*/**** Image B Sound C+ Extras B
starring Ingrid Bergman, Gregory Peck, Michael Chekhov, Leo G. Carroll
screenplay by Ben Hecht, suggested by Francis Beeding's novel The House of Dr. Edwardes
directed by Alfred Hitchcock
by Walter Chaw It's tempting to give Hitchcock's Spellbound a pass because there's a good chance the whole thing was intended as either a childish, depressive prankster's most expensive prank or a passive-aggressive jab at Selznick (or, more than likely, both). Tempting, because like all of Hitchcock's films, its qualities are directly relatable to Hitch's own inconquerable peccadilloes. In a movie that's essentially about an individual's ability, or lack thereof, to banish his or her personal demons, Spellbound gets a little credit just for being so damned ironic for the fact of it. It's successful, in other words, if its intention was to be a disaster--a grenade offered up to a hated creative rival (Hitch would pretend the camera was broken whenever Selznick visited the set, only to have it spring back to life upon his departure) as a gambit to not only get closer to getting out of his seven-year contract with Selznick, but also provide celluloid testimony to the fact that, contract or not, he's nobody's bitch. It makes sense, too, to recruit Ben Hecht--he of Lifeboat and later Notorious, it's true, but of His Girl Friday and The Shop Around the Corner as well--to write a script packed to the gills with bad screwball and Catskills Freud bits, the better to put David O.'s much-ballyhooed therapy out there formulated to the motion picture frame. This is Hitchcock ridiculing his boss on the most conspicuous stage one could imagine and, here's the punchline, using that same boss's money to do so. Let's feel safe in surmising that when Hitch told Selznick he had the perfect idea for a movie about Selznick's new psychotherapy jones (brought on in part by his affair with Jennifer Jones, no doubt), he wasn't suddenly, spontaneously displaying compassion and the desire to collaborate with Selznick.
It opens in Green Manors sanatorium first with a Shakespeare quote, then with a long disclaimer, and finally with a man-hating nymphomaniac (Rhonda Fleming) scratching her orderly, slinking around a doorframe in honour of the only direction Hitch gave her on her day of shooting, and looking an awful lot like Jennifer Jones, to tell the truth. Opposite her, in the kind of photo-negative casting that would become one of Hitch's most enduring calling cards, is repressed Dr. Constance Peterson (Ingrid Bergman, who didn't want to do this film), introduced in glasses and a shapeless smock with a cigarette holder in one hand, held perfectly erect. Is it a joke? It's at least a joke. Up to and through one of her colleagues, Dr. Fleurot (John Emery), brazenly harassing her by stealing a long kiss before calling her a cold fish (embracing her is like embracing a textbook, he charms), Constance is the woman held in severe reserve, while her patient is the woman in the wild. It's a dynamic Hitchcock plays to wonderful effect in The Birds; here, he's merely taking a piss on it. Dr. Fleurot, incidentally, is the source of the film's best visual joke when he's positioned twice as a priapic prick, standing up between two sets of balls (his colleagues) as Constance returns from a windswept picnic with new Green Manors head Dr. Edwardes (Gregory Peck). And about that constantly-blowing wind, the Byronic leaves--can we consider them backhands at Selznick's melodramatic, windswept epics? Can we take it as a joke that Constance has prefigured the "legs" picnic from To Catch a Thief (and a draft of Notorious) with a rapturous Bergman sexing her lips around the word "liverwurst"? Hitchcock attempting satire reveals Hitchcock as something of a douchebag; a quick survey of the on-set pranks he thought were funny confirms that as senses of humour went, his was more aligned with the Marquis de Sade. Hitchcock as a satirist reveals Hitchcock as something of a douchebag. Look at the first kiss between Edwardes and Constance, the dissolve held mid-dissolve while Hitch opens not one, not two, not three, but four doors representing Constance's frigidity thawing beneath the stiff, deeply-not-sexy attention of bug-eyed Edwardes.1
Ridiculous and earnest here, a pre-stardom Peck expressed a desire and a need to be coached in his role, but Hitchcock remained distant towards the actor. It's speculated that he did this because he felt burned by his vetoed choice of Joseph Cotten for Peck's role. That's surely part of it, but better to think that Hitch, like he would with Rod Taylor in The Birds, saw the opportunity to use his leading man's essential vacuity to his advantage. Every moment Peck's Edwardes (later revealed to be amnesiac "John Ballantyne") goes into hysterics is a hilarious example of an overmatched actor doing his best to play the hell out of a neurotic episode. (If Spellbound is ever remade, only Nicolas Cage could capture the spirit of Peck's performance.) If Spellbound is a slap in the face to Selznick, the show Hitch coaxes out of Peck is a pretty stinging one. When he goes after Selznick again in North by Northwest, it's interesting to note that he's not just "getting" the producer at that point, he's getting the mass audience the producer managed to gather for lesser entertainments, too--including, irony again, this one. By the end of the fifties, and after the popular failure of Vertigo, Selznick would become, in Hitchcock's mind, irreducible from throngs of the moronic massing before empty light and mega-stars. I believe that Hitch believed that Spellbound would be an abominable failure--or, at the least, seen for what it was: something of a deliberate sandbag. That it wasn't led to his refusal to say much about the picture, to Truffaut or anyone else, handily defeating any serious critical treatment of it (William Adams's Hecht biography devotes one sentence to it; even Lesley Brill's The Hitchcock Romance only dedicates a third of one chapter to it, and then just to talk about how fake it all seems) and thus gaining victory in the end by essentially burying the damned thing in favour of another article on Notorious.
