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Spellbound: The Criterion Collection

Starring Ingrid Bergman, Gregory Peck and Leo G. Carroll

Written by Ben Hecht, with Angus MacPhail,
from the novel, The House of Dr. Edwardes by Francis Beeding (Hilary St. George Saunders and John Palmer)

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

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Review by D.K. Holm                    

Alfred Hitchcock's Spellbound (1945) has taken quite a beating over the years. The film is generally ridiculed for its lush and overwrought style. Hitchcock and Trufaut in their interview book collaborate in blithely dismissing it. Robin Wood dedicates only a paragraph to the movie in the first version of his book on Hitchcock. There is no BFI critical study dedicated solely to the film.

And yet. And yet. For many viewers, there is still something compelling about Spellbound.

For one thing, the world has changed around the film. What once may have struck the viewer as over-done now looks almost calm and classical in its style. That's because the least of Hitchcock's films, and those of his contemporaries, are so much better in comparison to "the most" of current directors.

For another thing, Spellbound interestingly anticipates aspects of several later Hitchcock works. Here are the roots of Marnie's paralyzing moments evoked by suffusions of patterns and colors, as well as that film's sexual repression. Here, too, is Psycho's stuttering misdirection and easy-answer-for-everything concluding analysis. And the film also anticipates Vertigo's tale of the dramatic make-over and playing a part. (On another level the film also anticipates the "leg or breast" scene in To Catch a Thief with Bergman's romantically vocalized choice of a "liverwurst" sandwich while on a picnic.)

*          *          *

The film's story probably is well known: Psychiatrists at the Green Manors asylum in Vermont are anticipating the arrival of Dr. Anthony Edwardes (Gregory Peck), who is destined to replace retiring head Dr. Murchison (Leo G. Carroll). After the slightly odd doctor arrives, he surprisingly forms a bond with the normally chilly Dr. Constance Petersen (as the name is spelled on the box and in the subtitles, though it has also been spelled Peterson in some reference books), played by the star, Ingrid Bergman.

Soon it comes to pass that the real Dr. Edwards has been murdered, and possibly by his replacement, who is an amnesiac unable to remember his own name (John Ballantyne). Soon the lovers are on the run, and Constance attempts to psychoanalyze the truth out of her patient-turned-lover, later with the help of her own mentor, Dr. Alex Brulof (Michael Chekhof). In the end, thanks to the love of a good woman and adherance to the articles of Freudianism, the man is cured and the mystery is solved.

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Out of this steaming brew of medical witchcraft and dime store romance, Hitchcock has managed to concoct something interesting if not entirely successful. Bristling under the yoke of producer David O. Selznick (the O stands for 'nothing," as we learn from North by Northwest), Hitchcock basically threw out Spellbound's source novel, The House of Dr. Edwardes, revised the evolving script with a succession of handlers culminating with Ben Hecht. Their strategies included tricking up the proceedings by inserted surrealistic "dream" images by Salvador Dali (later themselves revised and reshot by William Cameron Menzies).

As Thomas Hyde explained in one of the few sympathetic critical studies of the film, "The Moral Universe of Hitchcock's Spellbound" (Cinemonkey magazine, No. 15, fall, 1978, pages 30 - 34, reprinted in The Hitchcock Reader), the picture is much more complicated than it first appears. There is a critique of Constance within the film while still privileging her as the central character. For Hyde, the film posits a conflict between intellectualism and emotions. Without a balance of both, Constance would neither solve the crime nor make necessary changes in her own life. For Hyde the film is about "the deception of appearances, the untrustworthiness of authority, the nature of guilt and sin, and the moral responsibility of human involvement."

If Spellbound is subject to criticism, it is because the tale embraces the quakery of psychoanalysis. As Hyde shows, the film is also implicitly critical of psychoanalysis, which was taking Hollywood by storm, and leading to numerous movies set in madhouses, such as The Snake Pit. But giving any credence to the principles of Freudianism is risky, as the valiant work of Frederick Crews has shown, and Hitchcock is fascinated but also suspicious of the fad. Spellbound's psychoanalysis is a blend of absurd witch-doctor mumbo jumbo and common sense. Unfortunately, almost all literary criticism, some sociology, a lot of anthropology, and way too much film chat is bent to the precepts of what Nabokov called Greek myths applied to private parts. Because it is explicitly about psychoanalysis, the film offers the perfect chance to wallow in the bizarre conjuring of the system. Strangely, few modern critics have taken up the film as a key "text."

