Spellbound (1945)

Dali dream sequence
Part of the Dali dream sequence, showing Rhonda Fleming as the kissing bug.

Watch it for Gregory Peck and Ingrid Bergman.  Watch it for Hitchcock’s blend of English film-making and German cinematic expressionism.  Watch it for the Dalí dream sequence.  Whatever your reason, Spellbound is still a satisfying film experience.

Appreciating Alfred Hitchcock’s exposé about psychoanalysis today does require a greater effort at suspension of disbelief than in 1945, but the craft of film-making evident in Spellbound makes detective work of psychoanalysis, injecting the thrill of the chase into uncovering what might have otherwise been a very dull treatment of scientifically explicable psychoses.

Hitchcock seems to have gambled successfully that the rise of psychoanalysis in the USA during the 1940s, probably driven by European refugee émigrés, and the large number of shellshocked soldiers returning to homes that no longer provided comfort and peace, would heighten the broad appeal of the topic.

I find it relatively easy to sublimate the undoubted clichés and stereotypes I see in Spellbound today, focusing instead on Hitchcock’s fusion of psychodrama and thriller genre elements.  Today I can’t help but also think of Siouxsie and the Banshees’ song, ‘Spellbound’ (1981), talking about an entirely different, social psychosis in the UK, but tapping into the same dark territory of anxiety and dislocation.  I’m not sure how valid it is to incorporate 1980s punk in a Hitchcock review, but I know for certain that Siouxsie Sioux says she was influenced by Hitchcock, and that contemporary interpretations of Spellbound will be enhanced, obscured, or both, by tangential cultural experiences since 1945.

That cultural anchoring helps to keep Spellbound relevant, as much in its own right as a pervasive influence on other areas of the arts since its release.

Hitchcock Selznick Dali photo
English/American filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock (1899-1980), American Hollywood studio executive David O Selznick (1902-1965), Spanish surrealist artist Salvador Dalí (1904-1989).

Keeping the story fresh

As with other Hollywood eminences (like Orson Welles, for example), not much hasn’t already been said about Alfred Hitchcock and his works.  I have found it useful to avoid explanations of the story in the literature, so that I can make my own interpretations, free from the tyranny of fixed meanings imposed by someone else’s subjectivity.

Free from my own tyranny too: Spellbound meant something different to me 40 years ago, and may mean something else again at some future time.

When watching this time, I was quite taken aback to be confronted by an overture right at the beginning.  I didn’t remember this opening.  Looking it up, it transpires that the function of the overture is to assist the audience to settle and let go of distracting preoccupations.  To become focused on the coming spectacle.  An idea that ought to have some appeal in today’s always-on environment, with its countless distractions and intrusions.

Intertitles immediately after the opening credits set the scene for us:

Our story deals with psychoanalysis, the method by which modern science treats the emotional problems of the sane.

The analyst seeks only to induce the patient to talk about his hidden problems, to open the locked doors of his mind.

Once the complexes that have been disturbing the patient are uncovered and interpreted, the illness and confusion disappear … and the devils of unreason are driven from the human soul.

The somewhat pedestrian story has a new director of the Green Manors therapeutic community mental hospital in Vermont, Dr Anthony Edwardes (Gregory Peck), fall in passionate love with his colleague Dr Constance Petersen (Ingrid Bergman).  Almost immediately, Edwardes is exposed as an impostor.  He is in fact returned USAF serviceman John Ballantyne, suffering psychotic episodes.

Film still at Green Manor.
Drs Fleurot (John Emery), Hanish (Paul Harvey), Galt (Erskine Sanford ), Graff (Steven Geray), and Murchison (Leo G. Carroll) scrutinizing Dr Edwardes/John Ballantyne, as if questioning also the audience’s credentials as observers of the story.

Unmasked as a fraud, Ballantyne flees to New York, and Petersen, now infatuated with both the man and his pathology, follows.  Hitchcock’s signature cameo occurs in the Empire State Hotel, about 43 minutes into the film, where Petersen is trying to meet up with Ballantyne.  Hitchcock is the man exiting an elevator, holding a cigarette rather pretentiously, and carrying a violin case.

