Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Screenplay: Ben Hecht (inspired by the novel The House Of Dr. Edwardes by Francis Beeding, adaptation by Angus MacPhail)
Stars: Ingrid Bergman (Dr. Constance Peterson), Gregory Peck (John Ballantine), Michael Chekhov (Dr. Alex Brulov), Leo G. Carroll (Dr. Murchison), John Emery (Dr. Fleurot), Steven Geray (Dr. Graff), Paul Harvey (Dr. Hanish), Donald Curtis (Harry), Rhonda Fleming (Mary Carmichael), Norman Lloyd (Mr. Garmes)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1945
Country: USA
Spellbound DVD Cover

Despite getting good reviews and several Oscar nominations when it was first released in 1945, in the long run, Alfred Hitchcock's Spellbound, the second of four films he would make with powerful independent producer David O. Selznick, has gotten a pretty bad rap. Consider that, in the lengthy, book-length interviews François Truffaut conducted with Hitchcock, the section on Spellbound takes up less than two and a half pages, and Truffaut proclaims that he found the film to be "something of a disappointment." In Robin Wood's canonical study Hitchcock's Films Revisited, he also devotes a scant few pages to the film, most of which are in relation to its star, Ingrid Bergman (who, it should also be added, has been quoted as saying that she doesn't think it "is a particularly good movie"). And Pauline Kael declared that, despite its intriguing ideas, "Spellbound is a disaster."

Spellbound thus takes its place as one of Hitchcock's most underrated efforts, one that has generally been written off as a failed experimental work, the good parts of which were worked out more satisfactorily in films such as Vertigo (1958) or even Marnie (1964). This is not to say that Spellbound is an unsung masterpiece; it is, quite frankly, a flawed film. However, it is still an important work in both Hitchcock's oeuvre and cinema in general because, not in spite of, its experimental nature. In it, Hitchcock was expanding on his thematic preoccupations, playing with notions of the fantastical, and attempting to incorporate an important cultural revolution—in this case, the use of psychoanalysis—into his work. Although virtually all of his films fall conveniently under the generic label "thriller," Hitchcock was always trying to do something different.

One of the reasons Spellbound has been looked down on critically is because the narrative is, even more so than most of Hitchcock's films, terribly convoluted and not particularly convincing. It plays with many of Hitchcock's favorite narrative devices, particularly the falsely accused man on the run, but its attempt to intertwine a suspense narrative with psychoanalysis so that the two feed off each other ultimately turns out to be awkward and too often forced, leading to overworked explanations that simply don't ring true.

The story, which was vaguely inspired by a 1927 pulp-Gothic novel called The House of Dr. Edwardes, opens in a mental institution. The main character is a cool, scholarly analyst named Constance Peterson (Ingrid Bergman, in the first of three starring roles in Hitchcock films). Constance is book-smart and experience deprived, confident that everything she needs to know can be found on the page.

Constance's icy and starched demeanor melts when the new head of the institution arrives, a handsome young man named Dr. Edwardes (Gregory Peck, then a rising star under contract to Selznick). It is love at first sight, but such romances are never without their complications, and in this case it is eventually revealed that Dr. Edwardes is not who he says he is, and he may be responsible for someone's murder. However, for the first time in her life, Constance goes on her feelings, rather than her intellect, convinced that the man she loves is innocent and suffering from a deep-seated guilt complex that she can help him to overcome. The second half of the film follows them as they run from the authorities, eventually taking refuge with Constance's aging but still wily mentor, Dr. Brulov (Michael Chekhov).

Because psychoanalytic film theory has been one of the favorite tools to unlock the secret subtexts of Hitchcock's large body of work, it is only appropriate that he was one of the first filmmakers to explore psychoanalysis as a subject in one of his films. Although it is a conventional romantic suspense-thriller in many ways, Spellbound is really about psychoanalysis, which was first gaining widespread recognition as a legitimate form of psychiatric therapy in the 1940s. Therefore, Spellbound was ahead of its time, although its primary discovery is that psychoanalysis is more interesting as a way to study films, rather than as the subject of one.

