Women Make The Best Psychoanalysts, Until They Fall In Love: Spellbound (1945)

I enjoy doing blogathons, first because it proves a great way to extend my voice beyond the rather small crowd of readers hear at the blog and engage in dialogue with fellow film bloggers on great works of cinema.  The result is often a greater, of not completely new, understanding of a work, or awareness to a work I would never have come across prior.  Second, I also enjoy these blogathons, because, thus far, they have provided me wonderful opportunities to revisit some of my favorite films.  Michael and Jill's TCM Summer Under the Stars blogathon has already allowed me to re-watch the zany The Blob much to my elation.  This second post for the month, in correlation with TCM's day devoted to Gregory Peck afforded me a chance to revisit my favorite Hitchcock film Spellbound.  Considering that it has been some time since I had seen the film and have certainly been able to pad out my Hitchcock blind spots to varying degrees since, I can still say that this film is undoubtedly and unequivocally my favorite, indicative not only of the elements that have led to Hitchcock become the first definitive auteur, but also some of the ways in which Spellbound, a work decidedly entrenched within psychoanalytic narratives, manages to reject the subject matter and visual innuendos made ever so infamous by the late director.  I know that there are quantifiably better, indeed perfect, works by Hitchcock, but given that Hitchcock is clearly poking fun at himself affords this film a layer of detached irony that is less clear in his later works, not to mention the use of Ingrid Bergman, who also happens to be my favorite actress.  Pairing the great leading lady with the equally adept Gregory Peck results in a narrative that flows with intensity and earnestness that makes its winding deceit and dreamlike trance accessible.  Hitchcock wrote the texts on modern horror and thriller filmmaking and it is all on display to great effort in Spellbound, right down to the jarring last scenes in all their erie impossibility.  If all of this is not enough to sell the skeptics out there, may I remind you that Salvador Dali helped create the dream sequence for which this film is most well-known, and its very existence challenges even the most liberal understanding of cinematic possibility.

Spellbound focuses primarily on the experiences of Dr. Constance Peterson (Ingrid Bergman) a psychoanalyst, whose identification as a woman has proved both advantageous and hindering in her movement upward in the unconventional science.  The retirement of her boss and mentor Dr. Murchinson (Leo G. Carroll) proves quite troublesome, only to be extenuated by the immediate arrival of his replacement in Anthony Edwards (Gregory Peck) whose text on guilt and the labyrinth is a particular favorite of Constance's.  Hoping to stick to her guns and remain focused on her work, an initial dinner meeting between Constance and Anthony leads to obvious sexual tension that results in Constance finding herself creating excuses just to meet the new doctor, an encounter that assumedly leads to sex rather early.  It is during this meeting that Constance realizes that all might not be well with Anthony, particularly when he passes out after looking at the shadows of her robe, clearly breaking into some bizarre psychosis in the process.  The next day news comes of Antony Edwards not being alive and well, but dead after a murder, a picture affirming that he is in no way the person present in the psychiatric hospital.  Kowtowing to the suspicion, the false Anthony flees in fear, only to be followed by Constance to a hotel in New York, where it is revealed that the man, now going by John Brown, believes himself to somehow be tied to the murder of the real Anthony Edwards.  This allegation, Constance believes, is a result of mental deterioration and does not result in truth.  Committing to the act of helping John, whose last name is later revealed to be Ballentine, Constance helps the mentally troubled man discover that his fear of shadows and lines, comes from an unfortunate experience during skiing when he witness the real Edwards die inexplicably, a vision that opens up a repressed memory from his childhood involving a fatal accident with his brother.  Despite creating a rather clear psychoanalytic picture of Ballentine, Constance is stifled when authorities find a gun wound in the dead Edwards, to which neither have an explanation.  Despite Ballentine's being jailed, Constance continues her search for the truth, discovering that a little more than passing memories led to the death of Edwards and the psychological decay of Ballentine.  Indeed, foul play was afoot from the onset.

Let's talk about sex.  If this were any other film by Hitchcock, that would likely be the appropriate way to begin a critical analysis, and considering that this particular work makes it clear that it is pulling from the theories of Freud it would seem obvious to do just that, however, Spellbound may well be the least psychoanalytically inclined of his films.  Sure there are moments that would make even Freud blush, the fork and knife scene at the initial meeting between Ballentine and Constance being an obvious example, not to mention the surrealist touch with Dali's involvement.  Yet, none of this suggest a film where repressed memories are the result of wild navigations through the world, such as are the case in Vertigo, nor do the crimes take on a degree of sexual supplanting, as occurs in Dial M for Murder or Rope.  Beginning the film with a quote from Shakespeare, Hitchcock creates a film that centers the blame for crime and violence in the individual, further suggesting that their actions are not results of deeply entrenched psychological issues from one's youth, but a result of frivolous jealousy and assertions of lost masculine privilege.  For what may be the only time in Hitchcock's filmic career, a criminal act occurs, simply out of criminal intent.  That is not to say that the film does not extend on to explore psychological issues in other ways.  Take for example its look at the character of Constance, which is highly problematic by contemporary standards.  Considering that Hitchcock was quite invested in the world of the subconscious, his desire to degrade women is nothing new, except here it is particularly verbal and highly against their place in a career that would afford them authority.  Constance is played up to be good at her job, unless of course a dashing man enters the picture, at this point she loses all sense of rationality and is willing to forgive a man of murder (albeit correctly) on his word alone.  Guilt also figures prominently into the film, whether it be the falsified guilt of Ballentine early on or the very real guilt that faces the killer in the films next to last scene that involves one of the most haunting uses of point-of-view camera work in cinema to date, all adds up to the suggestion that what is ultimately the worst about murdering, or believing that one did so, is not the act, but the inability to get over doing so at a later time.  To be void of such guilt, would make one a Psycho...which is a discussion for a different blogathon.

Key Scene:  While I wanted to be unique and go against the obvious choice, one cannot help but adore that dream sequence designed by Dali.  It is the close a viewer will ever get to seeing what it would have looked like were Hitchcock to have worked in the era of German Expressionism and surrealism.

There are blurays of this available in multiple box sets, or individually.  There is also a Criterion DVD that is OOP, which is how I watched it, as such I will let you decide how to track this movie down, but I will note that it is worth doing so in the near future.  The movie is an absolute must see work.  As before I am grateful to Sittin' on a Backyard Fence and ScribeHard on Film for being able to participate in the TCM Summer Under the Stars blogathon.

1 comment:

  1. Travis,

    Spellbound is such an odd and fascinating movie. The Dali dream sequences are amazing. There are actually photos of Ingrid dressed as a goddess-like statue (possibly of Roman goddess Diana?) with a golden arrow choker on her neck. Apparently Dali had storyboarded many more sequences, but it was becoming very expensive and delaying the rest of production. Hitchcock was forced to use what he had and essentially fire Dali from the project. I don't know if they ever filmed this living statue sequence or there were just some photos.

    Anyway: great write-up. I love the point you make about the character being a competent doctor...until a handsome man comes into the picture. Sigh.

    Thanks again for contributing. Really appreciate it.