DAILY FILM DOSE: A Daily Film Appreciation and Review Blog: Spellbound

Tuesday 31 January 2012


Spellbound (1945) dir. Alfred Hitchcock
Starring: Ingrid Bergman, Gregory Peck, Leo G. Carroll, Rhonda Fleming, Michael Chekhov


By Greg Klymkiw

Of the four official collaborations between producer David O. Selznick and director Alfred Hitchcock, I've always considered The Paradine Case the worst, Notorious the most romantic, Rebecca the best and Spellbound the most utterly insane. The latter description of the latter film is entirely appropriate since it's a murder mystery set in an asylum wherein psychoanalysis is utilized to discover deep meaning in a recurring dream (designed, no less, by surrealist Salvador Dali) in order to find out exactly whodunit.

If this isn't insane, then I don't know what is.

Spellbound also has the distinction of being wildly, deliciously melodramatic, almost crazily romantic and when it needs to be, thanks to the genius of the Master himself, nail-bitingly suspenseful.

Selznick was responsible for bringing Hitchcock to America and signing him to a longterm talent contract. For much of their association, Hitchcock was lent out to other studios, which suited him just fine as he was able to do his own thing without having to tolerate (what Hitchcock perceived to be) the constant interference of the famous auteur producer of Gone With The Wind. Of the four aforementioned collaborations, Notorious was eventually sold outright to RKO in the midst of production while the other three proved to be one of the most dynamic producer-director battlefields in movie history.

Hitchcock and Selznick detested each other. Hitch thought of Selznick as a meddling vulgarian whilst Selznick viewed the portly Brit as a mad genius who needed his sure and steady hand (or psychoanalysis, if you will). To this day, Rebecca, a virtually flawless film that more than ably sets the stage for Hitchcock's extremely mature latter work (notably Rear Window and Vertigo) is casually (and sadly) dismissed by the Master of Suspense in the famous interviews with Francois Truffaut as not really being "a Hitchcock film", but rather, "a David O. Selznick film".

In many ways, it seems to me that Spellbound might well have been the most ideal collaboration between the two men. Selznick wanted desperately to make a film that extolled the virtues of psychoanalysis (which he felt had been an enormous help to himself - though there appears to be no proof he ever really "got better" as Selznick's maniacal megalomania followed him to the grave). Hitchcock wanted to make a great suspense film and was certainly drawn to the notion of psychoanalysis being used to unravel a mystery.

Add to this mix, the magnificent talent of Hollywood's best screenwriter Ben Hecht (The Twentieth Century, Nothing Sacred, Gunga Din, The Front Page, Scarface and among many others Wuthering Heights) and Salvador Dali to design the dream sequences and you've got a picture that guaranteed success. (And yes, it was a multi-Oscar-nominee/winner and a huge hit at the box office.)

Hitchcock, purportedly refused to have anything to do with Dali's dream sequences (other than adhering to their imagery as scripted for purposes of the plot) and they were ultimately directed by the ace production designer/director William Cameron Menzies (Gone With The Wind, Things to Come). The hearty cinematic stew that is Spellbound also features a most flavourful ingredient, a great over-the-top score by the legendary Miklos Rozsa - replete with plenty o' theremin usage.

What this ultimately yielded was a wonky, intense, romantic and thoroughly engaging murder mystery wherein the director of an asylum in Vermont, Dr. Murchison (Leo G. Carroll), is being forced into an early retirement to make way for a younger, more vibrant head head-shrinker Dr. Anthony Edwardes (the handsome, sexy, stalwart Gregory Peck). The asylum's ace psychoanalyst, Dr. Constance Peterson (the mouth-wateringly gorgeous Ingrid Bergman) is so committed to her work, that most of her colleagues view her as an impenetrable Ice Goddess. This chilly demeanour, however, stands her in good stead in the results department and she's probably the only person who can adequately handle the asylum's most over-the-top nymphomaniac (Rhonda - "hubba hubba" - Fleming).

But even ice is susceptible to eventually melting and soon, Constance gets definitely hot and bothered and drippingly wet as she succumbs to the rugged, manly charms of Dr. Edwardes. Even more tempting is that on the surface, this stiff rod of manhood is the sort of gentle pansy-boy Constance needs.

Deep down, he is sensitive and most importantly, he is… wait for it - in pain.

Yes, pain!

He needs a good woman for more than amorous attention, he needs her to PSYCHOANALYZE him.

When it becomes plain he's not all he's cracked up to be and might, in fact, be a murderer and impostor, it's up to the head-over-heels healer of heads to solve the mystery lodged in Dr. Edwardes's mind.

This is all, of course handled with Hitchcock's trademark semi-expressionistic aplomb and untouchable knack for rendering suspense of the highest order. There isn't a single performance in the film that isn't spot-on (Leo G. Carroll is suitably and alternately sympathetic and malevolent, whilst Peck acquits himself admirably as the troubled leading man), but it's Ingrid Bergman who really carries the picture. Her transformation from Ice Queen to a sex-drenched psychiatrist with a delightful blend of matronly and whorish qualities is phenomenal. She's mother, lover and doctor - all rolled into one magnificently package. And she's never looked more beautiful. Selznick knew this better than anyone and Hitchcock himself knew all too well how to compose and light for beauty.

In one of Selznick's delightful memos from when he first brought Ingrid Bergman to America he wrote:
"...the difference between a great photographic beauty and an ordinary girl with Miss Bergman lies in proper photography of her – and that this in turn depends not simply on avoiding the bad side of her face; keeping her head down as much as possible; giving her the proper hairdress, giving her the proper mouth make-up, avoiding long shots, so as not to make her look too big, and, even more importantly, but for the same reason, avoiding low cameras on her...but most important of all, on shading her face and invariably going for effect lightings on her."

They don't make movies like this anymore!

How Bergman was nominated the same year for an Oscar for her luminous, but limp-in-comparison performance in The Bells of St. Mary's over Spellbound is yet another mystery of the Oscars we all must put up with.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but Spellbound is, indeed, spellbinding and it's easily one of the great pictures by both Masters - Selznick and Hitchcock.

"Spellbound" is now available on Blu-Ray via 20th Century Fox/MGM. The copious extras are a mixed bag. A commentary with film historians Thomas Schatz and Charles Ramirez Berg is a real disappointment compared to the great Marian Keane commentary on the Criterion DVD. These guys are all over the place with spotty info and critical analysis bordering on the, shall we be charitable and say, rudimentary. There are a series of docs including one on the film's place as the first to deal with psychoanalysis, a backgrounder on the Salvador Dali sequences, a cool interview with Hitchcock conducted by Peter Bogdanovich and a really delightful doc on Rhonda Fleming. There's a Lux Radio play version of the movie with Joseph Cotten and Alida Valli and a trailer. The movie looks wonderful on Blu-ray, but I have to admit to preferring the care taken with the Criterion DVD transfer which ultimately has a better grain structure and seems closer to 35mm without all the over-crisp qualities that high definition adds/detracts when it comes to older films.

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