Skip to main content

That Freud stuff’s a bunch of hooey.

Spellbound
(1945)

Spellbound is something of a stumbling follow-up to Rebecca, producer David O Selznick’s previous collaboration with Hitchcock. Selznick was a devotee of psychoanalysis, and the idea of basing a film on the subject was already in the mind of the director. To that end, the producer’s own therapist, May Romm, was brought in as a technical advisor (resulting in Hitchcock’s famous response when she pointed out an inaccuracy, “My dear, it’s only a movie”).

What ends up on screen is a mishmash of sometimes conflicting demands. There's an earnest paean to the practice of psychoanalysis, which is undercut by the director’s devious sense of humour. The “serious” (with 6o years hindsight it seems decidedly less so) exploration of the discipline’s magical curative qualities is fused uneasily with the standard requirements of the Hitchcock suspense format. Gregory Peck’s amnesiac impostor must be cured of his mental disturbance before the Law catches up with him. Simultaneously, devoted brain care specialist Ingrid Bergman is falling in love with him. And there’s a murder plot to contend with.

Pyschoanalysis and its purveyors, as depicted in the film, appear to be a fairly unprofessional bunch. They are driven by ego, impulse, or worse, rather than the rigours of an exacting discipline. Ingrid Bergman’s character (Dr Constance Peterson) is mocked as an emotionless cold fish by her juvenile-minded peers, but she clearly just needs the right man to come along in form of Peck’s headcase. After which her every decision is based on impulse and emotional devotion.  When it’s discovered that Peck is not the real Dr Edwardes, the outgoing director of the hospital Dr Murchison (the dependable Leo G Carrell, who featured in six of Hitchcock’s films) claims that Peck is undoubtedly guilty of having murdered the doctor. If Murchison’s leap to judgement seems understandable in hindsight, later on Dr Brulov (Michael Chekov) makes the same pronouncement.  They haven’t spent any time examining the patient, they’ve leapt to conclusions, not so far from the inaccurate deductions made by the hotel detective whom Bergman runs into.

The schematised presentation of Freudian psychoanalysis means that every neurosis or fragment of a dream is a clue leading to the solving of the patient’s personal mystery. This may then be revealed to the disturbed individual, resulting in an instantaneous cure. While this approach allows the film to occupy a more conventional suspense narrative, it renders glib any insights into Peck’s malaise. Once the childhood memory he has repressed is exposed, he is made immediately well (he joyfully announces that, although he knocked his brother onto sharp railings when he slid down a banister as a child,  he didn’t kill him as it was an accident – a trauma-free life beckons!)

There’s much unintentional fun to be had with Peck’s hysterical reactions to the prodding of his psyche. Early on, he reacts badly to the sight of parallel lines drawn by Bergman on the tablecloth (“I take it the supply of linen at this institution is inexhaustible!”). I was reminded of Steve Martin’s “Cleaning lady?!” outbursts in noir-spoof Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid. At other times, Hitchcock appears to be purposely having fun (Bergman’s choice of liverwurst sandwiches, when they go for a stroll round the hospital grounds). Peck makes for a solid if slightly dour lead; Bergman seems to better suited the tone Hitchcock is aiming for.

Apart from blossoming into full womanhood on finding a tall dark stranger to lust after, Dr Peterson is probably most identified by the parade of belittling remarks laid at her gender’s door throughout. This another aspect you end up suspecting Hitchcock was amusing himself with, so persistent are the comments (“We both know that the mind of a woman in love is operating at the lowest level of the intellect”, “You're an excellent analyst, Dr. Peterson, but a rather stupid woman”, and so on). Also noticeable, for all her properness, is a rather laissez-faire attitude to her patients, smoking away, being tactile, or wielding a paper knife in front of them (if one wished to give too much credit to processes behind the script, one might view the two patients seen in the opening sections, one a nymphomaniac who claws at a guard and the other a man convinced that he killed his father, as inverted representations of Bergman and Peck).

The film works best, unsurprisingly, in the suspense sequences, as Bergman and Peck repeatedly attempt to evade the authorities hunting for him. Most of these involve Bergman lying for, or attempting to protect, the man she is smitten with. Peck departs the mental institute, pushing a letter under her door; a scene then plays out with half the senior staff and the police invading her room to speak to her. The letter lies at their feet all the while, waiting to be noticed. And each time she and Peck travel, helpful/suspicious authority figures must be deflected.  

The director only completely nails the tone of the film when he has the opportunity to balance the subject matter with humour.  The scene with Bill Goodwin’s aforementioned house detective is one example, but it isn’t until Dr Brulov is introduced that the film fully hits its stride. Making the psychoanalysts setting to work on Peck Swedish (Bergman) and Russian (Chekhov) somehow gives them an added air of conviction even when the script fails to support them. Chekhov was Oscar-nominated for his role, and he is frequently very amusing (“Any husband of Constance is a husband of mine, so to speak”), repeatedly mocking Bergman’s romance-fuelled devotion to helping Peck. He also endears himself by pulling the trick of apparent battiness concealing a keen intellect (drugging a razor-wielding Peck with a bromide-laced glass of milk).

