19 October 2008

Spellbound (1945)

d. Alfred Hitchcock / USA / 111 mins.


Spellbound is a bizarre production from director Alfred Hitchcock. I think there's a great film probably looming around somewhere in Spellbound, perhaps the way our great thoughts and emotions can be revealed when we've brushed away the artificial clutter of the human mind and exposing an inner and suppressed truth. But what is on the screen here sometimes feels like nothing but stumbling and untidiness.

It's important that, as a viewer, you know as little of the plot as possible going in because this is one of the few Hitchcock films where the unraveling of the mystery is just as important as how the characters react to it. To whet your appetite, I will simply say that the film is set in a mental institution and stars Ingrid Bergman as a resident psychoanalyst, whose new boss (played Gregory Peck) might be hiding a thing or two about his own past, to put it mildly. Spellbound was the first collaboration with Hitchcock for both Bergman and Peck; Bergman, under contract to Selznick, and Hitchcock hit it off like old friends, and she would work again with him on two more productions (Peck on one more).

Hitchcock and screenwriter Ben Hecht set out to develop the novel The House of Dr. Edwardes with the intention to making it a dramatic exploration of human psychology, but what interested Hitchcock as a filmmaker was the possibility of breaking outside the standard mold and experimenting with how dreams could be filmed. Their first draft infuriated the film's producer, the ever-touchy David O. Selznick, who ordered edits and consulted his own psychiatrist (May Romm, a Freudian loyalist) to give the film "authenticity" – a concept that, as far as Spellbound as concerned, didn't seem necessary to Hitchcock.

All told, Spellbound is an interesting premise and it stays consistently interesting through to the end. This wasn't a throwaway project – its use of symbolism, with omnipresent doors and black-lines-on-white-backgrounds, makes it too smart for that – but Hitchcock left production the day after he assembled a rough cut. He was back under the watchful eyes of Selznick, whose nannying was an extraordinarily sore spot for the director. (Fortunately for the director, history seemed to repeat itself: while working on Rebecca, Selznick was preoccupied with Gone With The Wind, and while working on Spellbound, Selznick was preoccupied with the World War II home-front drama Since You Went Away.) Still, after leaving the film to Selznick, what was probably at one time crystal clear in Hitchcock's head became muddied by the producer's meddling. In post-production, Selznick brought in a new art director and re-edited the film with re-shot segments. The producer was possible of exhibiting great judgment (re: the entirety of Gone With The Wind), but his egotism and obsessiveness could also make a commit critical errors, and his devastating decision on Spellbound to cut severely cut engrossing contributions by surrealist painter Salvador Dalí.

During the screenwriting process, Hitchcock kept Dalí's potential involvement hidden from Selznick. Hitchcock admired Un Chien Andalou – Dalí's 1928 surrealist film with Luis Bruñel – and envisioned a partnership with Dalí to help construct four elaborate dream sequences in the film. Historically speaking, until the mid-1940s, dreams in cinema were mostly alternative scenes, cut to and cut away from by a wavy blur effect; for Spellbound, the dreams would help provide clues to the mystery in a visually arresting way. Dalí would sketch and draw dreamscapes and Hitchcock's art crew would convert them into sets. And surreal they were: walls with gigantic eyes, pianos dangling from ceilings, Bergman as a statue, gigantic scissors, etc. But Selznick never warmed to Dalí and hated the dreams, cutting them down to barely a minute in length in the film. (Bergman claims that Dalí's actual work on the film was originally "a wonderful twenty-minute sequence that really belongs in a museum," although many others refute the assertion and say the dreams occupied no more than possibly four or five minutes total.) Regardless, Selznick cut one of dream vignettes entirely, snipped away at Dalí's other work, and excised up to twenty minutes Hitchcock had placed in his director's cut. Today, ironically enough, Dalí's contributions are probably the most memorable aspect of an otherwise flawed film.

The film stumbles over bumps in the plot, including a simplified version of psychotherapy that results in a rather preposterous "all-is-good illumination" on the part of Peck's character. Bergman and Peck are both very capable in the film and are a pleasure to watch. There is the typical Hitchcock camera brilliance, though, including wonderful low-angle shots of Peck's character in a potentially violent trance and a point-of-view shot of someone pointing a revolver at another character.

Spellbound was Hitchcock's third film to be nominated for Best Picture and his third nomination for Best Director, and lost in both categories to Billy Wilder's The Lost Weekend. I'm not sure either nomination was completely warranted; ironically, the nomination here probably cost Hitchcock the possibility of being nominated in the next year for one of his best films, Notorious. Although Hitchcock shrugged off Spellbound later in life (most notably in his interviews with François Truffaut), it's hard not to see what must have captured his attention: solving a crime that is locked inside a suspect's head and teasing it out through complex psychology. Hitchcock's abandonment of the film probably damned it as much as Selznick crossing the line and obsessively controlling it, but like the deeply flawed and deeply psychological Marnie nearly twenty years later, there's still something interesting and entertaining about the director's forays into the subconscious, even if it's occasionally ridiculous.

5 comments:

darkcitydame4e 20 October, 2008  

Hi! T.S.,
There is nothing more for me to add to your review of Hitchcock's (1945) "Spellbound."
I must admit that I have only watched the 1945 film "Spellbound" only once. Therefore, I may "revisit" this film again!

dcd ;)

MovieMan0283 20 October, 2008  

I think this film is seriously underrated. Yes, it's flawed and somewhat silly, but I've always had a special regard for it - it's the film that for all intents and purposes introduced me to Hitchcock.

Previously, I'd only seen The Birds, which didn't really impress me but I found Spellbound extremely disturbing and impossible to shake the impression of. Between the score, the very stylized psychological aspects, and of course the Dali dream sequence, there's something kind of otherworldly about Spellbound. As if, despite mangling Freudian concepts in the dialogue, Hitchcock was able to tap into them in the mise-en-scene (and not just the dreams).

I don't know, there's just a heightened, dreamlike quality to all of Spellbound that I still find intriguing. And it shaped my perception of Hitchcock for a while - I liked the films like Vertigo and this, which contained mysteries and dark psychological aspects, to Rear Window and North by Northwest in which the technical execution was superb but which weren't as dark, mysterious, or surreal. I don't necessarly feel the same way today, but I sitll appreciate the unique charms of Spellbound.

Sam Juliano,  23 October, 2008  

I like you explanation of Dali's influence on the script, and I agree with you that this is not a perfect film, although a very good one. Yes it's certainly bizarre and the unraveling of teh script is just important as the narrative or more so. Movieman0283 makes some very good points.
Dark City Dame needs a copy of this film to watch it again, and as I just bought over the weekend the newly restored and remastered version by Fox to relace my old Anchor Bay copy, I will send it on....
Miklos Rosza's score, which won his an Oscar, is one of teh finest in his career, and among the finest ever written for a Hitchcock film.

Arcimboldo 17 March, 2010  

Hi T.S.. Great essay. I'd like to communicate with you about Spellbound. How can we do that? Thanks M

T.S. 31 March, 2010  

If you'd like to communicate more on Spellbound, you can contact me at the email address listed under the "About" section. Thanks.

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