After being reunited and pretending they are a married couple, Petersen seeks the help of her former mentor, Dr Alexander Brulov (Michael Chekhov) to treat the amnesia and psychotic episodes experienced by Ballantyne, which we are led to believe stem from suppressing the memory of a traumatic event, and from a guilt complex.  The story has us assume, along with the protagonists, that these are related to the murder of the real Dr Edwardes before Ballantyne assumed his identity.

Brulov and Petersen turn attempt to unravel Ballantyne’s suppressed memory with dream analysis, and by revisiting the scene of the presumed crime.

Bergman, Chekhov, Peck in film still.
Drs Petersen (Ingrid Bergman) and Brulov (Michael Chekhov) interpret John Ballantyne’s (Gregory Peck) dreams.

It turns out Ballantyne has suffered from a long-term guilt complex about the childhood death of his brother, and no longer thinks he killed Dr Edwardes, though he is convicted of the murder when the body is found with a bullet in his back.

There’s an almost expected plot twist at the end of the story, and more detective work by Petersen to answer the remaining questions, giving us the optimistic ending studios and censors of the time demanded.

Casting the spell

What makes the film better than the sum of its parts?

There is, of course, the cast, but also a clever script by screenwriting great Ben Hecht (who had personal experience of psychoanalysis) and regular Hitchcock collaborator Angus MacPhail.  The screenplay is very loosely based on the 1927 novel The House of Dr Edwardes by John Leslie Palmer and Hilary Aidan St George Saunders, writing as Frances Beeding.

The dialogue lets us know all about psychoanalysis, outlining major Freudian tropes, but also critiques of the methods and conclusions.  It is laced with double entendre to talk about the focus on human sexuality in Freudian analysis that couldn’t be openly mentioned, given the puritan censorship regime of the times.  For example, the nymphomaniac Green Manors patient Mary Carmichael (Rhonda Fleming) talks about beating the pants off some other patients at a card game within minutes of stating that psychoanalysis bores the pants off her, shortly after and before coming on to an orderly and a doctor.  Fleming also plays the kissing girl in the dream sequence, even if Ballantyne identifies her as Petersen.

There is also what appears now to be quite crude, sexist repartee about the apparent frigidness of Dr Petersen suddenly transformed into an overtly sexual love for Ballantyne.  Bygone prejudices cannot be excised from historical fictions, and I suppose they shouldn’t be, either, because they add a verité hard to create any other way.

It may also be that Peck and Bergman created a certain on-screen chemistry beyond the scripted rôles because they had a brief but torrid affair while working on Spellbound, and while both were married to other people.  A touch of the illicit to make the fiction work on-screen?

The opening doors sequence superimposed on the lovers.
The opening doors sequence superimposed on the lovers, suggesting also sex and orgasm.

Another striking feature of Spellbound was Miklós Rózsa’s use of a theremin in the film score.  The theremin was an early electronic musical instrument that rendered the eerie sounds we have all come to associate, after The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), with science fiction and horror movies.  But when Rózsa used it for Spellbound, the effect was to evoke a sense of the unknown and alien about Ballantyne’s psychotic episodes.

Beyond script, acting, and musical score, the most important element in Spellbound was the visualization.  The atmospheric camerawork of journeyman cinematographer George Barnes, no doubt under close supervision by Alfred Hitchcock, is peerless.  We can clearly see again, as in previous Hitchcock films, the influence on the director of pre-war German cinematic expressionism, revealed in arresting lighting, unsettling camera angles, and symbolism that breaks with conventional Hollywood narrative devices.

Thus we are drawn in by the stark, almost overexposed shots illustrating Ballantyne’s psychotic reaction to lines and white surfaces.  We are treated to an opening-doors montage as Ballantyne and Petersen kiss, with the last door and its brilliant illumination highly suggestive of coitus and orgasm.  We become spectators of psychotic fugue states as Ballantyne recoils from ordinary banalities turned into inexplicably baleful trigger events.  We witness a revolver turning on us, as if from our own point of view, with a split-second bright red flash of colour in a black and white film as it fires into our collective face—we, the audience, become the suicide, asking us to consider our own culpability in the fiction, or in any one of a myriad analogues of similar stories in real life.

