The Hitchcock Haul: Spellbound (1945)

MV5BMTM2NDI5Nzg5Nl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNDk3NzI0NA@@._V1_SX214_AL_I should have posted a Hitchcock Haul over a month ago, because I watched Notorious over a month ago, but, to be perfectly honest, I fell asleep during it and haven’t felt like rewatching it since. So instead I’ve decided to move on to Hitchcock’s Spellbound, which also stars Ingrid Bergman and a very young, very hansom Gregory Peck.

Spellbound feels like how a Hitchcock should feel: suspenseful, overwrought, and just a little bit ridiculous. Dr. Constance Petersen (Bergmen) is a psychologist at Green Manors mental institution located somewhere in Vermont. When a Dr. Edwardes (Peck) arrives as the institution’s new director, it is very clear that there is something wrong with him. He doesn’t seem to know his own professional achievements, or the difference between certain psychological diagnoses. Dr. Murchison (Leo G. Carroll), the former director of Green Manors who has been asked to retire, admits that he has never met Dr. Edwardes and isn’t entirely sure why he is acting so strangely.

This does not stop Dr. Petersen from accompanying Dr. Edwardes on a lovely picnic where they get very excited about liverwurst. And this liverwurst was apparently so delicious (hilariously, this is not a euphemism) that she falls in love with him. When he starts experiencing unexplained fits of panic and paranoia, and confessed that he is not the actual Dr. Edwardes, Dr. Petersen is dead set on curing him.

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But that is the danger; helping this fictitious Dr. Edwardes could very well kill her. This man, who begins calling himself John Brown, has a rather intense case of amnesia and suspects that he has killed the real Dr. Edwardes. He’s also diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic and is presumed dangerous. Dr. Petersen, who has been very clearly portrayed as a calculating and clinical woman, brazenly throws caution to the wind and devotes herself fully to John Brown’s case out of a deep and fast-forming love that has materialized between the two of them.

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She takes John Brown to her old mentor, Dr. Brulov (Michael Chekhov), and together they work to unlock a particularly intense dream of John Brown’s. The dream sequence itself was designed by Salvador Dali and is stunning. The doctors have success in piecing clues together, and they discover that the real Dr. Edwardes must have died on a skiing trip he recently took with John Brown. To try to help discover further revelations, Dr. Petersen takes John Brown on the same skiing trip. While heading down the hill (which is a hilarious sequence that rivals the liverwurst), John Brown finally gets the full picture: he didn’t kill Dr. Edwardes, who plummeted to his death while on the trip. He also remembers something horribly traumatic from his past, which was the reason for his seeing Dr. Edwardes in the first place. His amnesia is cured!

Part of the dream sequence designed by Dali

Part of the dream sequence designed by Dali

Unfortunately, the law enforcement is not so easily won over as Dr. Peterson, and John Brown, whose real name is John Ballantyne, is arrested after the body of Dr. Edwardes is recovered and a bullet hole is found in his back. Ballantyne is put through the legal wringer, with Dr. Petersen at his side the entire time. She works tirelessly to prove his innocence, but fails.

In a night of defeat, she commiserates with Dr. Murchison, who has been reinstated as director of the hospital. During their conversation, Dr. Petersen begins to realize the hidden meanings within Ballantyne’s dream. She pieces together the truth about what happened to the real Dr. Edwardes… a truth I won’t spoil for you. I recommend you put this Hitchcock on your Netflix queue and discover the truth for yourselves!

Most films made involving an amnesiac and a murder mystery feel pretty thin. Amnesia seems to be used as a deus ex machina and doesn’t make for great story telling, and yet Angus MacPhail and Ben Hecht do an excellent job adapting Hilary Saint George Saunders and John Palmer’s The House of Dr. Edwardes (1927). Spellbound has a strong and truly exciting narrative, despite the liverwurst. The specifics of the mystery are hard to predict, and while the film does have its weak points, it is altogether very solid.

Dr. and Dr. Petersen work on John's dream

Dr. Brulov and Dr. Petersen work on John’s dream

One of the strongest elements of the film is its score by Miklos Rozsa, who actually earned an Academy Award for Spellbound. The music jumped out at me right away and really grabbed my attention. It was so strong that I felt it was a character all its own. This apparently was a point of contention for Hitchcock, who felt the score distracted from his own work. It seems that, when looking back on all the Hitchcock films I have examined thus far, he has proven himself to lean toward less in terms of score than more. He’s a less is more kind of guy, and it has been used to great effect (see The Birds), and Rozsa’s score is definitely a departure from this mindset. I loved it, however, and felt that it fit the tone of the film perfectly. It also made use of the theremin, an instrument not widely used at that time but popularized in part by Rozsa’s score.

Hitchcock’s own obsession with psychology is put at the forefront in Spellbound. It is very clear, not only in this film but in many of his others, that he finds the human mind to be a dark and deceitful place. Much like Vertigo, Hitchcock explores mental instability and manipulation. Spellbound turned out much better than Vertigo, luckily, but only due to a few contrivances.

spellbound-2Something that I did not particularly like about Spellbound was the character of Constance Petersen. The film goes out of its way to prove that she is a by-the-books doctor who possesses little intuition or passion. She is cold to the advances of men and is not entirely concerned with her love life. I actually like this about her. What I don’t like is how easily she does a 180. As soon as she meets John Ballantyne, she’s overtaken with a rush of emotions that cause her to make rash decisions based on intuition and passion. It all seems very out of character. I’m sure it’s meant to prove that she truly loves and trusts Ballantyne, because why on Earth would she be acting that way otherwise, but it didn’t quite work for me.

Spellbound broke records and brought in almost $5 million in North America alone when it was released. It was nominated for six Academy Awards (including Best Director and Best Picture), and won for Best Score. It’s also incredibly entertaining. I highly recommend this Hitchcock to everyone!

I have been given a request that my next Hitchcock Haul be on The Trouble With Harry, and so that is what it shall be! I have no idea when I’ll ever get to Notorious.

 

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