That is probably because on the surface Spellbound seems so ridiculous. Take the moment when Constance first kisses the man she believes is Dr. Edwardes, who has inspired groupie-like feelings in her. As they embrace, Hitchcock shows us the heavy symbols of doors upon doors (of perception? of her mind?) opening. Yes, this may seem ludicrous and obvious at first, but given how carefully Hithcock has woven the importance of doors throughout the film, both visually and verbally. Doors are first mentioned in the written prologue, and figure in every important scene, culminating in Constance's nervous exit after confronting the real killer. The kissing-doors moment appears less ludicrous and much more in line with the careful strategy of recurrent images to buttress the sub-plot free story.

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Still, it's possible to say that the DVD bearing Spellbound is more important than the movie itself. Numbered 136 in the Criterion Collection, it arrives well out of order (the discs are already up to the 160s), and was obviously meant to be paired with Rebecca (given that Criterion likes to release its director showcase films in pairs). The disc comes with nearly everything that those few fans of the film could want.

The single-sided, dual layered DVD starts off with a fine transfer of the black-and-white full-frame (1.33:1) image, what the packaging describes as "digitally transferred from a new 35mm internegative made from a combination of the Academy Film Archives 35mm nitrate print and David O. Selznicks's 35mm acetate print." Sound elements, though DD mono, also come from the same source elements, and include the restored "entrance" and "exit" music provided by the film's composer, Miklos Rozsa. There are English subtitles.

Interpretive support is offered first off by Marian Keane in an audio commentary track. Keane is Assistant Professor of Film Studies at the University of Colorado, Boulder, who has also done tracks for The 39 Steps and Sturges's The Lady Eve. Here she has the thankless task of defending an obviously flawed movie that others view as the height of romantic Hollywood brainlessness. Unfortunately, she does so from the bankrupt edifice of modernism rather than the aesthetic position of classical standards, so beautifully realized in the film. Neverthless, she scrutinizes the film with care and is very good at tracing themes and visual motifs. Her audio essay is the only other positive account of the film besides Hyde's, mentioned above.

Also on hand is "A Nightmare Ordered by Telephone," a blend of essay, footage, and photographs by actor and writer James Bigwood, focusing solely on the dream sequence in Spellbound. This extensive, detailed account offers up as much as you could ever want to know about this aspect of the film, with rare images of Dali at work, his original paintings (some in color), and images from deleted parts of the sequence that took place in a ballroom, with Bergman in some weird form of S&M-collared gown. Bergman, so often the source of misinformation about the films she is in (note how she confused matters relating to Casablanca), remembers the dream sequence as originally being 20 minutes long, but Bigwood convinces us that really only a minute of the sequence was cut. What's more important is that Selznick hired William Cameron Menzies to come in and reshoot most of the sequence. In the end, Hitchcock had little impact on the finished dream sequence.

Next up is an interview with Rozsa conducted by author Rudy Behlmer for a celebratory record in the '70s. It lasts about 28 minutes and covers not only how Rozsa came to write the score, but also discusses The Lost Weekend and other films in which he used the theremin, the Soviet manufactured "modern" string-sounding electronic instrument usually used for sci-fi films. Linked to this is a seven-minute public radio piece on the theremin, done for WNYC's The Fishko Files. Finally there are a few screens of bibliograpical resources for further study of the theremin.

As is also customary with Criterion, the disc offers the radio performance version of the film. This one is from Lux Radio Theatre's adaptation in 1948, starring Joseph Cotten, who was Hitchcock's original choice for the John Ballantyne role, and Alida Vali, who starred in Hitchcock's The Paradine Case, with Gregory Peck.

There is a suite of production letters, divided into seven categories, and an extensive production stills gallery offered in four sections.

Finally, there is the theatrical trailer, which is rather scratchy, and a 20-page production notes booklet with highly informative essays by Hitchcock experts Leonard Leff, who focuses on the relationship between Hitchcock and Selznick and the film's production history, and Lesley Brill, who concentrates on psychoanalysis and film.

— D.K. Holm

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