Most especially, though, we are witnesses of the Dalí-designed dream sequence, with its powerful subversion of conventional film narrative (about one hour and 27 minutes into the film).  Not quite the stuff of legend that some commentators would have us believe, the dream sequence nevertheless adds strongly to a mix of genres and symbolism that makes Spellbound a modern classic.

A montage of images from the Dali dream sequence.
A montage of images from the Dali dream sequence.

Hitchcock said in 1962: ‘I wanted Dalí because of the architectural sharpness of his work … to convey the dream with great visual sharpness and clarity, sharper than the film itself.’

Dalí and Hitchcock came up with an elaborate and, unsurprisingly, surreal 20-minute-long dream sequence that takes place at first in a gambling house and then on a rooftop in a forest-like setting, and at times apparently featured Bergman playing the goddess Diana in a ballroom with pianos suspended from the ceiling (images exist of Bergman in a draped costume, like a work of classical sculpture). Selznick, however, deemed the section too complex to be included, and cut the footage to just two minutes. Hitchcock later said that “what I was after was the vividness of dreams. As you know, all Dalí’s work is very solid, very sharp, with very long perspectives, black shadows. This was again the avoidance of the cliché: all dreams in movies are blurred. It isn’t true – Dalí was the best man to do the dreams because that’s what dreams should be.”

“But Dalí had some strange ideas; he wanted a statue to crack like a shell falling apart, with ants crawling all over it, and underneath, there would be Ingrid Bergman, covered by the ants! It just wasn’t possible,” Hitchcock said to François Truffaut in 1962. “My idea was to shoot the Dalí dream scenes in the open air so that the whole thing, photographed in real sunshine, would be terribly sharp. I was very keen on that idea, but the producers were concerned about the expense. So we shot the dream in the studios.” The clips that appear in Spellbound are suitably unusual, and make for suspenseful viewing. In a “gambling house” (he thinks) Ballantyne sits playing Blackjack opposite men with masked faces and blank cards, and the walls are covered with painted eyes, though these curtains are being cut in half by a man and a very large pair of scissors. When the next section appears, tree roots grow out of the chimney on a rooftop, and a rocky cliffside in the background takes the form of a man’s evil-looking face. In the film, the few minutes of Dalí interrupt the scientific, logic-based focus of the rest of its plot to offer an unforgettable and daring piece of cinema – and, ironically, one can only dream of what the 15-or-so minutes of cut footage looked like.

—Belle Hutton, ‘When Salvador Dalí Designed a Dream for a 1945 Hitchcock Film’, AnOther.

No matter the intentions and production background, I was struck during the dream sequence by the self-referential moment of watching painted eyes look back at me, the audience, while caught looking at the painted eyes, and then the subversion of having a man cut those in half, as if to damage our voyeuristic spectacle, or just to expose it as that—a voyeuristic spectacle.  I was also very drawn in by the subsequent ‘hyperreal’ abstractions with the explained and unexplained symbolisms.  The wheel as revolver and the masked faces as amnesic vestiges were powerful images in themselves.

Hitchcock gave Dali pretty much free rein, and had little to do with the sequence, and as a result, Selznick tried to bring it under control by hiring legendary production designer William Cameron Menzies (“Gone With The Wind“) to helm the sequence — although Menzies was unhappy with the end result, and had his credit taken off. … censors demanded that provocative references to “sex menace,” “frustrations,” “libido” and “tomcat” were taken out.

—Oliver Lyttelton, ‘5 Things You May Not Know About Alfred Hitchcock’s “Spellbound”’, Indie Wire.

