Hitchcock was such an ‘of-the-moment’ film-maker that there aren’t many who compare with him today in terms of using or risking their status to try and push the audience into new and uncomfortable territory. Some of his work ends up being timeless as a result (Vertigo is a great example, North By NorthWest being another) and some is pretty badly dated. Spellbound with its then novel and now well-worn themes of psychoanalysis and Freudian guilt falls into the latter category sadly. I’m not sure that it’s really fair to judge a film on the basis of how well the basic premise has stood the passing of over six decades, how was Hitch to know that daytime TV would be filled wall-to-wall with cod-psychology and blithe misreadings of Freud and Jung reducing everyone to the role of pseudo-shrink? That said, I am really only interested in how the film entertains or informs or affects me and so, fair or not, I’ll judge it on its merits in my opinion. There’s probably a deep psychological meaning behind that too.
And Spellbound is very good, especially when it gets going. The opening has been a little too successfully aped by Mel Brooks’ High Anxiety for me to be really swayed by it, sadly (High Anxiety by the way, is the opposite of Spellbound as it falters after a promising start). Opening with Ingrid Bergman analysing the neurotic, misanthropic Mary Carmichael (played with relish as a latter day Countess Dracula by Rhonda Fleming) we learn about Bergman’s emotionless professionalism and you just know that her icy exterior is long overdue for being thawed by the right man. At this point Gregory Peck enters the fray- it is a wonderful set-up, the only disappointment being that the on-screen chemistry between them doesn’t match that between her and Bogey or her and Cary Grant. Now, you can be churlish and criticise the idea of them falling in love in less time than it takes me to choose what socks to wear on a given day, but what’s the point? I just consider that you accept it and see where the movie takes you and- if it is a flop- use it as a stick to beat with later. And so the scene where Peck and Bergman first meet sees them both in close-up; her in soft-focus him depicted with the hard lines of a real man, Miklós Rózsa strikes up the string section and the whole thing is sorted in the minds of the audience. I would usually hate this but what I find forgivable about it- praiseworthy even- is that Hitchcock is simply getting the romantic interlude out of the way as efficiently as possible in order to get on with the thriller. The scene proceeds to do just that as a neurotic and agitated Peck- who has already been depicted as “much younger than I imagined” and being very vague on the subject of his most recently published book- overreacts furiously to Bergman drawing a picture by tracing her fork upon the table linen. There you go in one scene Bergman and Peck have fallen in love and Hitchcock has flattered the audience that they’re so smart knowing that he isn’t who he says he is. Brilliant.
The plot proceeds apace, frosty analyst turned giddy schoolgirl Bergman is enraptured by Peck (has anyone in celluloid history attempted to say the word ‘liverwurst’ seductively before?) and they kiss in his room. Now, I’m a little uncomfortable with one of Hitchcock’s conceits here- close-ups of his eyes and then her eyes are followed by a graphic of doors opening. It’s all just a little too literal, or is because of the intervening years? Have I been conditioned to demand more subtlety when that kind of pellucidity was precisely what contemporary audiences needed? I’ll let it slide.
Right, so it becomes clear that not only is Gregory Peck not Dr Edwardes (odd spelling that) but that he may even have murdered Dr Edwardes and taken his place. Peck disappears but leaves a note under Bergman’s door leading to a brilliant scene where several policemen and psychiatrists are standing just inside her doorway on the note which she can see but they haven’t yet noticed. The tension is maintained superbly for what seems like an age before Bergman is able to retrieve the note- unbearably it is handed to her by Dr Murchison (Leo G. Carroll)- and follow Peck to a hotel in New York. From there, in typical Hitchcock fashion, the chase is on. Peck and Bergman are always- by design or by good fortune- half a step ahead of the police as she tries to break through his psychological blockages and prove his undoubted innocence (“I couldn’t love a man who is capable of such crimes” she says, well that’s all there is to it then). At the same time Peck has no real belief in his innocence and while the audience can’t really believe he did it- he’s the hero for crying out loud- it is the most obvious and likely explanation for it all. And to amplify that doubt Hitchcock shows us flashes of Peck’s temper, frames him with a cut-throat razor and a zombie-like stare and casts doubt upon his story left, right and centre.
Bergman takes Peck to the home of her psychoanalytical mentor Dr Brulov (Michael Checkov, the best performer on show by a country mile) and while they wait for him to return with two strangers it becomes apparent that the men are policemen investigating the death of Edwardes. Trapped, unable to even communicate both are struck dumb with terror as the policemen chat affably throwing their unease into even sharper contrast- it is the best sequence of the film- and the tension continues until Dr Brulov returns. The policemen, it transpires, are unaware of Peck and Bergman’s supposed implication in the murder and are merely there to investigate the professional tension between Brulov and Edwardes which had almost escalated ino violence recently. Now this is really clever, if this was a whodunnit the smart money would be straight on Brulov- especially when it becomes clear that he knows far more about Peck and Bergman’s arrival than he had initially indicated. Seeing Peck with the razor Dr Brulov talks to him calmly and offers him a glass of milk. He’s drugged him- with milk! As if he was B.A. Baracus or something. Brilliant. “I ain’t getting on no psychoanalyst’s couch fool!”.
When Peck awakes, he recounts his dreams for the two Doctors to analyse and here we enter the most famous (and most unaccountably derided) sequence of the film- the Hitchcock/Dali dream sequence. Okay, so a four year old could analyse the ‘hidden’ meanings (whoever could the mysterious ‘Proprieter’ be?) it doesn’t matter- what is important is the beauty of the sequence and, most importantly of all, the sheer chutzpah of its inclusion. I’d defend this until my dying breath- if only more filmmakers had Hitchcock’s balls!
The climactic sequence of the film is filmed dramatically as Bergman desperately tries to undo her act of inadvertently convincing Peck and the policemen of his guilt- she is shown in stark monochrome uplit against dark backgrounds frenzied and hopeless. And then, when all hope is lost, the truth falls into her lap by chance. Agatha Christie once said “if you want to know who the murderer is in any crime novel, pick the most unlikely character. He did it” and that holds true here. Admittedly it isn’t the most unlikely person on screen, the fat cockney feller getting out of a lift in a brief cameo has absolutely no chance of reappearing, it is a convincing and plausible ending which gives Hitchcock an excuse for one last piece of bravura film-making, the big hand.
Oh it isn’t a perfect film, the ski-ing sequence (for example) is dreadfully executed and a lot of the great things here- especially the framing of Gregory Peck as a did-he didn’t-he murderer would be far better realised in Psycho but for the tension, for Rózsa’s great score (love that theremin work), for the brief-but-brilliant childhood memory sequence and for the breathless and intriguing narrative I loved it. 8/10