Friday, September 9, 2011

Spellbound (1945)

“My dear girl, you cannot keep bumping your head against reality and saying it is not there.”

            Psychoanalysis is a subject/plot device we often see in thrillers. There is nothing more thrilling and scary then getting into someone’s mind probably because they have either been some or all based on real cases. No other filmmaker was better at psychological thrillers than Alfred Hitchcock. Hitchcock was the master at creating mind bending stories that reached and took hold the minds of the audience. Hitchcock delves into the mind and psychoanalysis head first in one of my favorite films of his Spellbound.
            Dr. Constance Petersen (Ingrid Bergman) is a psychologist at Green Manors. She is (apparently) the only female doctor in a facility dominated by male doctors. She is young, brilliant, and very attractive. One doctor tries to pull the moves on her but as he says “It is rather like embracing a textbook.” Looking at it Constance is very dedicated to her studies and her work that she has worked to earn.
            The head of Green Manors, Dr. Murchison, is about to be replaced by Dr. Anthony Edwardes (Gregory Peck). When Edwardes arrives Constance is surprised to see a very handsome, young man and is taken with him the moment she meets him. Constance takes Edwardes around the grounds of the institution for the afternoon. The two doctors get along very well. Later that night at dinner the other doctors take great notice that Constance is very much taken with the new doctor by her demeanor and her appearance.
            Constance cannot stop thinking of Edwardes. She goes to his room in her nightclothes and robe. The two talk and while talking Edwardes walks up to Constance embracing her and kissing her. Her mind is now fully open to love as we see through the symbolization of the doors of her mind opening to the fact. A few seconds later something goes wrong with Edwardes when he sees the lines on Constance’s white robe. He gets an attack of nerves and backs away from her.

            After another incident with Edwardes where he passes out in an operating room Constance gets to thinking. She takes out a book by Edwardes that has been signed by him and compares it to a note written by the man she knows. The signatures are completely different the man she is watching over as he sleeps is not Dr. Anthony Edwardes but an imposter. When the man comes to, Constance asks him who is but he cannot remember he is suffering from amnesia. The man thinks he may be the one who could have killed the real Edwardes and taken his place. Taking out one of his belongings they see his initials are JB.
            The next morning JB has left leaving a note for Constance apologizing for what he has done and where he will be. Constance goes after him to help him overcome his condition. Now JB and Constance are on the run from the police and it becomes a race to find out his identity and what happened to the real Dr. Edwardes.
             The story of Spellbound was inspired by the novel The House of Dr. Edwardes by Francis Beeding. I have read the novel and the only thing Hitchcock took from the novel was JB taking over as Dr. Edwardes but even that is extremely loosely based on the character in the novel and even the character of Constance is as well. The novel is pretty extreme with portraying the insane people of a psychiatric home somewhere in Europe. Constance has just arrived as a new doctor to the home. Hitchcock most likely liked the idea of someone talking another’s identity but obviously, as he told Truffaut, he wanted “… to do something more sensible, to turn out the first picture on psychoanalysis.” He did make a sensible picture even if he and writer Ben Hecht took some liberties with the science. I am not about to explain all the psychological aspects of the film but if you have ever taken psych classes in your life you will understand most of what is going on since the film (like all films) has to cater to an audience and needs to be understandable. At this time the press was preaching how psychological counseling was a great advantage to returning GIs from World War II. This went perfectly with Hitchcock’s wanting a sensible story and Selznick and Hecht had been in psychoanalysis and added their own touches to the film.
            The most original, creative, and amazing dream sequence can be seen in Spellbound. Hitchcock did not want a “traditional way of handling dream sequences through a blurred and hazy screen” so he went to Selznick and asked to have famed Surrealist artist Salvador Dali create the sequence. Selznick thought it was a publicity ploy but it was not the director “…wanted to convey the dreams with great visual sharpness and clarity, sharper than the film itself. I wanted Dali because of the architectural sharpness of his work… the long shadows, the infinity of distance, and the converging lines of perspective.” As an Art History major I have studied Dali and the Surrealists and no one art movement or artists could have been better suited to help make a Hitchcock scene. From paintings to photography the Surrealists were interested in dreams and interpretation. The dream sequence in the film is incredible it was so well made and just fit so perfectly with the story. Whenever I see the film and this scene comes on I get so excited because I understand it and I can truly see why Hitchcock was such a genius he knew what would work. I will admit Surrealist art is a bit unsettling and the scene with the eyes is somewhat unsettling but it is just so cool.