Hollywood lore has it that David Selznick had private motivations to make the film, as a promotion for psychoanalysis, which were frustrated by Hitchcock, who was probably right not to burden the film with Selznick’s personal experience of psychoanalysis, or the technical advice of Selznick’s own therapist, Dr May Romm.  Hitchcock’s wilfulness in this resistance reputedly soured his relationship with Selznick, begun in with Rebecca (1940), and they never worked together again.  Their next intended project, Notorious (1946), with Cary Grant and Bergman, was sold to RKO.

Even if Selznick’s didactic purposes were displaced by Hitchcock’s eye for entertainment and fictional tension, it can be said that Spellbound moved psychoanalysis out of the shadowy realm of private consulting rooms, for a small elite, into a mass consciousness created by popular culture.

A timeless influence

Hitchcock is said to have been dismissive of Spellbound as just another manhunt film, but

… Spellbound was a box office hit. The film received rave reviews, all dutifully noting Dalí’s involvement. Bosley Crowther writing for the New York Times in 1945 called it a “rare film” and the New Yorker’s review advised “you’d better see this one.” It went on to be nominated for six Academy Awards that year and won Best Original Score for its haunting soundtrack.

— Margaret Carrigan, ‘When Salvador Dalí and Alfred Hitchcock Brought Surrealism to Hollywood’, Artsy.

The Independent’s Graeme Ross notes that despite being ‘responsible for some of the greatest films ever made’ Hitchcock ‘never won an Academy Award’, though he was nominated five times.  I suspect Hitchcock was not a likable man, rubbing up the wrong way not just producers and censors, but also actors.

Film poster

Some commentators have made a game of ranking Hitchcock’s films, and I was surprised to see Spellbound not often making it to the top ten.  Difficult though it is to rank anyone’s works, in my estimation Hitchcock’s top five are: North by Northwest (1959), Spellbound (1945), Psycho (1960), Vertigo (1959), and Rear Window (1954).

IndieWire’s Anne Thompson wrote: ‘Was he a cruel genius who treated his actors like cattle, torturing his icy blondes’ performances out of them? … Over 50 years, the filmmaker always had visual flair and a distinct style, and knew how to implicate audiences in his dark, often opaque characters.’  Hitchcock certainly ‘implicated’ me in his psychodrama, though I can’t really tell whether he was cruel to Bergman (or others).

Hitchcock was a true artist in the sense that he often pursued his muse even when projects without obvious commercial promise were not supported by the studios. But he always balanced the occasional experimental flop with plenty of mainstream hits. He didn’t care that his obsession with genre elements– that are so prized as commercially “safe” today–were not approved by the Hollywood establishment, which deemed them B movies. He proved the suits wrong over and over again, because he understood better than any filmmaker perhaps until Steven Spielberg what audiences really want. Clearly, he enjoyed shocking and frightening them.

Spellbound is no longer frightening or shocking, the way it was when I was in my teens, but watching it again readily summons my memory of it, and also the recollection of how fresh and unusual Hitchcock was in his day, explaining why his work lingers: because of its wide and deep influence on other film-makers, musicians, writers, and visual artists.


Spellbound (1945). Selznick International Pictures/Vanguard Films/United Artists, black and white, 111 minutes.

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Produced by David O Selznick.  Screenplay by Ben Hecht and Angus MacPhail, adapted from The House of Dr. Edwardes by Frances Beeding.  Cinematography by George Barnes.  Music by Miklós Rózsa.  Edited by Hal C Kern.

With: Ingrid Bergman as Dr Constance Petersen, Gregory Peck as Dr Anthony Edwardes/John Ballantyne, Michael Chekhov as Dr Alexander ‘Alex’ Brulov, Leo G Carroll as Dr Murchison, Rhonda Fleming as Mary Carmichael/kissing bug, John Emery as Dr. Fleurot, Steven Geray as Dr Graff, Paul Harvey as Dr Hanish, Norman Lloyd as Mr Garmes, Bill Goodwin as Empire State Hotel house detective, Donald Curtis as Harry, Wallace Ford as annoying stranger, Art Baker as Detective Lieutenant Cooley, Regis Toomey as Detective Sergeant Gillespie.

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