Leo G. Carroll
1 Hr., 51 Mins.
Spellbound March 6, 2018
pellbound (1945), dreamy and hypnotic, was Alfred Hitchcock’s eighth American film, and was, and arguably still is, his most stylistically outré. Whereas previous films like 1940’s Gothic melodrama Rebecca and 1943’s cavernous Shadow of a Doubt harnessed tenebrous visuals as a way to supplement their respective tales of suspense, optical style is arguably more important than story in Spellbound. It is a miasma of mesmerizing close-ups, fantastical locales, distinct unreality. There’s even a dream sequence designed by the master surrealist Salvador Dalí. It is not so much a film by which we are thrilled as it is a film in
which we are supposed to get lost; everything is visceral, almost phantasmagorical.
This was perhaps intentional on Hitchcock’s part, who directed the film shortly after the commercial failure of 1944’s more literate Lifeboat. The plot is chiefly driven by its male lead’s psychological haze – to be blamed mostly on rampant, severe amnesia that drives an action-packed mystery – and such sees Hitchcock cleverly paralleling his mental fogginess through a series claustrophobic but sumptuous visual set pieces. Its success is based more on artistic flair than it is solid material. A risky move, in no doubt: Hitchcock had until that point strictly made crowd-pleasers that also happened to be visually stunning.
Whether the movie’s peculiar methods of storytelling pay off has never much been conclusively agreed upon. Since the movie’s release some 73 years ago, critics and film historians cannot seem to definitively decide whether the film is a hidden gem or a rare misfire. The hard-to-please film writer Pauline Kael called it a disaster; the famously contrarian critic Bosley Crowther claimed it left him speechless, and that Hitchcock and producer David O. Selznick had made a masterful, “rare” film. The picture is never featured on any “best of” lists; most people almost exclusively praise it for the Dalí sequence. (It was, however, nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture.)
I think Spellbound is a beaut, one of Hitchcock’s strangest, but most artistically palatable, works. It is deliciously moody, intoxicating even – a psychological thriller of exceptional mystery. It certainly does not feel stereotypically “Hitchcockian,” which is another perk.
It isn’t faultless – scenes of casual workplace sexism and rather inflated depictions of mental illness date it – but it is generally inspired, a challenging, ghostly pulse-pounder that goes directly against the grain of conventional thriller scrap of the era.
It’s bettered by its pair of leading characterizations, which showcase luminous performers at the height of their cultural dominance and startling sexiness. The movie stars a Gaslight (1944)-fresh Ingrid Bergman as Constance Petersen, a psychoanalyst employed by Green Manors, a ritzy mental hospital stationed in Vermont. Other doctors – all of whom are male – consider her stuffy and cold, mostly because she won’t sleep with them. But Petersen needn’t bother herself fretting over their come-ons and dirty looks: she’s a woman in control, and that self-assuredness has especially been helped by the fact that the hospital’s long-faced, cocksure director, Dr. Murchison (Leo G. Carroll), is being forced into retirement.
But that control slips her grasp upon the arrival of Murchison’s successor. Named Anthony Edwardes (Gregory Peck) and known for his work studying the nuances of guilt complexes, he is not what Petersen expected: Tall and suave, he looks like one of the ultra-masculine subjects of a Bruce Weber photograph. Petersen’s attraction to the man is so powerful, her rigidity begins to ease – and such makes her primed to pursue a romance with the guy in spite of her better judgments.
But just as sparks start flying, Petersen comes to realize that the man with whom she’s falling in love is not Edwardes at all. It is revealed that the real Edwardes has died under mysterious circumstances, and that this handsome 20-something is an amnesiac who assumed his identity, and maybe even killed him. Police catch wind of the scenario and the faux Edwardes becomes a person of interest.
Petersen sees the situation differently. Because she is both intensely attracted to this man and so intent on reversing his amnesia – fueled by Edwardes’ clearly also recovering from a past trauma – the twosome eventually proves to be something of a lovers-on-the-run cliché. Even if it turns out she’s aiding a criminal, Petersen doesn’t care. She’d do anything to help this beautiful stranger, whom she’s convinced is good.
This potential murder business cannot be what it appears at face value.
Spellbound’s detractors have questioned Petersen’s recklessness, and have denounced both the reasons why the imposter Edwardes is so traumatized and why the real one was killed. But I find the most straightforward of plot developments in the movie to be secondary. The overarching ideas, like that animal attraction could cause us to sacrifice almost everything, that we’re always essentially running away from something, that nothing is ever quite what it seems, are so compelling and melodramatically displayed, we become immersed in them. I also was taken with the suggestion that Petersen’s fascination with the fraudulent Edwardes is by turns based in physical attraction and a need to uncover what’s torturing him so.
The movie additionally contains some of Hitchcock’s most interesting visual ideas. In a sequence in which Edwardes and Petersen are wrapped up in a feverish embrace, their kiss is made suggestive by an overlaid image of hallway doors opening in almost musical succession. The climactic moment in which it’s discovered what Edwardes’ past traumas are is an imaginative fusion of surrealism and bone-chilling reality. The finale is mostly made up of a moving POV shot: Petersen confronts the man who has undeniably killed the real Dr. Edwardes, and we stare at her from the former’s point of view, a gun at the center of the screen for what feels like minutes. The whole Dalí sequence sums up just how dreamlike and wonderfully enigmatic this film is overarchingly.
So I suggest you leave your logic at the door. You could try to enjoy Spellbound as a streamlined thriller, but in doing so, you'll find a couple more plot holes than you’d like. Or that some of the character motivations are ever so slightly murky. It’s better, then, to allow George Barnes’ emotive cinematography, Hitchcock’s cryptic direction, and Bergman and Peck’s impassioned performances wash over you. This is a feature so sensorially bracing, why focus on the mildly successful characteristics that had to convince studio heads to produce it? It’s much too artistically daring to deserve that. A-