The most obvious problem is that psychoanalysis is, by its very nature, talky and drawn-out. And, therefore, Spellbound is an incessantly talky film, with every significant action being explained in long-winded speeches about guilt and repression. It's like having the last five minutes of Psycho (1960) spread out across an entire movie. Screenwriter Ben Hecht, who also penned Hitchcock's next film, the superior espionage thriller Notorious (1946), was fascinated by psychoanalysis, and his enthusiasm for it caused him to overplay his hand, leading him to use it to explain everything, no matter how forced.

Hitchcock noted, in his interview with Truffaut, that "the whole thing's too complicated, and I found the explanations toward the end very confusing." In fact, I would argue it's the other way around: The explanation at the end is far too tidy and unconvincing in the way it boils everything down to a moment of confrontation on a ski slope in which Peck's character relives a repressed past experience and suddenly everything comes together. Granted, there is a further complication after that, which eventually leads to Constance unmasking the true murderer, but even that is coyly explained in psychoanalytic terms, thus pointing up the primary flaw in psychoanalysis itself: its assurance that everything in the human mind can eventually be explained within a limited set of terms based almost entirely on theoretical conjecture.

There are several stunning setpieces in Spellbound, however, and it contains some rich visual imagery. The most famous, of course, is the "dream sequence" in which Peck's character relates a dream he has had, which is then visualized on-screen in a florid combination of paintings, set design, and optical effects based on paintings by famed surrealist artist Salvador Dalí (although it was Hitchcock's idea to hire Dalí, the sequence itself was eventually storyboarded and directed mostly by William Cameron Menzies, best known as the production designer for Gone With the Wind). Although the dream itself is used rather laboriously to explain every facet of the murder mystery, it is a compelling bit of visual cinema that overwhelms us during its brief duration.

While its imagery is often impressive, the film's chief strength is in Ingrid Bergman and her performance as Constance. Like her character in Notorious, Constance is the true hero of the film, a strong, independent woman who isn't afraid to assert her values and beliefs. On the surface, it would appear that her intellect and steely demeanor soften once she falls in love with Peck's character (the sexist old adage that all a professional woman needs is a real man to bring her back to femininity), but it's important to realize that it is Bergman's character who is constantly helping Peck's, not the other way around, and it is she who is eventually responsible for solving the film's mystery. Bergman plays Constance with a combination of determination and a deep-seated urge to protect, two characteristics that make her one of the strongest female characters in all of Hitchcock's films.

Spellbound Criterion Collection Special Edition DVD

Aspect Ratio 1.33:1
Subtitles English
DistributorThe Criterion Collection / Home Vision
Release DateSeptember 24, 2002

1.33:1 (Academy Aspect Ratio)
As with their release of the restored Notorious earlier this year, Criterion has made Spellbound look virtually pristine. Transferred from the best possible elements available, in this case a new internegative struck from a combination of the Academy Film Archive's 35mm nitrate print and David O. Selznick's personal 35mm acetate print, the film positively glows. The blacks are deep and rich, whites are flawless, and the image boasts a fine gradation of grays that give it depth and fine detail. There are virtually no artifacts to be found save a few tiny vertical hairlines, and the image maintains a hint of grain that gives it an appropriately filmlike appearance. Simply beautiful.

English Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural
The one-channel Dolby Digital soundtrack was mastered from the Academy Film Archive's 35mm nitrate print. The result is generally clean and quite rich-sounding, although there is some mild ambient hiss from time to time. Miklos Rozsa's Oscar-winning score sounds appropriately lush, with the vivid use of the theremin hitting just the right pitches. This disc also contains an added bonus: the inclusion of long-lost entrance and exit music discovered and restored by preservationist Scott MacQueen (this is the first time it has ever been available on video, and probably the first time it has been heard since the film's initial big-city theatrical run in 1945).

