Charlene at Charlene’s (Mostly) Classic Movie Reviews is hosting this absolutely amazing blogathon – The Medicine in the Movies Blogathon, and this review of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Spellbound” (1945) is part of the race. There are many good movies out there which explore interesting, intricate aspects of medicine: from Wellman’s overblown, but entertaining “Night Nurse” (1931) to Soderbergh’s documentary-like, but fascinating “Contagion” (2011). Psychiatry in films has not been left too behind either. Many films here focused on a mental institution itself, such as “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” (1975) and “Girl, Interrupted” (1999), while others touched on various psychiatric issues through their “serial killer” plots, such as Hitchcock’s “Psycho” (1960) and Mangold’s “Identity“ (2003). But, while these films often explored medical concepts and disorders indirectly, some movies really got to grips with the intricate details of psychiatry by focusing on the issues head on. “Spellbound” is one of them.
Alfred Hitchcock’s “Spellbound” is a mystery thriller, which although shot in black & white and adapted from the novel “The House of Dr. Edwardes” published in 1927, never quite lost its fascination over the years, having enough intrigue, tension and romance to appeal to the audience of the present day. The film was nominated for six Academy Awards and awarded one Academy Award, for Best Original Score, in 1946. It is about Dr Constance Petersen (Ingrid Bergman), a young psychiatrist at Green Manors, a mental health facility, who gets smitten by the young newcomer to the practice Dr Anthony Edwardes (Gregory Peck). However, looks deceive, and just when the pair falls in love with each other, it transpires that Dr Edwardes may not actually be who he says he is, and the duo must uncover his mysterious connection with Green Manors before his alleged previous evil deeds catch up with them.
The opening sequence to this film is the explanation of psychoanalysis, and, throughout the film, there are a number of references to the nature and workings of this psychiatric treatment. This inclusion is understandable, because, when this film came out, psychoanalysis was still a relatively new phenomenon, and “Spellbound” was, indeed, one of the first movies in Hollywood to deal with this psychiatric treatment (IMDb). In terms of an explanation, the film is a real eye-opener regarding a range of Freudian methods and concepts. For example, “Spellbound” makes numerous references to the so-called “guilt complex”, described by Freud in his texts, whereby an individual blames him(her)self for something that he or she has not done, a condition usually produced by contradictory desires; and the film also mentions an individual subconscious “fighting back”; dream interpretation, which plays a key role in the story; and treating of amnesiacs and kleptomaniacs by the “talking cure”, including dissecting one’s childhood experiences.
Alfred Hitchcock’s talent in suspenseful storytelling emerges here in full. In “Spellbound”, Hitchcock once again proves that he often knows his audience’s minds better than they know them themselves. By the time the audience start to question everything they see on screen overtly, that doubt has already been planted in their minds well beforehand to accumulate into something big, but they just had not been paying sufficient attention to it (for example, they disregarded key information presented to them). Hitchcock throws hints or clues here and there to let the audience know that something may not be as it should, but it is only in the middle of the story or in the very end that the audience realise the sheer importance of the information so carelessly passed. “So, this is Edwardes, looks a bit younger than I expected”, exclaims one staff member at Green Manors upon seeing Peck’s character for the first time; “He only brought one suitcase”, comments another. Are these mere passing observations? Well, not quite, as the story will prove in time. Even when the alleged Dr Edwardes receives a strange telephone call from an unknown woman, the audience may be so taken by the meeting of the two people so attracted to each other, that they may not pay too much attention even to that.
Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck’s on-screen chemistry is great, and their characters’ romance is sweet and emotional. Perhaps, their onscreen relationship is so good because there is some inner drama here: as characters, Dr Anthony Edwardes and Dr Constance Petersen have initiated a connection from polarised sides. Arriving at Green Manors, Dr Anthony Edwardes is confused, perplexed and irrational, while Dr Constance Petersen is all clear-head and logic, at least in the beginning. Of course, soon the duo embark on a train journey down the memory lane, and even Constance sheds her common-sense practicalities for the taste of emotional attachment and love. It is nice to see both trying to uncover the puzzle that Peck’s character has left behind, and, as they do so, there is immediately this antagonistic force between them. As in “Psycho”, a just, innocent one is dressed in white (Constance), being contrasted with an eerie, (in all probability) hidden menace, often dressed in black – Dr Edwardes. Bergman is just perfect in the role of Dr Constance Petersen, because she is an actress who can do both: portray a bookish and serious analyst-turned-detective, while at the same time, demonstrate a charming and sweet young woman totally smitten by a handsome and mysterious man. In the film’s beginning, Dr Petersen is even contrasted with a vivacious, uncontrollable and overly flirtatious female patient.
