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Film Friday: Alfred Hitchcock's 'Spellbound' with Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck

By Daniel S Levine,
Alfred Hitchcock Month Week 1
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On Halloween 1945, Alfred Hitchcock's latest film Spellbound had its premiere. While Gone With The Wind producer David O. Selznick had brought Hitchcock to Hollywood for 1940's Rebecca, Spellbound was just the second film Hitchcock made for him. It's an audacious film, hitting psychoanalysis in a way few films had before or since. It has a script from the legendary Ben Hecht, a typically stunning performance from Ingrid Bergman and a dream sequence designed by the amazing Salvador Dali. But despite all that talent, the film isn't considered one of Hitchcock's best.

Spellbound is based on Francis Beeding's The House of Dr. Edwardes and begins with Dr. Edwardes, played by a young Gregory Peck, being introduced as the new head of the asylum Dr. Constance Peterson (Bergman) works at. Constance is dedicated to her work and has no time for men in her life, ignoring the advances of one of her co-workers. That changes when Edwardes comes around, but she slowly discovers that he's not what he says. In reality, he's a suspected murderer with amnesia that was triggered by the events that led to the murder.

Despite the pleading of her fellow doctors, Constance decides to help Edwardes and the two fall in love. She eventually recruits the help of Dr. Burlov (Michael Chekhov – who was nominated for a supporting Oscar), her old mentor. They begin to unlock the tragic secrets of his mind and leads to him recounting a strange dream that holds the key.

Spellbound is a fantastic film, but since we're talking about Hitchcock, it is naturally held at a higher standard. The story is a little clunky, getting bogged down in the psychoanalysis angle. Hitchcock's films are always marked by more interest in the people that inhabit them than the substances of their motives. That's why he was the king of the McGuffin, a plot device that pushes a film along, but is far in the background in the audience's mind. It's the microfilm in North By Northwest, the uranium in Notorius or the money in Psycho. Unfortunately Spellbound is obsessed with unlocking Edwardes' past, not the budding romance between him and Constance. This is likely the fault of Selznick, who was obsessed with psychology.

The other problem with the film is Gregory Peck. While Peck is one of my favorite actors, this was made far too early in his film career. It was just his second year in Hollywood and he just doesn't pull off the convincing performance of a tortured man that a more veteran star probably could have. Peck would do a little better in his only other role for Hitchcock, the 1947 court drama The Paradine Case, but in Spellbound, he seems to be on a different level than his co-star. When you're playing against the ultimate tortured actress, you have to step up your game and Peck just can't.

Dali's dream sequence is easily the most famous part of the film. Anyone familiar with the Spanish master's surrealist work will immediately see his influence on the section, which is seamlessly integrated into the film. Hitchcock and Dali worked closely, but it is unfortunate that much of their work didn't make the final cut. Still, what we do get is amazing. Miklos Rosza also contributed a fantastic, Oscar-winning score.

Spellbound is a good film, no doubt, but it shows how Hitchcock's vision would have been more greatly effected had he worked with other producers as overbearing as Selznick. His next film started out with Selznick, but ended up being completed at RKO. That was the amazing Notorious, one of Hitchcock's finest films. He did end up making The Paradine Case for Selznick, another minor film. Spellbound itself is challenging and one you won't find at the top of many critics' lists of the best Hitchcock films. Still, it's worth checking out, if just for Bergman's performance and Dali's dream sequence.

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