Thursday 21 November 2013

Spellbound (1945)

I am rather torn in my opinion on “Spellbound”. It is a cleverly orchestrated mystery thriller with excellent scenography and first class actors, but it is also based on a premise that is so incredibly far out that I just keep shaking my head. A lot more on that later.

The short of it is that I find myself liking a movie I do not like. No, that is not really the way to describe it. I was entertained and having a good time watching it despite that I could not buy its premise.

The film starts out on the psychiatric ward Green Manor. It is an isolated location in Vermont (the only region in The States I can honestly say that I know having spent an entire summer there) inhabited by doctors and patients. The mantra of this place is psycho-analysis.  I am not really sure if this practice is still in vogue but in the 40’ies this was the rage and Freud was the second coming. All mental problems originate in a childhood trauma (preferably a sexual one, though that is toned down in the film) and if you face that trauma you are basically cured. That is quite important for the story.

One of the doctors is Dr. Constance Petersen. She has her own issues. Apparently she is afraid of feelings and abhors the concept of love. Instead she dedicates herself to her science believing solely in logic. She is in other words the perfect positivist borne out a refusal to invest herself emotionally. That is also important. Oh, and she is the tall, blond and impeccable Ingrid Bergman.

Another of the doctors is Dr. Murchison (Leo G. Carroll). He is the head of the asylum but is about to be replaced by the younger Dr. Edwardes, a stranger to the asylum. Murchison is nice and grandfatherly and everybody is sad to see him go, but alas it is time for a new head of the Green Manor.

This new head is no other than Gregory Peck. This being very early in Peck’s career he is a strapping young man. From the moment we see him we just know that Dr. Edwardes and Dr. Petersen will be an item. This is my complaint number 1. The demure doctor and the new administrator are divinely beautiful people. Hmmm…

We have hardly been introduced to Dr. Edwardes before we see something is awfully wrong with him. In fact something is really weird. I know this is an asylum full of basket cases, but Dr. Edwardes is really scary. However, equipped with Gregory Peck’s masculine beauty and irresistible charm, he also manages to knock Dr. Petersen off her feet. It soon becomes clear, first to Dr. Petersen, but soon to the rest of the lot, that this guy is an imposter and the real Dr. Edwardes  is likely dead. Why would a man pretend to be a dead man if he had not killed him? The more we learn of the fake Dr. Edwardes the more dangerous he gets and any sane person would get away from him. But not Dr. Petersen. The queen of logic and science herself has thrown all her sense out the window and believe him innocent because… well, because she loves him. Oh, yes, that makes so perfect sense. Then he MUST be innocent. This is my complaint number 2. I just hate it when professionals in movies become very unprofessional and start carrying their head under their arm (not sure if you can even say that in English). Usually it is a policeman who gets emotionally involved and starts acting stupid, but this is a friggin doctor! And it is not for lack of warning. Everybody else can see that this is a potentially dangerous fellow and going around alone with him is not the best idea. Again and again we get confirmation that this is true. What else would you say about a man walking around in a trance with a razor in his hand and murder in his eyes?

Well, it so happens that he is innocent (and sane once he faced his trauma) and that extraordinary coincidences conspired to make him look guilty, hell, he himself thought he was guilty (I doubt I am spoiling anything by revealing this), but that is actually beside the point. The premise here is that he must be innocent because he is beautiful and charming and because Constance falls in love with him. Call me a stone-hearted heathen but I do not buy that premise. To me that makes him more dangerous than ever. Secondly, of all people is the queen of science and logic who reaches that incredible conclusion that the fake doctor killed nobody and is as harmless as a little lamb, he is just confused and need some help remembering. Is she friggin out of her mind?

Fine, let her analyze him and solve the mystery puzzle, but at least recognize that she may be wrong, that this man may be a psychotic murderer. There is an off-chance that the rest of the world is right.

Of course this is just as much a romantic love story as it is a thriller and in the name of romance people usually do get stupid, but that is also why I tend to dislike romantic films. From the view point of the romance I suppose all this makes perfect sense.

Years later Robert Ludlum would write “The Bourne Identity” with a strikingly similar plot. A man without memory believes he is a dangerous murderer and a woman helps him find out that he is in fact not because she believes in him. In that story I had no trouble buying the premise and I think it has something to do with the order of events, but also because Marie St. Jacques gets convinced by facts whereas Dr. Petersen remains convinced despite the facts.

If we for a moment forget the premise of the film and look at all the other things this film has to offer we are really getting spoiled. My favorite is the dream sequence. Instead of the usual blurry camera we get a sequence designed by Salvador Dali. I am a big fan of his stuff and this was totally Lynch 40 years before Lynch. Secondly we get an excellent score. It is haunting and romantic and fits the film perfectly. Miklós Rózsa got the films only Oscar for his music.

Finally, despite the phyco-analysis mumbo jumbo this is after all a Hitchcock film from his golden age. It is full of suspense and the timing is excellent. The sense of danger is very intense. That also means that the entertainment value is high.

No, I was not bored, I did enjoy the movie, but man, I did not buy the premise.


  1. I agree with you on all counts. This is among my least favorite Hitchcock films -- much too much Freud. And yet the Dali dream sequence is fantastic, the music is great, and in my book Ingrid Bergman can do no wrong.

  2. Yes, there are a number of thing here which do not add up very well. Even in the resolution, which is the stronger part of the film. If you think about how the villain arranged events you will notice some big gaping holes.

  3. This one is interesting, but it hinges on Freudian nonsense, so it's not as good as it could be. I'm exactly with you on this--the film is fun, but the fact that it's based on a bunch of garbage makes it difficult to take too seriously.

    1. Exactly. Not Hitchcocks finest hour, but it is Hitchcock's craftmanship that to some extend saves it.

  4. This film is a product of its time. Psychoanalysis was becoming big, but the general public would have still found it ridiculous, so having a woman who believes in it denying her emotions, but then realizing she needs to love, would have satisfied the majority of people's feelings at the time.

    By the way, in the Dali dream sequence did you catch the bit where the eye is cut like in Un Chien Andalou, which was also by Dali?

    Just a thought for you: I've seemed to notice a little less patience the last couple months with the cliches that seem to fill older films. I realize your goal is to go through the list as close to chronological order as you can, but maybe a "vacation" from that would be warranted. Maybe seeing some modern films, which would give you some greater complexity, would be a nice relief for a while. Then once you feel like it you could return to where you left off in the 1940s.

  5. I know movies in the romantic genre use this sort of contrast a lot and to me it is right down the tele-novella line. It is just not for me, though I understand why many would like it.
    The theme with a scientist should be right down your lane with your current theme. How Hollywood portrays the scientist and scientific work using stereotypes and cliché. And a woman scientist to boot.
    There were quite a few parallels between the dream sequence and Un Chien Andalou. In fact there was a lot of typical Dali stuff there. That was the best part of the movie.
    You know, I do actually watch quite a few modern films in between the List films, I just do not review it, and you know, it does not get better over the years. Compared to modern films classic Hollywood manage a lot more depth and character into the films and though I may be a bit harsh at times, trust me it would be same for modern films. There has been a lot of movies I liked in the past half year or so, also among those I have critizised. Murder My Sweet, Double Indemnity, The Battle of San Pietro, Laura, To Have and Have Not... I have enjoyed those more than most modern film I have been watching lately.