Hitch on the Hump: Spellbound (1945)

Hitchcock's films are often collisions of popular culture and art, and with 1945’s Spellbound, Hitchcock himself grew interested in combining the two in a meaningful way. Ever since coming to America, Hitch had found his relationship with studio head David O. Selznick to be contentious at the best of times. This friction was exacerbated by Selznick's own deepening depression. His brother Myron, the top agent in Hollywood, had died due to conditions relating to his alcoholism and his girlfriend, Jennifer Jones had broken up with him. David sought relief through the newest craze in mental health, psychoanalysis. With possibly two pictures left in his contentious deal with David O. (The contract had been amended so many times, the terms were unclear to all parties involved.), Hitchcock had very little choice but to accept whatever the next project Selznick had in mind. Hitch's last film, Lifeboat, had been given an uneven response by audiences and critics alike, but Alfred was a pioneer of the "one for them, one for me" school of thought. He often sought out two picture deals for this reason, and when Selznick asked the director to adapt the novel The House of Dr. Edwardes, there is no doubt he already has his sights set on the next picture he wanted to direct (which would become Notorious). First, he had to cull a movie from a book laden with psychobabble, something Hitch had no use for, but it did provide him an opportunity he hoped would leave audiences Spellbound.

At the core of the film Hitch developed was the idea of identity, a theme he would explore time and time again in his career. Ingrid Berman stars as Dr. Constance Peterson, a psychoanalyst awaiting the arrival of her new boss, Dr. Edwardes (Gregory Peck), to take over for the current head of the clinic Dr. Murchison (Leo G. Carroll). On his arrival, Constance finds the new doctor quite handsome, and soon the logical Dr. Peterson is swept up in a highly impetuous romance. She is also concerned about Dr. Edwardes as he seems to have frequent dizzy spells brought on by certain patterns or shapes. Before long, it is discovered that Dr. Edwardes isn't himself at all, but rather he is an imposter, a patient that took the Doctor's identity and is wanted for questioning by the name of John. Still quite in love with John, Constance follows him as he goes on the run hoping to be able to cure the amnesia that caused him to assume Dr Edwardes' life. Bit by bit, Constance peels back the layers of John's psyche hoping to prove his innocence to the world and to her.

The House of Dr. Edwardes by Francis Beeding, pen name of British authors Hilary Aiden St. George Saunders and John Leslie Palmer, was first published in 1927, and in the aftermath of Lifeboat, Hitchcock brought it to Selznick's attention as the producer wanted "the healing potential of psychiatry" to be shown onscreen. The book itself is more of a manor house mystery, but the treatment Selznick received from Hitchcock and scenarist Angus MacPhail was so interesting Selznick wondered if Mrs. Hitchcock had taken part in it as well. When it came time to write the script, Hitchcock tapped Ben Hecht who had worked uncredited on Foreign Correspondent and Lifeboat. Hecht was something of an early screenplay doctor with his hands in films such as Gone with the Wind, The Shop Around the Corner, and The Prisoner of Zenda. That's not to diminish his own works. He won the first Oscar for writing with 1927’s Underworld, and would pen films as diverse as The Front Page (later turned into a film called His Girl Friday), Some Like It Hot (based on his play The Great Magoo), and the gangster classic 1932's Scarface.

Hitchcock and Hecht first toured several asylums before settling down to write the script. They soon discovered that they wouldn't be able to pull together the thoughtful look into psychoanalysis that Selznick wanted. This is probably because Hitchcock believed like the fake Dr. Edwardes when he says,” That Freud stuff is a bunch of hooey." Hitch had long ago familiarized himself with the writings of Freud when they were first en vogue, but other than scandalous sexual details, the director took little away from the founder of modern psychology's work. Hitch was more concerned with what worked in film, not real life. Hence we get things such as a shock curing a shock in Vertigo and the dream interpretations of Spellbound.

