One of only four films by Alfred Hitchcock to be in the running for a best picture Oscar, Spellbound has had to carry the weight of producer David O. Selznick’s production values. Two attractive stars kiss in closeup, and a series of doors, superimposed, open up, each to the next door until the last one opens up to a distant heaven. Hitchcock’s revenge: When interviewed by François Truffaut in the late 1960s, Hitch referred to his old nemesis as “Peter Selznick.” Sweet!
Spellbound, a stunning entertainment, has survived Selznick’s compulsive interference. It contains Hitchcock’s perhaps most terrifying passage, a flashback to childhood where the accused murderer recalls an accident that resulted in his brother’s being impaled—which we see in closeup—on the spikes of an iron fence. It is certainly, in no one’s book, one of Hitchcock’s greatest films. But proceeding from a phenomenal performance at its center by one of the world’s most beautiful women, it is as likely to be popped into my machine in the wee hours as are its betters, including Notorious (1946), The Wrong Man (1956) and Psycho (1960). It is, after all, the Hitchcock film that in my own childhood scared me half to death.
Ingrid Bergman plays psychoanalyst Dr. Constance Petersen, who proves the steadfastness her first name indicates by her loyalty to the amnesia victim with whom she falls in love. Did this “Dr. Edwardes” kill the real Dr. Edwardes, assuming his identity and his new position as head of Green Manors, the mental asylum where Petersen works? Under contract to Selznick, Gregory Peck brings only his good looks to the role of the imposter who cannot remember his name, much less whether he murdered someone. Selznick would saddle Hitchcock with this inept, wooden actor yet again (The Paradine Case, 1947; Hitch wanted Larry Olivier), and Peck’s participation is the principal factor contributing to Spellbound’s mixed result. But Bergman soars as a highly intelligent professional woman whose vulnerability is the romantic heart she has so long delayed in activating. (Unforgettable: Bergman’s slight pivotal turn in a doorway when Constance figures out who must be the killer.) Bergman, whose Constance somewhat resembles Hitchcock’s precocious 10-year-old Ann Newton in Shadow of a Doubt (1943) grown up,* was named best actress by the New York Film Critics Circle and the Italian Syndicate of Film Journalists.
Constance’s bookishness and braininess target her for light ridicule from a fellow member of the staff (Constance is the only woman doctor at Green Manors), but two other relationships of hers are more intriguing and complex. One is with Dr. Alexander Brulov, her mentor, and the other is with Dr. Murchison, the head of Green Manors, whose retirement has led to his replacement by Dr. Edwardes. One of these older gentlemen trained Constance; the other hired her. They are played wonderfully well by Michael Chekhov (yes, a relation) and Leo G. Carroll, if I’m not mistaken, the actor Hitch most often employed. Constance’s desire to impress Murchison and win his approval explains her misguided decision to share with him her “analysis” of the murder that she comes to investigate.
Whereas Constance defers to “Dr. Murchison,” as she always calls her boss, and he in turn provides her with a measure of fatherly protection at Green Manors, her relationship with Brulov, whom she addresses by his first name, Alex, is more rough-and-tumble and delightfully equal. Brulov complains about “women’s intuition,” but it’s also plain to see that Constance is a favorite past pupil of his, for whom he has plenty of respect as well as affection. Constance has brought the Edwardes-imposter to Brulov’s home when the two are on the lam from the police. At Constance’s urging, and against his better judgment, once he has unraveled Constance’s deception (she had tried passing off her companion as her new husband), Brulov assists Constance in trying to penetrate the amnesiac’s unconscious in order to determine who he is and what he has or hasn’t done. This results in one of the film’s most famous aspects: the patient’s dream sequences, which were designed by Salvador Dalí, no less. At the time of the film’s original release, many expressed disappointment with the surrealist’s contribution, which Selznick highly censored; but the animated shadow of a gigantic bird dogging the fleeing dreamer is terrific. (Hitchcock himself was ornithophobic, to which the 1937 Young and Innocent and the 1963 The Birds attest.)
Constance’s failed attempt to pull the wool over Brulov’s eyes, by concealing the identity of her companion, is a delicious joke; neither Constance nor her companion knows who he is. It is also a reduction of an exceptionally funny incident that takes place earlier at the New York hotel at which the amnesiac stays after leaving Green Manors. Constance, in love, tracks the fellow down, enlisting the aid of the hotel detective, whom she deceives into believing she is a wife who quarreled with her husband, who then left home, and to whom she now wishes to apologize humbly, as any good wife who has come to see the error of her ways would. The detective, hilariously condescending to this woman who is many times his intellectual superior, laps up the deception. Bergman is precise, playing the scene broadly enough so that we relish her manipulation of the fool, but not so broadly that the deception fails to convince us as a situational possibility.
Constance’s Achilles’ heel is her heart. The Edwardes-imposter may be a murderer, and her psychoanalytic delving into his past may result in his repeating the crime by murdering her, but, armed with love and faith, she does what professionally she has always done: pursue truth. Similarly, when she ultimately solves the crime, she confronts the killer alone without giving thought to her own safety, banking again on love and faith. Surely the second-most trenchant aspect of the film, in retrospect, is Constance’s early-on guardedness, her reluctance to expose this Achilles’ heel of hers, her pretense at being more efficient than humane. Hitchcock, working from Ben Hecht and Angus MacPhail’s script, has done a magnificent job of suggesting the pressures with which a woman must contend in a male-dominated profession. In effect, Constance has molded herself into the image of someone who can be taken seriously as a psychoanalyst, bringing to her work only a portion of her total personality whereas her male counterparts are free to bring to their work the full range of themselves. The principal beauty and brilliance of Bergman’s acting—and, hence, of the film—lie in the gradual progress Bergman shows Constance making in becoming, unguardedly, fully herself.
Constance does all this for the man she loves (to save his mind and to save him from prison), but not for him alone. She does what she does, also, for the honor of her profession and its dedication to truth and its pursuit of the mental well-being of people. (When the amnesiac disparages psychoanalysis, Brulov quips something of this sort: “Nobody is so sick that he can’t make jokes about psychoanalysis.”) By using her gifts to return the man she loves to identity and wholeness, Constance also strikes out against the ridicule to which psychoanalysis is routinely subjected, braving her conflict of interest (with its worry of unprofessionalism) in order to rescue her profession from academicism, that is, the hint that psychoanalysts merely play at helping people, and bringing this profession to the dimensions of the full draught of humanity she eventually brings to it.
This is why, for all its limitations, Spellbound stirs the feminist soul.
* Since Ann Newton is based on Hitchcock’s own daughter, I can also relate Bergman’s Constance to Barbara Morton, another “constant” character of exceptionally high intelligence, whom Patricia Hitchcock herself plays in Strangers on a Train (Hitchcock, 1951). This would also help explain the accuracy of Bergman’s characterization in a film mostly given to flamboyant acting in performances both good and bad. Of more than passing interest in this regard is the fact that Spellbound is a film, as I note in this essay, about a woman’s relationships with two surrogate fathers.
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