Audio commentary by Marian Keane
Fans of Criterion's releases of Hitchcock films are no doubt very familiar with scholar Marian Keane, who has also contributed tracks to their DVD releases of The 39 Steps and Notorious. Keane offers a close textual reading of the film and also includes contextual and historical information to put it properly in its place. Her commentary is informative and worth a listen, especially as her tendency to use psychoanalytic explanations for Hitchcock's work seem particularly appropriate here.

Production Correspondence
This extensive section contains seven sections of text-based reproductions of important correspondence written and circulated during the film's production. This is the kind of stuff that true Hitchcock completists will enjoy, as much of it would be impossible to see without travelling to various archives. Summary of Breeding's Novel The House Of Dr. Edwardes was prepared for producer David O. Selznick in 1944. It illustrates very well just how far the film's narrative departed from its source material. Treatments offers us a glimpse of how the narrative evolved through four different treatments, two by initial Hitchcock collaborator Angus MacPhail and two by eventual screenwriter Ben Hecht. Dr. May E. Romm, Psychiatric Advisor contains a plethora of letters to Selznick from the film's psychiatric technical advisor critiquing its sometimes faulty treatment of psychoanalysis. Foreword contains fives proposed prefaces for the film, all of which are absurdly lengthy, but fascinating in the way they illustrate how analysts were attempting to "sell" their practice as legitimate at a time when many were still suspicious of it. Production Code contains two letters from Production Code Administration head Joseph Breen regarding changes to the script required in order to meet PCA standards. And, finally, Audience Feedback includes various letters written in response to the film, mostly from psychoanalysts.

Stills Gallery
There are five separate galleries included here. Promotion contains 23 reproductions of newspaper ads, U.S. and international poster art, lobby cards, and photos of billboard advertising and the theaters in which the film was released. Publicity includes 29 black-and-white publicity stills and biographical information about many of the actors. Behind the Scenes is the largest section, filled with more than 75 black-and-white behind-the-scenes shots of both the film's production and the recording of the 1948 Lux Radio Theater adaptation. Finally, Set Stills includes 35 black-and-white photographs of virtually every set used in the film.

"A Nightmare Ordered by Telephone" multimedia essay
Probably the most intriguing aspect of Spellbound is the infamous dream sequence. It is fascinating not only because of what wound up on screen, but because of what didn't make it into the final cut and the various ruminations about who was ultimately responsible for how it turned out. Film producer and author James Bigwood offers this incisive and well-researched multimedia essay on how the dream sequence came to be. The essay is well-written and very informative, and it includes a host of extremely rare behind-the-scenes photographs of the production (including images of the "ballroom sequence" that was cut and subsequently lost), storyboards, and full-color conceptual sketches and paintings by Salvador Dalí. For comparison's sake, two clips are included from the 1929 surrealistic masterpiece Un chien andalou, codirected by Dalí and Luis Buñuel, which had an obvious influence on his designs for Spellbound.

The Theremin
This section starts off with a lengthy audio Interview With Miklos Rozsa, the film's composer, which was recorded in 1974 (divided into five chapters). Also included is The Fishko Files: The Theremin, a seven-minute piece created for New York public radio about the interesting history of the theremin. Finally, the text-based From the Ether: Theremin Resources lists a host of books, albums, and web sites dedicated to the instrument.

Original theatrical trailer
Presented windowboxed in its original Academy aspect ratio (1.33:1).

Complete 1948 Lux Radio Theater adaptation
This is the complete broadcast starring Gilda Valli and Joseph Cotten, including commercials and the intermission, divided into 10 chapters.

Insert booklet containing essays by Leonard Leff and Lesley Brill
Both of these essays are worth a careful read. Leff, the author of Hitchcock and Selznick, offers a condensed, but invaluable production history of the film, while Brill, author of The Hitchcock Romance, gives us a passionate defense of the film's merits.

Copyright © 2002 James Kendrick

Overall Rating: (2.5)

James Kendrick

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