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 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. 



Popular posts from this blog

I think I’m Pablo Picasso!

Venom: Let There Be Carnage (2021) (SPOILERS) I get the impression that, whatever it is stalwart Venom fans want from a Venom movie, this iteration isn’t it. The highlight here for me is absolutely the wacky, love-hate, buddy-movie antics of Tom Hardy and his symbiote alter. That was the best part of the original, before it locked into plot “progression” and teetered towards a climax where one CGI monster with gnarly teeth had at another CGI monster with gnarly teeth. And so it is for Venom: Let There Be Carnage . But cutting quicker to the chase.

I don’t think Wimpys still exist.

Last Night in Soho (2021) (SPOILERS) Last Night in Soho is a cautionary lesson in one’s reach extending one’s grasp. It isn’t that Edgar Wright shouldn’t attempt to stretch himself, it’s simply that he needs the self-awareness to realise which moves are going to throw his back out and leave him in a floundering and enfeebled heap on the studio floor. Wright’s an uber-geek, one with a very specific comfort zone, and there’s no shame in that. He evidently was shamed, though, hence this response to criticisms of a lack of maturity and – obviously – lack of versatility with female characters. Last Night in Soho goes broke for woke, and in so doing exposes his new clothes in the least flattering light. Because Edgar is in no way woke, his attempts to prove his progressive mettle lead to a lurid, muddled mess, one that will satisfy no one. Well, perhaps his most ardent fans, but no one else.

It looks like a digital walkout.

Free Guy (2021) (SPOILERS) Ostensibly a twenty-first century refresh of The Truman Show , in which an oblivious innocent realises his life is a lie, and that he is simply a puppet engineered for the entertainment of his creators/controllers/the masses, Free Guy lends itself to similar readings regarding the metaphysical underpinnings of our reality, of who sets the paradigm and how conscious we are of its limitations. But there’s an additional layer in there too, a more insidious one than using a Hollywood movie to “tell us how it really is”.

The voice from the outer world who will lead them to paradise.

Dune (2021) (SPOILERS) For someone who has increasingly dug himself a science-fiction groove, Denis Villeneuve isn’t terribly imaginative. Dune looks perfect, in the manner of the cool, clinical, calculating and above all glacial rendering of concept design and novel cover art in the most doggedly literal fashion. And that’s the problem. David Lynch’s edition may have had its problems, but it was inimitably the product of a mind brimming with sensibility. Villeneuve’s version announces itself as so determinedly faithful to Frank Herbert, it needs two movies to tell one book, and yet all it really has to show for itself are gargantuan vistas.

Give poor, starving Gurgi munchings and crunchings.

The Black Cauldron (1985) (SPOILERS) Dark Disney? I guess… Kind of . I don’t think I ever got round to seeing this previously. The Fox and the Hound , sure. Basil the Great Mouse Detective , most certainly. Even Oliver and Company , so I wasn’t that selective. But I must have missed The Black Cauldron , the one that nearly broke Disney, for the same reason everyone else did. But what reason was that? Perhaps nothing leaping out about it, when the same summer kids could see The Goonies , or Back to the Future , or Pee Wee’s Big Adventure . It seemed like a soup of other, better-executed ideas and past Disney movies, stirred up in a cauldron and slopped out into an environment where audiences now wanted something a touch more sophisticated.

Monster nom nom?

The Suicide Squad (2021) (SPOILERS) This is what you get from James Gunn when he hasn’t been fed through the Disney rainbow filter. Pure, unadulterated charmlessness, as if he’s been raiding his deleted Twitter account for inspiration. The Suicide Squad has none of the “heart” of Guardians of Galaxy , barely a trace of structure, and revels in the kind of gross out previously found in Slither ; granted an R rating, Gunn revels in this freedom with juvenile glee, but such carte blanche only occasionally pays off, and more commonly leads to a kind of playground repetition. He gets to taunt everyone, and then kill them. Critics applauded; general audiences resisted. They were right to.

It becomes easier each time… until it kills you.

The X-Files 4.9: Terma Oh dear. After an engaging opener, the second part of this story drops through the floor, and even the usually spirited Rob Bowman can’t save the lethargic mess Carter and Spotnitz make of some actually pretty promising plot threads.

Three. Two. One. Lift with your neck.

Red Notice  (2021) (SPOILERS) Red Notice rather epitomises Netflix output. Not the 95% that is dismissible, subgrade filler no one is watching but is nevertheless churned out as original “content”. No, this would be the other, more select tier constituting Hollywood names and non-negligible budgets. Most such fare still fails to justify its existence in any way, shape or form, singularly lacking discernible quality control or “studio” oversight. Albeit, one might make similar accusations of a selection of legit actual studio product too, but it’s the sheer consistency of unleavened movies that sets Netflix apart. So it is with Red Notice . Largely lambasted by the critics, in much the manner of, say 6 Underground or Army of the Dead , it is in fact, and just like those, no more and no less than okay.

Oh hello, loves, what year is it?

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021) (SPOILERS) Simu Lui must surely be the least charismatic lead in a major motion picture since… er, Taylor Lautner? He isn’t aggressively bad, like Lautner was/is, but he’s so blank, so nondescript, he makes Marvel’s super-spiffy new superhero Shang-Chi a superplank by osmosis. Just looking at him makes me sleepy, so it’s lucky Akwafina is wired enough for the both of them. At least, until she gets saddled with standard sidekick support heroics and any discernible personality promptly dissolves. And so, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings continues Kevin Feige’s bold journey into wokesense, seemingly at the expense of any interest in dramatically engaging the viewer.

What about the panties?

Sliver (1993) (SPOILERS) It must have seemed like a no-brainer. Sharon Stone, fresh from flashing her way to one of the biggest hits of 1992, starring in a movie nourished with a screenplay from the writer of one of the biggest hits of 1992. That Sliver is one Stone’s better performing movies says more about how no one took her to their bosom rather than her ability to appeal outside of working with Paul Verhoeven. Attempting to replicate the erotic lure of Basic Instinct , but without the Dutch director’s shameless revelry and unrepentant glee (and divested of Michael Douglas’ sweaters), it flounders, a stupid movie with vague pretensions to depth made even more stupid by reshoots that changed the killer’s identity and exposed the cluelessness of the studio behind it. Philip Noyce isn’t a stupid filmmaker, of course. He’s a more-than-competent journeyman when it comes to Hollywood blockbuster fare ( Clear and Present Danger , Salt ) also adept at “smart” smaller pict