            There are many other scenes in the film that were excellently filmed or created. One scene I really like is when Constance and JB first kiss. As I mentioned when they kiss the doors to Constance’s mind that had been closed to love open. This “unlocking” is very important to the film it could be the third point of the plot with JB’s mind needing to be unlocked to find out who is and what happened to the real Dr. Edwardes. At the end there is a hand with a gun that the person holding it turns on themselves. The hand is fake otherwise there would not have been a way to film it correctly but it is Hitchcock and fakeness of the hand does not matter. When the gun is fired the screen turns red. In the middle of the film Constance takes JB to the home of her former teacher Dr. Burlov. JB awakens in the middle of the night and goes into a delusional state after seeing white and parallel lines. He goes downstairs with a shaving razor in his hand and Dr. Burlov is awake, working at his desk. The doctor hands JB a glass of milk. The milk almost looks like the milk glass in Suspicion but instead of only seeing it on a tray or in a hand we get JB’s view of him drinking it. Burlov saw the razor in JB’s hand and gave him milk with bromide in it.
            Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck were perfection together they were both such amazing actors in their own right but together they just light the screen. Bergman no matter what she was in was perfection and she suited Hitchcock’s style of filming very well. She added warmth but this warmth gets taken advantage of and Hitchcock/Hecht make women look stupid when they are in love. Sure stupid things can be done when someone is in love and yes Constance can be seen as unprofessional but I think the director and writer took Constance’s love a little too far and depending on how you look at it she can seem like the dumbest character ever. I look at Constance as being really truly in love for the first time and she was willing to risk everything for it. Only Ingrid Bergman could play characters like this and not make the character look stupid. Hell she played this type of character to certain extents throughout her career. As much as I admire Peck in this film I will have to agree with Truffaut in his statement “Whereas Ingrid Bergman is an extraordinary actress, ideally suited to your (Hitchcock) style, Gregory Peck isn’t a Hitchcockian actor. He’s shallow for one, but the main thing is the lack of expression in his eyes.” I will absolutely agree with his lack of expression with his eyes. I find classic actresses were way better at expressing emotions through their eyes or facial expressions than the actors. If Peck does make any expressions it is not good. I feel that with Peck in this film he is holding back from something but I think that can be put down to Bergman giving her all like she did in all her films.
            Miklos Rosza created an amazing score. It has to be one of the most intense film scores that can be heard in a film. To create the paranoia of JB whenever he saw white and parallel lines Rosza had the theremin. This was the first time a theremin had been used in a film score supported by a full orchestra. Rosza won his first Academy Award for Spellbound and it is considered a landmark in film music. Unfortunately Rosza was not a fan of this score he preferred his score for The Lost Weekend (in which he also used the theremin) and I am sure that had a lot to do with the fact that he did not get along very well with Selznick or Hitchcock. Producer and director did not say very much in how they wanted the music to be. Also this happened: “Selznick’s office phoned after the premier of The Lost Weekend asking him if it were true that he had used the theremin in The Lost Weekend as well as Spellbound (as though Selznick had a monopoly on the use of the theremin). Rosza, not to be outdone by Selznick responded with, ‘Yes, I had used not only the theremin, but also the piccolo, the trumpet, the triangle, and the violin… Goodbye!’” Rosza’s score is perfect it fits the characters and the storyline so well.
            Truffaut and even Hitchcock did not particularly care for Spellbound. They say there are confusing moments and certain issues with the acting and filming but I cannot disagree more. Spellbound is such an original film from the story (even if it is based off a novel) to the way it was filmed. What truly makes this film so amazing is the way Hitchcock used sexual desire and love to create suspense (he did this in many of his films but never, in my opinion, did it work so well than here) No matter how many times I watch this film I am completely taken by it. As with most Hitchcock films I am always sitting on the edge of my seat.
            Spellbound is classic cinema and Hitchcock at their best. This is the original psychological thriller that set the precedent for all to come.
                             Watch it on Youtube