Dr. Edwardes, it seems, is actually damaged war vet John, suffering from the malady that dare not speak its name: shell shock--though not from his time in Europe, fighting back the Hun (or in the Pacific, the Japs), but rather from a childhood incident in which he pushed his younger brother--accidentally, we think--into the sharpened poles of their yard's fence. He's lost his memory and his identity, and in his fog of confusion he's somehow convinced enough people that he's a noted psychoanalyst placed in charge of a prestigious medical madhouse. The ridiculousness of the premise (and its conclusion, in which a madman is talked out of murder because it would mean the electric chair, only to have that madman immediately kill himself) speaks volumes about Hitchcock's relationship with this material. Although his work is never about reality per se, consider that the next time he allows a boner this size is when he tries to kill Cary Grant with a cropduster in North by Northwest. Soon discovered (through no erudition of the psychological staff, I should clarify), John flees, with Constance in hot pursuit. She's determined to be his doctor, then his lover, in a relationship played completely straight despite its ethical and practical impossibilities.2 They eventually end up, after a couple of flat and badly-played comic bedroom imbroglios (it's no wonder Spellbound was never identified as a comedy), at the home of Constance's old mentor Brulov (Michael Chekhov, nephew of that Chekhov), who acts like something of a cross between Freud and a community-theatre Einstein and instantly diagnoses Constance's mysterious new "husband" as a delusional, probably dangerous psychopath. Accordingly, Brulov gives John a "horse's dose" of bromide in another glass of Hitch's poisoned (mother's?) milk in one of the film's virtuosos trick shots, though not before Hitch has a good time placing a giant straight razor in extreme foreground, prefiguring a film full of bad jokes' worst joke with Brulov slumped in an armchair. Oy vey.
It also prefigures the celebrated Salvador Dali-designed dream sequence that was hacked to bits, truncated from the original plan (including a part where Bergman devolves into a marble statue in a reverse-Pygmalion that would've been right up Hitchcock's alley), and presented as frankly and briefly as possible. It's a sequence that looks kind of interesting in a Dali-fetishist way, I suppose, but it was directed by an uncredited (by his wishes) William Cameron Menzies and scored, with Theremin, by Miklós Rózsa, meaning that the most interesting thing about the sequence is really that Invaders from Mars probably owes a significant portion of its style to it. As Hitchcock dream sequences go, Vertigo's is the high-water mark--this one is mainly a curiosity for Dali's involvement, which is, after all, what Selznick intended all along. One could make something of the eyeballs in it, but the desperation to relate it to Hitchcock's fascination with "seeing" is as misguided and fruitless, in the final analysis, as wanting it to relate it to Dali's collaboration with Buñuel on Un chien andalou. It is, at the end, as silly as everything else in Spellbound--no points for trying to suggest that people were a lot stupider in 1945. It's that sort of temporal fallacy that dooms useful assessments of minor--though Spellbound feels more petty than minor--works by great artists than anything else: If it doesn't play, why does it get a pass when things like Vertigo, Psycho, and The Birds still play like a sonuvabitch? When Hitch and Hecht ultimately dissect any life there was in the dream sequence for exactly the type of stolid exposition Hitch would define as a "MacGuffin" in his later years, it's an act of contempt for psychoanalysis--indeed, for the very premise of the film--and less a harbinger of things to come than a film-long declaration, punctuated by two Technicolor-red frames and a fake giant hand and gun fired at the audience, that Hitch trusted us to not be taken in by so spurious a pursuit. He wouldn't make that mistake again. Simon Oakland's psychobabble to close Psycho is delivered as cudgel; North by Northwest is probably his bitterest pill; and his next film, Notorious, is justifiably identified to be the first in the director's masterpiece period. Spellbound is the moment the audience loses Hitchcock as a conspirator--he won't stop trying to fuck us until the olive branch of Family Plot in thirty years' time. I don't agree with her much, but Pauline Kael was right about this one.