It is surprising, but the film’s fascinating subject matter and the lead stars may actually give way here to the real show-stealers: Michael Chekhov in the role of Dr Alexander Brulov; Salvador Dali-designed dream-sequence; and the music composed by Miklós Rózsa (“The Lost Weekend” (1945)). Chekhov was so good performing in the role of Dr Brulov, an eccentric former mentor of Constance, that he was nominated by the Academy for the Best Supporting Actor Award. The Salvador Dali-designed dream-sequence in the film is so striking in its surrealism and distortion of reality, and is so impressive in its eeriness, it may get David Lynch jealous, and was actually supposed to run for twenty minutes instead of two (IMDb). The film also won an Academy Award for Best Score. The music composed by Miklós Rózsa ranges from being thrilling and even menacing to being deeply romantic, and the latter is especially felt when Constance meets the alleged Dr Edwardes for the first time, and the attraction between the two is instant.
However, it is also clear that “Spellbound” is not Hitchcock’s best film. The director was still under a tight control from David O. Selznick (“Gone with the Wind” (1939)), the producer here, and, in that respect, “Spellbound” may, probably, be best compared to the director’s previous film “Rebecca” (1940), rather to his late 1950s and early 1960s masterpieces. “Spellbound” is too long, dragging at certain times, and apart from the well-made ending, lacks that “wow” factor which will characterise Hitchcock’s work later on. However, the biggest problem of the film may be pinned on Gregory Peck and his poorly-written character. I generally love Gregory Peck and admire his acting talent (recently, he has made his way into my contribution to “The Five Stars Blogathon”), but, here, he is someone who is not impressing. In almost every scene, Bergman works seemingly alone: Peck is sometimes too passive (probably, he is too gobsmacked to react to anything on the set), his imitations of amnesic fits are often overdone and his character’s fixations on objects unconvincing. In fact, neither producer David O. Selznick nor director Alfred Hitchcock had Gregory Peck as their first or second choices to play the role assigned to him (IMDb). Bergman’s character is a clever, perceptive and an independent one, who deserves admiration, and who “wears all the pants” in the film. On the other hand, Peck’s character is the one who not only resembles some helpless fainting lady, uncomfortably swooning now and then, but who often behaves downright rude, and this reduces the empathy/sympathy for his role. All this, of course, may be well intentional given the story, but when Dr Edwardes’ instance of maturity becomes laughable, and he repeatedly snaps at Constance, who tries to rescue and protect him, then the story can raise more than an eyebrow, now matter how amnesiac or confused a character is. In fact, Constance once says to our anonymous hero: “Pull yourself together”; and Dr Brulov gives a wise advice to Constance: “You are not his mother, you are an analyst, leave him alone.”
Given this, it may be clear how “Spellbound” might have lost the Best Picture Award race at the Academy Awards. That prize went to everyone’s beloved and quite revolutionary in its own way – “The Lost Weekend”. As for Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck, both were nominated for leading roles in other movies (Peck for “The Keys of the Kingdom” (1944) and Bergman for “The Bells of St. Mary’s” (1945)), but also lost to Ray Milland and Joan Crawford respectively.
Due to its length and prolonged lessons on psychoanalysis, “Spellbound” will probably be enjoyed best by those who are interested in psychiatry and Freudian methodologies. However, those who love a good mystery, suspense and romance will also find many things to like here. Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck, whose on-screen chemistry is great, team-up to deliver a memorable romance, and the dedicated supporting cast, such as Michael Chekhov (Dr. Alexander Brulov) and Leo G. Carroll (Dr. Murchison), shine in their equally majestic roles. While typical Hitchcockian twists are there to ensure interest until the film’s very end, the film’s amazing score, complemented by the inventive artistic effects and sporadic humour, paint the desired intriguing, surreal imagery to contemplate, giving the film that independent, original (by that time’s standards) and thought-provoking look. 8/10
See also my list of “Top 10 Films Featuring Mental Hospital You Should See“.