It seems strange that Hitchcock chose to have little involvement with the famous Salvador Dali-designed dream sequence. It was directed by William Cameron Menzies (Hitch wanted Joseph von Sternberg) at Selznick’s behest, and it is said that the producer was responsible for reducing a sequence that ran anything up to 20 minutes (according to who you listen to)  to only two. Apparently Hitchcock wasn’t altogether happy with the results either. Perhaps his hands-off approach resulted from weary experience of Selznick’s dictatorial demands.

Another area that didn’t meet with the director’s approval was Miklos Rozsa’s Oscar-winning score, which featured the theremin. Rosza said he didn’t like it as, “it got in the way of his direction”. Distinctive as the score is, I have to agree with Hitch on this.

Nevertheless, the director remains a very identifiable presence and he makes a big splash with several shots in the film. The hallway of opening doors as Bergman and Peck kiss for the first time (in its way as suggestive as the final shot of North by Northwest) and the point-of-view down the killer’s gun barrel, achieved with a giant fake hand, are the most noteworthy (into which a couple of hand-coloured red/orange frames were cut, as the gun goes off).

The killer-revealed plot element that rounds the film off looks almost as if it was an afterthought (particularly so when you consider his identity). There’s a sense of “Where did that come from?”, as if someone got cold feet at all the high-minded psychoanalysis and decided audiences would feel shortchanged if the picture didn’t finish on a good solid crime .
Despite slightly outré subject matter the for-the-time the finished film is routine and faintly silly, enlivened by the occasional bravura sequence. There is a seed of a more serious film (Peck’s character was being treated for what we’d now regard as post-traumatic stress by Dr Edwardes) but it ends up as an intriguing premise in search of strong storyline. It might have been more satisfying to make a straight adaption of the novel that inspired Hitchcock, The House of Dr Edwardes, in which a lunatic takes over the asylum. Hitchcock referred to Spellbound as “just another manhunt wrapped up in pseudo-pyschonalysis”, and it's hard to disagree with that appraisal. 



Comments

Popular posts from this blog

So you made contact with the French operative?

Atomic Blonde (2017)
(SPOILERS) Well, I can certainly see why Focus Features opted to change the title from The Coldest City (the name of the graphic novel from which this is adapted). The Coldest City evokes a nourish, dour, subdued tone, a movie of slow-burn intrigue in the vein of John Le Carré. Atomic Blonde, to paraphrase its introductory text, is not that movie. As such, there’s something of a mismatch here, of the kind of Cold War tale it has its roots in and the furious, pop-soaked action spectacle director David Leitch is intent on turning it into. In the main, his choices succeed, but the result isn’t quite the clean getaway of his earlier (co-directed) John Wick.

Poor Easy Breezy.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
(SPOILERS) My initial reaction to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was mild disbelief that Tarantino managed to hoodwink studios into coming begging to make it, so wilfully perverse is it in disregarding any standard expectations of narrative or plotting. Then I remembered that studios, or studios that aren’t Disney, are desperate for product, and more especially, product that might guarantee them a hit. Quentin’s latest appears to be that, but whether it’s a sufficient one to justify the expense of his absurd vanity project remains to be seen.

I take Quaaludes 10-15 times a day for my "back pain", Adderall to stay focused, Xanax to take the edge off, part to mellow me out, cocaine to wake me back up again, and morphine... Well, because it's awesome.

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
Along with Pain & Gain and The Great Gatsby, The Wolf of Wall Street might be viewed as the completion of a loose 2013 trilogy on the subject of success and excess; the American Dream gone awry. It’s the superior picture to its fellows, by turns enthralling, absurd, outrageous and hilarious. This is the fieriest, most deliriously vibrant picture from the director since the millennium turned. Nevertheless, stood in the company of Goodfellas, the Martin Scorsese film from which The Wolf of Wall Street consciously takes many of its cues, it is found wanting.

I was vaguely familiar with the title, not because I knew much about Jordan Belfort but because the script had been in development for such a long time (Ridley Scott was attached at one time). So part of the pleasure of the film is discovering how widely the story diverges from the Wall Street template. “The Wolf of Wall Street” suggests one who towers over the city like a behemoth, rather than a guy …

I just hope my death makes more cents than my life.