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Spellbound lands on Blu-ray from MGM in another laudable 1080p transfer in the film's proper aspect ratio of 1.37:1. Lines run down the image during the badly scuffed-up opening credits (they resurface infrequently thereafter, as in a medium close-up of Bergman 39 minutes into the picture) but contrast is sharp--the chiaroscuro lighting scheme gains steam here in the American cinema with the parallel development of noir as a visual genre--and detail is fine. The shadows when Constance first sees John, for instance, falling across her fine milkmaid features, are soft and true, while a goodly amount of grain affirms fidelity to the source. "Soft" of course is the rule of the day--not the transfer's fault, but the way Hitch thinks it's funny to make this into a Selznick potboiler. (Amusingly, Selznick circulated a memo complaining of the photography's gauziness.) Meanwhile, HD allows Hitchcock to paint horizontal stripes across the players without a hint of moiré. There's some minor blooming, and the ski rear-projection sequence runs a little hot, but overall, it's a decent upgrade to the previous MGM and Criterion DVD releases; if you're looking for the red flash at the end, well, sure enough, it's red. As with the studio's concurrent Hitchcock BDs, the 2.0 (mono) DTS-HD MA track is prone to a slight echo now and again. Rózsa's overheated score is rendered well, for what that's worth.
The special features from MGM's "Premiere Collection" disc are ported over without embellishment, although Criterion's extras sadly remain in limbo. Start with a fine commentary by Thomas Schatz and Charles Ramirez Berg that pores over the basics of the picture's backstory through to the giant gag hand with a minimum of fluff. I appreciated how the two deferred to one another, and despite the standard apologias given for the mustiness of the psychoanalysis aspect of it, as yakkers go you could do worse. "Guilt by Association: Psychoanalyzing Spellbound" (20 mins., SD) is more a conversation about the subject of PTSD in 1945, gathering a few critics and a lady shrink (nice touch) to chat about the phenomenon, to make the specious relationship of that to the film, and to suggest that Hitchcock was remotely interested in making a movie that was anything like John Huston's instantly-banned Let There Be Light. Even less germane is "A Cinderella Story: Rhonda Fleming" (10 mins., SD), in which the once-starlet tells her not-interesting story about how she was discovered by some miserable old letch whilst standing on the street, flown out to Hollywood to be leered at by other old men, and ultimately cast in a few walk-on parts in well-remembered films. "Dreaming with Scissors: Hitchcock, Surrealism, and Salvador Dali" (19 mins., SD) touches on the artist's involvement with Spellbound, although it remains unclear whether he was brought on board during pre-production or if Hecht and Hitch forced him on Selznick midstream. A minor source of contention, I grant you. Criterion had a much better bit on all this, including a detailed breakdown of how a 22-minute set-piece became a 2-minute one. A 1949 Lux Radio Adaptation (60 mins.) finds Joseph Cotten (showing again that he was the most under-utilized actor of this period) performing with Alida Valli (showing how she wasn't) over a black screen, and an audio interview with Hitch conducted by Peter Bogdanovich (15 mins.) only offers what Bogdanovich's interviews with Hitchcock ever offer. There's misleading stuff concerning Hitch's involvement with the dream sequence in addition to some fun, Herzogian stuff about eggs. A theatrical trailer (in standard def) rounds out the so-so platter. Originally published: February 28, 2012.
1. It's my theory that the fourth door is her vagina. return
2. Hitch returns to this skewed power dynamic in Marnie. Gender roles are reversed, of course, but in Marnie this means rape, attempted suicide, catatonia, sexual blackmail, and one of the bleaker views of marriage in non-Swedish cinema. return
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