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. 



Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Damn prairie dog burrow!

Tremors (1990) (SPOILERS) I suspect the reason the horror comedy – or the sci-fi comedy, come to that – doesn’t tend to be the slam-dunk goldmine many assume it must be, is because it takes a certain sensibility to do it right. Everyone isn’t a Joe Dante or Sam Raimi, or a John Landis, John Carpenter, Edgar Wright, Christopher Landon or even a Peter Jackson or Tim Burton, and the genre is littered with financial failures, some of them very good failures (and a good number of them from the names mentioned). Tremors was one, only proving a hit on video (hence six sequels at last count). It also failed to make Ron Underwood a directing legend.

Here’s Bloody Justice for you.

Laughter in Paradise (1951) (SPOILERS) The beginning of a comedic run for director-producer Mario Zampa that spanned much of the 1950s, invariably aided by writers Michael Pertwee and Jack Davies (the latter went on to pen a spate of Norman Wisdom pictures including The Early Bird , and also comedy rally classic Monte Carlo or Bust! ) As usual with these Pertwee jaunts, Laughter in Paradise boasts a sparky premise – renowned practical joker bequeaths a fortune to four relatives, on condition they complete selected tasks that tickle him – and more than enough resultant situational humour.

I'm offering you a half-share in the universe.

Doctor Who Season 8 – Worst to Best I’m not sure I’d watched Season Eight chronologically before. While I have no hesitation in placing it as the second-best Pertwee season, based on its stories, I’m not sure it pays the same dividends watched as a unit. Simply, there’s too much Master, even as Roger Delgado never gets boring to watch and the stories themselves offer sufficient variety. His presence, turning up like clockwork, is inevitably repetitive. There were no particular revelatory reassessments resulting from this visit, then, except that, taken together – and as The Directing Route extra on the Blu-ray set highlights – it’s often much more visually inventive than what would follow. And that Michael Ferguson should probably have been on permanent attachment throughout this era.

I hate natural causes!

Body Bags (1993) (SPOILERS) I’m not surprised Showtime didn’t pick this up for an anthology series. Perhaps, if John Carpenter had made Coming Home in a Body Bag (the popular Nam movie series referenced in the same year’s True Romance ), we’d have something to talk about. Tho’ probably not, if Carpenter had retained his by this point firmly glued to his side DP Gary Kibbe, ensuring the proceedings are as flat, lifeless and unatmospheric as possible. Carpenter directed two of the segments here, Tobe Hooper the other one. It may sound absurd, given the quality of Hooper’s career, but by this point, even he was calling the shots better than Carpenter.

As in the hokey kids’ show guy?

A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood (2019) (SPOILERS) I don’t think Mr Rogers could have been any creepier had Kevin Spacey played him. It isn’t just the baggage Tom Hanks brings, and whether or not he’s the adrenochrome lord to the stars and/or in Guantanamo and/or dead and/or going to make a perfectly dreadful Colonel Tom Parker and an equally awful Geppetto; it’s that his performance is so constipated and mannered an imitation of Mr Rogers’ genuineness that this “biopic” takes on a fundamentally sinister turn. His every scene with a youngster isn’t so much exuding benevolent empathy as suggestive of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang ’s Child Catcher let loose in a TV studio (and again, this bodes well for Geppetto). Extend that to A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood ’s conceit, that Mr Rogers’ life is one of a sociopathic shrink milking angst from his victims/patients in order to get some kind of satiating high – a bit like a rejuvenating drug, on that score – and you have a deeply unsettli

What's a movie star need a rocket for anyway?

The Rocketeer (1991) (SPOILERS) The Rocketeer has a fantastic poster. One of the best of the last thirty years (and while that may seem like faint praise, what with poster design being a dying art – I’m looking at you Marvel, or Amazon and the recent The Tomorrow War – it isn’t meant to be). The movie itself, however, tends towards stodge. Unremarkable pictures with a wide/cult fanbase, conditioned by childhood nostalgia, are ten-a-penny – Willow for example – and in this case, there was also a reasonably warm critical reception. But such an embrace can’t alter that Joe Johnston makes an inveterately bland, tepid movie director. His “feel” for period here got him The First Avenger: Captain America gig, a bland, tepid movie tending towards stodge. So at least he’s consistent.

Hey, my friend smells amazing!

Luca (2021) (SPOILERS) Pixar’s first gay movie ? Not according to director Enrico Cassarosa (“ This was really never in our plans. This was really about their friendship in that kind of pre-puberty world ”). Perhaps it should have been, as that might have been an excuse – any excuse is worth a shot at this point – for Luca being so insipid and bereft of spark. You know, the way Soul could at least claim it was about something deep and meaningful as a defence for being entirely lacking as a distinctive and creatively engaging story in its own right.

I’m just glad Will Smith isn’t alive to see this.

The Tomorrow War (2021) (SPOILERS). Not so much tomorrow as yesterday. There’s a strong sense of déjà vu watching The Tomorrow War , so doggedly derivative is it of every time-travel/alien war/apocalyptic sci-fi movie of the past forty years. Not helping it stand out from the pack are doughy lead Chris Pratt, damned to look forever on the beefy side no matter how ripped he is and lacking the chops or gravitas for straight roles, and debut live-action director Chris McKay, who manages to deliver the goods in a serviceably anonymous fashion.

You nicknamed my daughter after the Loch Ness Monster?

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2 (2012) The final finale of the Twilight saga, in which pig-boy Jacob tells Bella that, “No, it's not like that at all!” after she accuses him of being a paedo. But then she comes around to his viewpoint, doubtless displaying the kind of denial many parents did who let their kids spend time with Jimmy Savile or Gary Glitter during the ‘70s. It's lucky little Renesmee will be an adult by the age of seven, right? Right... Jacob even jokes that he should start calling Edward, “Dad”. And all the while they smile and smile.

I want the secret of the cards. That’s all.

The Queen of Spades (1949) (SPOILERS) Marty Scorsese’s a big fan (“ a masterpiece ”), as is John Boorman, but it was Edgar Wright on the Empire podcast with Quentin “One more movie and I’m out, honest” Tarantino who drew my attention to this Thorold Dickinson picture. The Queen of Spades has, however, undergone a renaissance over the last decade or so, hailed as a hitherto unjustly neglected classic of British cinema, one that ploughed a stylistic furrow at odds with the era’s predominant neo-realism. Ian Christie notes its relationship to the ilk of German expressionist work The Cabinet of Dr of Caligari , and it’s very true that the picture exerts a degree of mesmeric immersion rarely found in homegrown fare.