Spellbound purports to be one of the first movies to take psychoanalysis seriously. Indeed, this 1945 Alfred Hitchcock entry opens by telling us about the benefits of the practice and how psychoanalysis can drive the “devils of unreason” from an otherwise unhinged mind. Problematically, it presents psychoanalysis as a cure rather than a process.
As a piece of cinema, Spellbound is primarily known for the inclusion of surrealist artist Salvador Dali. Hitch brought Dali in to put together some dream sequences, having been fond of his visual style and sharp sense of imagery. But Dali’s plans ran afoul of producer David O. Selznick and were cut down considerably; Ingrid Bergman claims that a 20-minute sequence was initially planned prior to Selznick’s imposition.
Bergman is Dr. Constance Peterson, a psychoanalyst at a Vermont mental hospital and the only woman on staff. The hospital’s director, Dr. Murchison (Leo G. Carroll), is forced into retirement and his replacement appears to be the young Dr. Anthony Edwardes (Gregory Peck). The new head of the facility appears to have some issues and raises some questions of his staff, however, and it turns out that he may not be as advertised.
This plunges Peterson and Edwardes into a complex relationship, one highlighted by issues of identity and repressed memories. Something is locked behind the doors of Edwardes’ mind and Peterson is insistent on dragging these recollections into the light of day, even if it means being chased by police and risking her career.
If there’s anything Spellbound suffers from, it’s a case of too many shrinks inside the patient’s head. The germ of the idea came from Hitchcock and Angus MacPhail, who the director had worked with early on in his career. “He had been one of those young Cambridge intellectuals who had taken an interest in the early days,” Hitchcock said. “I first met him on the set of The Lodger, when we were both working for Gaumont-British.”
From the clutches of Hitch and MacPhail, the idea for Spellbound moved from the ground of the novel it was based on (The House of Dr. Edwardes by Hilary Saint George Saunders and Francis Beeding) to writer Ben Hecht’s sounder hand. Hecht’s approach puts things on an even keel, but the trappings of other on-set personalities like Selznick’s shrink overcrowds things.
As such, Spellbound never really takes off. It remains, like other Hitchcock also-rans, an instance of too many concepts and too little focus. It becomes, as the filmmaker would confess, “just another manhunt story wrapped up in pseudo-psychoanalysis.” While the idea of dipping into bottled-up memories to find the truth about a crime seems heady, the concept gets lost in the shuffle.
The Dali sequence is wondrous, of course. It is a visual feast and it speaks the language of dreams and memories, with lots of the artist’s signature motifs peppering the environment. Hitchcock had initially intended on having about four dream sequences in the picture, but you and I have to settle for the four minutes that remain.
There are the usual Hitchcock touches spread throughout Spellbound, including the classic theme of the innocent man pursued by forces beyond his understanding. It’s also notable for featuring a tremendous performance from Bergman, one based on the instant camaraderie between the director and star that drove its way into a terrific working relationship.
Unfortunately, her chemistry with Peck is lacking. He is possibly too straight for the role and it’s hard to take him seriously as a man with “problems” that could be solved by psychoanalysis. Peck is stiff and overly detached for a character weighed down by such psychotic burdens, so it’s hard to invent attraction for such a non-Hitchcockian personality.
Spellbound marks Hitch’s return to America after the war panic pictures with a more internalized vision, but the film unfortunately falls under the spell of his continued clashes with the Hollywood way of things. It’s not a bad movie by most standards, but by the standards of the Master of Suspense this just isn’t one of his strongest outings.