Joker (2019)
(SPOILERS) So the murder sprees didn’t happen, and a thousand puff pieces desperate to fan the flames of such events and then told-ya-so have fallen flat on their faces. The biggest takeaway from Joker is not that the movie is an event, when once that seemed plausible but not a given, but that any mainstream press perspective on the picture appears unable to divorce its quality from its alleged or actual politics. Joker may be zeitgeisty, but isn’t another Taxi Driver in terms of cultural import, in the sense that Taxi Driver didn’t have a Taxi Driver in mind when Paul Schrader wrote it. It is, if you like, faux-incendiary, and can only ever play out on that level. It might be more accurately described as a grubbier, grimier (but still polished and glossy) The Talented Ripley, the tale of developing psychopathy, only tailored for a cinemagoing audience with few options left outside of comic book fare.

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
(1982)
(SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek, but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.

Dude. You’re my hero and shit.

El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie (2019)
(SPOILERS) I was going to say I’d really like to see what Vince Gilligan has up his sleeve besidesBreaking Bad spinoffs. But then I saw that he had a short-lived series on CBS a few years back (Battle Creek). I guess things Breaking Bad-related ensure an easy greenlight, particularly from Netflix, for whom the original show was bread and butter in its take up as a streaming platform. There’s something slightly dispiriting about El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie, though. Not that Gilligan felt the need to return to Jesse Pinkman – although the legitimacy of that motive is debatable – but the desire to re-enter and re-inhabit the period of the show itself, as if he’s unable to move on from a near-universally feted achievement and has to continually exhume it and pick it apart.

Well, it seems our Mr Steed is not such an efficient watchdog after all.

The Avengers 2.7: The Decapod
A title suggesting some variety of monstrous aquatic threat for Steed and Julie Stevens’ Venus Smith. Alas, the reality is much more mundane. The Decapod refers to a Mongo-esque masked wrestler, one who doesn’t even announce “I will destroy you!” at the top of his lungs. Still, there’s always Philip “Solon” Madoc looking very shifty to pass the time.

Madoc is Stepan, a Republic of the Balkans embassy official and the brother-in-law of President Yakob Borb (Paul Stassino). There’s no love lost between him and his ladies’ man bro, and dark deeds are taking place with the embassy confines, but who is responsible proves elusive. Steed is called in, or rather calls Venus in as a replacement, when Borb’s private secretary is murdered by Mongo. Steed isn’t buying that she slipped and broke her neck in the shower; “I shouldn’t like a similar accident to happen to you” he informs the President.

The trail leads to wrestling bouts at the public baths, where the Butcher…

Genuine eccentrics are a dying breed.

The Avengers 3.11: Build a Better Mousetrap
This really oughtn’t to work, seeing as it finds The Avengers flirting with youth culture, well outside its comfort zone, and more precisely with a carefree biker gang who just want to have a good time and dance to funky music in a barn all night long. Not like the squares. Not like John Steed… who promptly brings them on side and sends them off on a treasure hunt! Add a into the mix couple of dotty old dears in a windmill– maybe witches – up to who knows what, and you have very much the shape of the eccentric settings and scenarios to come.

Cynthia (Athene Seyler) and Ermyntrude (Nora Nicholson) are introduced as a butter-wouldn’t sisters who, concerned over the young bikers riding nearby, threaten that “We’ll put a spell on you”. But this amounts to misdirection in an episode that is remarkably effective in wrong-footing the audience (abetted to by Harold Goodwin’s landlord Harris: “Witches, that’s what they are. Witches”). We might have caus…

You can’t keep the whole world in the dark about what’s going on. Once they know that a five-mile hunk of rock is going to hit the world at 30,000 miles per hour, the people will want to know what the hell we intend to do about it.

Meteor (1979)
(SPOILERS) In which we find Sean Connery – or his agent, whom he got rid of subsequent to this and Cuba – showing how completely out of touch he was by the late 1970s. Hence hitching his cart to the moribund disaster movie genre just as movie entertainment was being rewritten and stolen from under him. He wasn’t alone, of course – pal Michael Caine would appear in both The Swarm and Beyond the Poseidon Adventure during this period – but Meteor’s lack of commercial appeal was only accentuated by how functional and charmless its star is in it. Some have cited Meteor as the worst movie of his career (Christopher Bray in his book on the actor), but its sin is not one of being outright terrible, rather of being terminally dull.

Do you know what the hardest substance in the world is?

Flawless (2007)

The present day framing of this nifty little heist flick knocks a star off it, since it's truly lousy. Natalie Dormer is a horrendously annoying reporter interviewing a rather ropily aged Demi Moore, neither of them helped by atrocious dialogue. Back in the '60s Moore fares much better as a much passed-over aging manager in a diamond business who is tempted by Caine's cleaner into cleaning the place out. 

Caine's on good form; nothing he hasn't done a hundred times, but full of energy, and the plotting makes it as much fun to work out how he done it as it is to watch the actors. Joss Ackland is surprisingly cast against type as an evil South African while Lambert Wilson has fun as the man investigating who stole what.
***