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 director's mind. 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 sixty 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 hospital's outgoing director 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 real Edwardes. 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 very far from the inaccurate deductions made by the hotel detective whom Bergman runs into.
The schematised presentation of Freudian psychoanalysis means 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 such an 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 (joyfully announcing 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 on the tablecloth by Bergman (“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 better suited to 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 directed at her gender’s door throughout. This is another aspect you end up suspecting Hitchcock was amusing by, 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 with whom she is smitten. 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 Spellbound's tone 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 lends them an added air of conviction, even when the script fails to support their task.
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 wound up having 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 after initial attempts met with his disapproval, and it is said that the producer was responsible for reducing a sequence that ran anything up to twenty 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 Hitch didn’t like it as, “it got in the way of his direction”. Distinctive as the score is, I have to agree with the director on this.
Nevertheless, Hitch 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 were 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 picture here (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. A straight adaption of the novel that inspired Hitchcock, The House of Dr Edwardes, in which a lunatic takes over the asylum, might have been more satisfying. Hitch referred to Spellbound as “just another manhunt wrapped up in pseudo-pyschonalysis”, and it's hard to disagree with that appraisal.