Editor’s Note: The following review is part of our coverage for TIFF’s Notorious: Celebrating the Ingrid Bergman Centenary. For more information on this TIFF film series visit http://tiff.net and follow TIFF on Twitter at @TIFF_NET.
Hitchcock and his work is a common topic amongst film types. He made so many great films that he is a genre unto himself. Spellbound is a film that is often brought up, but only one part of it is usually discussed: the Salvador Dali-inspired dream sequence. It’s one of Hitchcock’s most elaborate and imaginative sequences and deserves discussion, but that’s not the only part of Spellbound worth mentioning.
The Salvador Dali-inspired dream sequence. . . It’s one of Hitchcock’s most elaborate and imaginative sequences and deserves discussion.
The story is that of Dr. Constance Peterson (Ingrid Bergman), a cold and clinical psychiatrist living and working in an institution. She’s often pursued and mocked by her male colleagues because she relies on textbook cases instead of her emotions to guide her life and her work. This is true until Dr. Anthony Edwards (Gregory Peck) walks in to take over the institution from Dr. Murchison (Leo G. Carroll) after a breakdown he’d suffered. Constance is enamored with Edward’s work and quickly becomes enamored with him as well. Through some interactions, Constance realizes that Edwards doesn’t know his own work from his books and she pieces together that he is not who he thinks he is.
Constance discovers his amnesia and eventually discovers his name is John. She and John go on the run to try and bring back his memories, which end with him believing he’d killed the real Dr. Edwards. This leads them to Constance’s mentor Dr. Alexander Brulov (the great Michael Chekhov). Alexander begrudgingly agrees to help Constance, but he doesn’t believe much will come of it.
To be honest, this film is now pretty dated. It’s Hitchcock’s only film that deals exclusively with psychoanalysis, something he deemed silly, despite relying on it in a multitude of films, most famously at the end of Psycho. The ideas put forward have long ago become debunked and reworked, so it makes Spellbound an interesting time capsule. The script, by master screenwriter Ben Hecht, works with a lot of what was around at the time and parts of the novel The House of Dr. Edwards by Francis Beeding (though I’m not sure how much of the novel he used, the credit only read ‘suggested by the novel’), so it’s not really his fault that the theme didn’t age well. He was also writing about an ever-changing branch of medical science, so it was bound to become outdated.
It’s Hitchcock’s only film that deals exclusively with psychoanalysis, something he deemed silly, despite relying on it in a multitude of films, most famously at the end of Psycho.
His script is not one of his best, either. He crafted a melodrama that is light on the suspense and heavy on a lot of wringing of hands. It’s not that the script doesn’t work, it does, it just takes a long time to get rolling and has more than a few slow spots. Everything unfolds pretty typically until Constance figures out John isn’t Dr. Edwards, which takes about 30 minutes. Then it’s a lot of talking on the run and more hand-wringing.
The acting is also a little atypical. The only word I can come up with for Peck’s performance is overwrought. He bends and twists to show mental turmoil and often collapses. Peck just doesn’t seem to have a grasp on how to communicate his character’s emotions here, which is odd considering how great an actor he was. He’s ultimately ineffectual in his role and that is a major distraction from the film. Bergman is luminescent as ever, delivering her clunky psycho-dialogue extremely well. She carries off the role and therefore the film like someone in a sci-fi film explaining things that don’t exist. She’s the anchor that more or less makes up for Peck’s flailing. The supporting actors, most especially Checkhov, really help the film in its slow spots.
Hitchcock didn’t want to do this film. He didn’t think much of psychoanalysis or producer David O. Selznick. He did the picture because he was still under contract to Selznick but hadn’t worked with him since Rebecca five years prior because Selznick had been farming him out to other studios and making a lot of money doing so. Hitchcock didn’t want to go back because he’d been acting as his own producer at these other studios and didn’t want to relinquish that control by working with Selznick, a notoriously hands-on producer. Hitchcock agreed to do the picture because it was one of the last needed for his contract and he wanted nothing more than to be out of that contract. Taking that as the situation, it’s no surprise that he seems detached from the picture. Not putting much stock in the main theme will do that to a director. However, he does come through on several occasions, putting his stamp on the picture and elevating it to more than just a psychoanalysis melodrama. While the tension isn’t very high during most of the film, even when the couple are on the run from the police, Hitchcock really rears his head in the last 5-10 minutes with a twist ending that puts anything M. Night Shyamalan has ever dreamt up to shame (even his good ones), and of course the dream sequence that brings Salvador Dali’s paintings to life. The dream sequence is outside Hitch’s normal realm, but he takes the idea and runs with it, making Dali’s expressions of the unconscious mind seem perfectly normal as dreams. It would stand to reason that if Hitchcock was going to venture into the dreamscape, he would make it as unique and expressive as possible.
Up until now, this may seem like I’m saying Spellbound isn’t all that good and I’d understand why you’d think that. The truth is that despite some very weak elements, the film is actually quite good. It may not be one of Hitch’s best, despite it being heavily discussed, but it is still good for what it was going for. Hitchcock, Hecht and Selznick were attempting to portray the value and virtues of psychoanalysis and how it can help just about anyone. It tries to show that people’s conception of psychoanalysis was probably wrong and that it can be a useful tool in helping people understand themselves and even catch a murderer. Spellbound has value and virtue and works hard to show that the human mind is complex and that we are a long way from understanding it completely but there are people trying and it’s not really a bad thing if you need their help. The film works hard (sometimes a little too hard) and ultimately rewards the patience of the viewer with a spectacular ending that you’ll never see coming.
Spellbound has value and virtue and works hard to show that the human mind is complex and that we are a long way from understanding it completely but there are people trying and it’s not really a bad thing if you need their help. The film works hard (sometimes a little too hard) and ultimately rewards the patience of the viewer with a spectacular ending that you’ll never see coming.