US (1945) Dir. Alfred Hitchcock
The director of the exclusive Green Manors mental asylum Dr. Murchison (Leo G. Carroll) is about to take retirement, waiting to hand over the reins to his successor Dr. Anthony Edwardes (Gregory Peck). While Edwardes surprises many of the staff by his comparative youth he does catch the eye of female psychoanalyst Dr. Constance Petersen (Ingrid Bergman) and the attraction is reciprocated.
During his first day Edwardes display some alarming behaviour after which he passes out. Constance treats him discovering that the man is not the real Edwardes but is an amnesiac who thinks he killed him. Constance puts her professional reputation aside to help Edwardes restore his memory before the police get to him.
Perhaps it is a case of being spoiled by watching some of Hitchcock’s more famous and seminal works before this often overlooked outing from 1945 that makes it a film which requires a different approach to appraising it. By that I mean one is forced to expect the unexpected when viewing Spellbound as it doesn’t represent all of the classic motifs and traditions of latter Hitchcock films which are so readily accepted as the things that define his works; yet when the denouement comes you know you’ve been watching as Hitchcock film.
This may sound like delirium talking – rather ironic given the film’s main themes – but I’ll try and elucidate. Based on the novel The House of Dr. Edwardes by Francis Beeding (a pseudonym for Hilary Saint George Saunders and John Palmer) the first twenty plus minute are presented much like any typical Hollywood melodrama from the period – boy meets girl, they fall in love, boy might be a psychotic killer, they run off together. Even having the characters themselves acknowledging the immediate attraction between the two doesn’t dispel the fact it is a corny and hidebound plot development, a convention not helped by the intrusive symphonic overtures accompanying these scenes.
Having revealed himself and fearing the repercussions J.B (the imposter’s real initials) flees, leaving Constance a note. She tracks him down at a hotel in New York then seeks help from Constance’s former mentor Dr. Brulov (Michael Chekhov). They try to encourage J.B to retrace his footsteps in the hope that something will trigger some kind of recognition or flashback.
J.B’s amnesia appears to be a subconscious way for his mind to block something out rather than the result of an accident. Answers slowly come forward, fleshed out with some worthy deductions and psycho analysis but, to paraphrase Rowdy Roddy piper, just when we think we have all the answers Hitch changes the questions.
It is here that both the story and the film reach a turning point and the Hitchcock we all know and love finally arrives. Employing some unique camera shots (such as the view of J.B drinking a glass of milk from HIS point of view), subtle visual allusions and even a dream sequence conceived by none other than Salvador Dali (although the original 20 minute sequence was mercilessly cut down to just two by producer David O’ Selznick) we enter into a phase of the film that is both a mystery thriller and psycho drama.
This would later be central to films such as Psycho and Rear Window, albeit on a different scale but here it has a direct bearing on the actual plot relying more on the scientific exploration of the phenomena of mental afflictions rather then uses to shock the audience out of the their seats.
Another unusual occurrence in this film is having a strong female protagonist as opposed to the young feminine roles fulfilling the obligatory eye candy/damsel in distress tropes, adding fuel to the stories of Hitchcock’s legendary fascination with his blonde leading ladies. Perhaps the casting of the steely Swede Ingrid Bergman in the role of Constance was as much to do with her ability to appear photogenic and tough as much as it was her box office clout. Occasionally her character simpers a little too much like a love sick schoolgirl but her professionalism is always there to drag her back to her senses. Ultimately Constance is more man in this film than J.B is.
Providing the intellectual and scientific opposition in the cerebral sparring sessions, Constance has two heavyweights to contend with – first is as the incumbent Dr. Murchison played by noted character actor Leo G. Carroll, a Hitchcock stalwart also know for his roles as Topper and the boss in TVs The Man from UNCLE.
The second Dr. Brulov, a fabulous turn from Michael Chekhov despite his portrayal of the rambling white bearded psychiatrist with the thick European accent appearing to modern sensibilities as a caricature. Complete with many digs at Freud for being a fraud, Brulov is arguably the most entertaining character in the whole film proving to be wiser than his stereotyped appearance suggests.
This was only Gregory Peck’s fourth film and in places it shows when in the presence of his notable co-stars although he acquits himself well as the amnesiac J.B. it’s quite the contrast for some so rough and rugged playing an often feeble man dependent on a woman in the butch 1940s but Peck is able to bring this vulnerability to the role, even if it is a little hammy in places. However in one scene where he is standing silently in the shadows brandishing a cut throat razor the menace he exudes is palpable, aided by the superb camerawork and framing of the shot.
The fact that Spellbound is a slow burner that is a slave to convention, and doesn’t have that initial first act kick most Hitchcock films do to separate them from the rest of the pack, probably explains why it doesn’t share the same spotlight as some of his other works. Stick with it though and you’ll find a rather deceptive and engaging psychodrama awaits you.