Spellbound doesn’t exactly fit into Hitchcock’s innocent man wrongly accused plot, but it comes pretty close. It adds in a lot of psychoanalysis, with guilt complexes, dream sequences, the works. Though there are a few things holding it back, Spellbound is one of Hitchcock’s better films with psychological themes, romance, and suspense.
Spellbound is set at Green Manors, a sanitarium that is about to undergo a change of management. Dr. Murchison (Leo G. Carroll) is stepping down becuase of a mental breakdown he had recently, and Dr. Edwards (Gregory Peck) is coming to replace him. One of the psychiatrists, Dr. Constance Peterson (Ingrid Bergman) becomes romantically involved with him. In doing so she discovers that he is not Dr. Edwards at all, but an amnesiac whose only identity is JB.
But he has more problems than simply amnesia, he also believes he killed Dr. Edwards. Constance believes that this is actually a guilt complex, caused by something in his childhood which of course, being an amnesiac, he cannot remember. They then embark on a journey to evade the authorities and discover the cause of JB’s guilt complex which brings them to Constance’s old mentor, Dr. Alex Brulov (Michael Chekhov). He helps Constance cure JB, but it doesn’t do much good as he is taken into custody anyway. This leaves Constance to try to convince everyone that he is innocent by trying to find Edward’s real killer.
Hitchcock does a great job at portraying JB’s guilt complex. He has a fixation on white backgrounds with dark lines, which Constance and Alex are later able to interpret. Every time Hitchcock focuses on something with these characteristics: Contance’s robe, a tablecloth, a bedspread, you know something bad is going to go down. Nothing more serious than JB fainting ever really happens, but after seeing the intense focus on white with dark parallel lines a couple of times you learn to feel anxiety when it shows up again.
Another notable aspect of Hitchcock’s psychoanalysis portrayal is the Salvador Dali inspired dream sequence. It’s a very surreal dream sequence and the elements are all ingeniously explained with psychoanalysis later in the film. There is a giant curtain with these creepy eyes, a man without a face, blank cards, a bizarre location with a tree growing on the roof of a building, giant wings and slow motion running. One thing that sort of messed with the flow of it was that JB kept interrupting himself to say something to Constance or Alex. I think it would have been more effective if we had just stayed in the dream continuously, but nevertheless the dream sequence is beautifully surreal. If you’ve ever appreciated Dali’s art, you’ll appreciate this too.
This is also one of Hitchcock’s more romantic films. At the beginning, much is made of Dr. Peterson being a very frigid woman, despite all of the doctors hitting on her all of the time. She has trouble reconciling romanticized views of love with psychoanalytic theories of it. She still struggles with this after she falls in love with JB, but is able to accept it by the end of the film. The annoying part about this is all the sexism that comes with it. It’s to be expected since she’s a female psychiatrist in 1945 that none of the male doctors can get anywhere with, but still. In the beginning one of the doctors essentially says that going out with him will basically make her a better doctor, which is ridiculous. Constance is awesome in the way she rejects him though. Once she falls in love with JB, everyone can basically figure it out and they mock her because they’re jealous. It’s really annoying. Just because she didn’t like any of them doesn’t mean she hates all men or something, but they seem to think it does.
All of that didn’t bother me as much as all the cracks Alex makes about her being a woman in love. While mildly humorous, they mostly just irritated me. Examples include: “the mind of a woman in love is operating on the lowest level of the intellect” and “Women make the best psychoanalysts until they fall in love. After that they make the best patients.” I still loved Alex as a character because he was funny at other points and also a great help to Constance and JB, but still. Just because she is a woman and in love doesn’t mean she doesn’t have a brain, in fact despite this perceived handicap she manages to solve the mystery after everyone else has given up. It’s her love for JB that motivates her, and sustains her until she can figure out exactly what’s going on. Yes, I’ll admit, JB could have been a danger to her and Alex’s warning on that front was warranted, but on the whole I think her being in love with JB did more good than harm.
So despite all of that feminist ranting, I didn’t have a problem with the film overall because it managed to show Constance as a strong character in the end. She is a woman in a male dominated profession, and doesn’t feel she needs a man until she finds the one she actually needs. She knows enough to ask for help when she needs it, and turns out succeeding both personally with finding love and professionally with expert psychoanalysis despite the obstacles and criticisms she faces.
The three main actors are about two out of three in terms of the performances they turn in. Though I love Gregory Peck, I was pretty disappointed with him here. He melodramatically overacts at every turn, whether it’s in the romantic scenes or the scenes of mental distress. I appreciate he has a very complicated character to portray, but I think he could have been stronger. He looks great though, don’t worry. That, with Ingrid Bergman’s performance kept me believing that Constance would actually fall in love with him. Honestly, I think if Ingrid Bergman fell in love with a chicken onscreen I’d be on board. She plays “in love” that well. Though Alex annoyed me when his sexist comments at times, I have to admit Chekov did a great job with him. He was the classic psychiatrist, complete with a German accent. He was a lot more hilarious with the comic relief than your average psychiatrist, though, and he did that very well too.
There are many individual elements holding Spellbound back, but when the positive aspects come together it becomes completely engrossing and one of Hitchcock’s better films. Bergman and Chekov’s performances make up for Peck’s, the genius of the dream sequence makes up for the interruptions, and the psychoanalysis induced suspense makes up for some of the more melodramatic moments. Especially when compared to Marnie, a later Hitchcock film that deals with similar issues, Spellbound is a triumph.
“Oh, you are a fine one to talk! You have a guilt complex and amnesia and you don’t know if you are coming or going from somewhere, but Freud is hooey! This you know! Hmph! Wiseguy.”