Saturday, December 19, 2015

Alfred Hitchcock | Spellbound

playing doctor

by Douglas Messerli

Angus MacPhail and Ben Hecht (based on a novel by Francis Beeding), Alfred Hitchcock (director) Spellbound / 1945

Over the years I have watched Alfred Hitchcock’s 1945 film Spellbound numerous times, and yet—although I have written essays on most the director’s films—I had not even attempted any comment on this.

Although I have often enjoyed watching Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck romantically entwined in what becomes a kind psychological-detective tale, I also have long felt it is one of Hitchcock’s silliest pieces. Spouting populist notions of Freudian theory, Spellbound puts Bergman (as Constance Petersen) in the uncomfortable position of diagnosing her lover’s every move. Not only is the poor man apparently suffering from amnesia, he has a guilt complex for accidentally killing his brother as a child and, having recently witnessed the murder of Dr. Edwardes on a skiing trip, attempts to impersonate him, presumably again out of guilt, by showing up as the new head of the psychiatric clinic where Constance works. Even to describe this plot gives one the giggles. Poor Bergman has to pretend to believe it all between swoons and smooches.
      Oh, and I forgot to mention the even less credible ending. It seems the “real” murderer was Dr. Murchison (Leo G. Carroll), the former head of the clinic Dr. Edwardes was about to replace!

      Yes, Hitchcock’s plots (think of Vertigo and North by Northwest) can often be quite complex and even illogical, but mightn’t he and writers Angus MacPhail and Ben Hecht have assigned their poor hero just once less complex? And did Hitchcock truly have to use the kitschy Salvador Dali sets as an aide to interpret John Ballantyne’s (the real name of Peck’s character) dream? Did he really have to introduce yet another figure, Constance’s know-it-all, elderly mentor, Dr. Brulov, to help Constance diagnose her lover-patient?
      Hitchcock was obviously greatly interested in psychological motives, which are at the heart of almost all of his films. And accordingly, in his movies he often brought in psychiatry to explain character motivations. In one of his earliest works, The Lodger the director toys with the madness of his hero, and in several later works, including Rope, The Wrong Man, Vertigo, Psycho, and most notably, Marnie, the Hitch calls in the psychiatrists themselves—although often too late and not always with good results. But only Marnie—again, I am convinced, a failed film—explores psychological analysis to the extent of Spellbound. 
      Watching this film again the other morning, I wondered why I had even bothered to see this movie more than once. And yet, despite its labyrinthine plot and hooky images of opening doors, along with sled tracks in the snow which show up on clothing, bedspreads, and even a piece of linen on which Constance traces the shape of a proposed swimming pool with the tines of a fork (events which send Peck into an immediate trance and, inexplicably, abusive outbursts), Spellbound remains somewhat spellbinding, full of intense moments and lush romantic intervals—evidence, perhaps, of Bergman’s and Peck’s real off-screen sexual relationship during the shooting.
      This time around, moreover, I finally realized that, although Hitchcock is somewhat serious in his all of this psychobabble, he is also quite clearly mocking it—perhaps in reaction to producer David Selznick’s own exultation of his personal experiences with psychoanalysis conducted Dr. May Romm, who is credited as an advisor to the film. Somewhat like another 1940s work, Marianne Hauser’s Dark Dominion (1947), the director of Spellbound and his figures on one level are utterly serious about their schoolteacher-like dream analyses and layered observations of behavior, while also testing and teasing us about our personal expectations and evaluations of the new “scientific” field.

      Early on in the movie, the lecherous fellow psychiatrist, Doctor Fleurot (John Emery) makes fun of Constance and his own profession, suggesting that his beautiful colleague is using her career as a shield behind which to hide from any emotional involvement. Even the clinic’s head, Murchison, realizes that his young employee needs more time, metaphorically speaking, “in the field.” And once Constance meets the fraudulent Dr. Edwardes, we see her desperately trying to fend off her sudden infatuation with the newcomer with medical doublespeak.

      He, it turns out, is also a doctor—but of another kind, a medical doctor, who, despite his mental illness, can equally analyze the body and its maladies. And only he, given half a chance, can open Constance up to human contact. But, obviously, she must first nurse him to health before he can cure here of her “school-marm” tendencies. Even after she has fallen in love and in a mad rush away from her own profession, has chased John to New York, the hotel dick still mistakes her for a schoolteacher. And Ballantyne/Edwardes calls her that again when she immediately begins to badger him to recall his past.
      If psychiatry, as she and others keep insisting, can heal the patient, it can just as easily lead to further misreadings of human behavior and put the victim into further harm. A patient in the clinic attempts to kill himself. And the more Constance and her elderly professor (Michael Chekov) badger John with their probing questions, the sicker he seems to become, sleepwalking with a razor in his hand, and falling again and again into faints (in accompaniment with Miklós Rózsa’s theremin-inspired score) in which he behaves more like a drugged-out zombie than the healthy newlywed he and Constance are pretending to be. 
      His revelation of his dream is so ridiculously prolix (with card games hinting at the name of the New York dining club, 21, and a hovering bird-like figure pointing to the ski lodge’s location in Gabriel Valley) that Dali’s corny curtains of eyes, severed by over-sized scissors, along with his sculptures of melted clocks and wheels seem right at home in the over-the-top presentation of what a madman’s dream might look like. The actual scene was reportedly 20 minutes long, of which we see only about two minutes. It would be fascinating, maybe even frightening, to see the original shoot. As it is, the short scene, nonetheless, is the campiest moment in all of the great master’s films.
       Even when John is finally cured, his layered secrets all spilled, psychiatry cannot, so Hitchcock posits, save him, as he is arrested and tried for murder. But even then the analysis doesn’t end.

       Constance must still save her man and does so more as a detective than a psychiatrist—running with an accidentally dropped remark by Murchison that he had slightly known Edwardes—as she, confronting the reinstated clinic leader, determines that he was the man who shot the “real” Edwardes. After all, had he truly met his “replacement,” why would he pretend not to recognize Edwardes’ imposter when he joined the clinic staff? In short, we realize, as he puts a bullet through his head, the chief psychiatrist cannot even cure himself. So much for the wonders of Freudian thinking!
      The movie ends with the couple’s actual marriage, putting them in a position, finally, where Ballantyne can cure Constance by allowing her to be the beautiful and sensual woman she was hiding from herself. No further analysis necessary!


Los Angeles, December 18, 2015

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