The sequences themselves, rather than the interpretation of them that would contain Spellbound's reveal, was more of an interest to the director who said dream sequences were conventional with "swirling smoke, slightly out of focus with all the figures walking through the mist, made with dry ice and smoke pumped across the top." Hitchcock had something else in mind the "imaginative and wild" Salvador Dali. The artist was no stranger to film having already worked with Luis Bunuel on the dream laden short Un Chien Andalou (1929) and the Archie Mayo film Moontide in 1942, but Selznick was slow to hire the artist and Hitchcock posited that "He probably thought I wanted the collaboration for publicity purposes." Dali was contracted for four sequences, only three made the finished film, and of those, both Hitchcock and Dali were disappointed with the final result, an edit cut in house by Selznick's men rather than culled by The Master of Suspense or the famed surrealist. The one sequence left out of the film, in which Ingrid Bergman was made to look like she transformed into a statue, was dropped early due to technical issues. The budget that remained for these sequences was minuscule, and Selznick, who was more about the bottom line than the art, insisted Hitchcock shoot them on a shoestring budget. The sequences that remain, despite reshooting and tampering by Selznick, are still quite unsettling and impressive. They both speak to future trends in Hitchcock's work, most notably Vertigo, but also were certainly influential in breaking free dreams from being mere smoke and dry ice.

As if Hitchcock had not enough troubles with David O. Selznick during the production of Spellbound, he also ran into obstacles when it came to casting his film. Bergman was a lock since script time, and the beautiful actress and Hitchcock bonded over what they considered slavery to the cruel headmaster Selznick. Bergman perfectly fit the formula of one of Hitch's cool blondes, and while their relationship would alter greatly over their next two films together (Notorious and The Paradine Case), Bergman projects just the right image of an aloof, logical woman to fit Spellbound's twisty romance. Sadly, the leading man Hitchcock desired was Cary Grant. While also under contract with Selznick, Grant has enough clout to turn down projects, and unceremoniously that is what he did here. In his place, Selznick slotted green actor Gregory Peck. While something of a screen legend now, Peck has limited film experience, and while Hitchcock tried to make him into Grant with fancy suits and lessons on food and wine, Peck's performance didn't rise to the occasion. The actor goes through the motions of his troubled amnesic character, but the only sign of inner turmoil seems to be Peck relaxing and clenching his jaw repeatedly.

Spellbound, as a film, seems as troubled as the Doctor/amnesiac character that is at the center of the action. While many sequences look very Hitchcockian, the director found himself at odds with his Selznick loyalist cameraman George Barnes who Hitch referred to as "a woman's cameraman" for his propensity for a diffusive, softly lit quality to his shots. Barnes actively worked against Hitchcock setting up shots for his own style time and time again. Bergman is often shot like she just walked out of Casablanca and onto the set of Spellbound even during sequences that require no mood or dramatic effect. For a director who wanted control over every frame, this must have been exhausting. Perhaps that is why by the end of the picture Hitchcock all but walked away from it leaving the editing and final touches to the Selznick machine. While he had one more picture left to go for Selznick, Notorious would be sold to RKO midway through the production as producer and director finally came to a stalemate with each other.

Spellbound has many hallmarks of a Hitchcock picture, the cool blonde, the mistaken identity, a man afraid of the police, and an action based set piece near the film's climax, but it feels rather unlike a Hitchcock film. Even his cameo, a quick turn and walk out of an elevator seems to convey the sense that the director is out of here. Hitchcock came to Hollywood looking for the type of artistic freedom that was being afforded directors such as Orson Welles, but he found himself mired in a studio system which was spectacularly uninterested in film as art. Surely, Selznick produced some of the best pictures that ever came out of Hollywood, but he also squashed as many, if not more, artistic endeavors because they didn't fit to his worldview or budget. Yet this experience still did not deter Hitchcock, and his quest to be more inventive, more groundbreaking, and more daring than other directors continued to leave fans Spellbound for years to come.

Bugg Rating

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