly romantic and extremely effective scene.
There is also a cool shot through a glass of milk. And, of course, the famous dream sequences, designed by Spanish painter Salvador Dali. Surrealist filmmakers like David Lynch (Mulholland Drive) tend to come up with puzzles that are very difficult to solve. What I admire most about Dali’s sequences is that they are simple, yet complex at the same time. In addition, the sequences are distinguished by their clarity — Hitchcock went against the common practice of shooting dreams in soft focus.
Spellbound also demonstrates that one can never underestimate the power of good casting. Bergman and Peck (his pale and bony face makes him appear fragile) are the kind of actors who can sell a radio to a deaf person. Bergman and Peck are so likable that you won’t mind that their romance is weird and unethical. I also liked Michael Chekhov’s (Rhapsody) performance as Bergman’s mentor — Chekhov’s arguments with Bergman serve to remind us that science is far less complicated than love.
Hungarian composer Miklós Rózsa’s (Double Indemnity and Ben-Hur) eerie, Oscar-winning music score practically invented a movie cliché. Producer Selznick hired Rózsa against Hitchcock’s wishes, but the score was met with praise. Rózsa was the first movie composer to use a theremin, and from here on the creepy sound that the instrument creates has come to exemplify spine-chilling moments on film.
Conclusions & Final Thoughts:
The Master of Suspense apparently never cared for Spellbound. “It’s just another manhunt story wrapped up in pseudo-analysis,” he told French director Francois Truffaut years later. I personally thought that it was one of the director’s most entertaining movies. Hitchcock has many neat tricks up your sleeve, and Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck are a terrific screen couple. Spellbound is a wonderful combination of romance and psychological mystery. B&W, 111 minutes, Not Rated.