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Spellbound Alfred Hitchcock


Alfred Hitchcock is one of the best-loved and most widely respected di­rectors in American and British cinema. His films are financial, critical, and popular successes that continue to be named among the "ten best films of all time." The enormous satisfaction people find in his greatest works is a function of his admirable union of visual and narrative expression, and of the meta­phors he uses for the emotional malaise with which twentieth century audi­ences can readily identify.

Hitchcock's characters suffer from dislocation and isolation which is ex­pressed in terms of identity confusion (North by Northwest, 1959; Psycho, 1960; Marnie, 1964; The Birds, 1963; Spellbound); dislocation in which a character finds himself or herself on the wrong side of the law (Young and Innocent, 1937; Spellbound, Strangers on a Train, 1951; The Man Who Knew Too Much, 1955; The Wrong Man, 1957); isolation from land itself (Lifeboat, 1944); political dislocation (Torn Curtain, 1966; Topaz, 1969; Sabateur, 1952; Sabotage, 1936); or dislocation from their own sexuality and their very souls (Marnie, Vertigo, 1958). The unity' of all forms of isolation is the genius of Hitchcock's vision: the inner, psychological forms lead to the external, legal, or physical forms and are accurate maps of the characters' souls. For Hitch­cock, the rectifying of any of these states of isolation is part of and a metaphor for emotional integration. Even in his thrillers and whodunits, the crime or mystery in which the, hero is embroiled is an indication of his or her emotional integration, and only through reaching out emotionally (usually in the form of sexual love) do these characters break through their isolation. Or, if they are unable to break through they are lost (Psycho, Vertigo).

In Hitchcock's early films, the external dislocation (usually legal) was the focus of the narrative, and the accompanying emotional health achieved by the characters was almost a side benefit. In his later films, however, and in all of his great 1950's and 1960's masterpieces, the emotional (usually sexual) integration of the characters is the real subject (Marnie, The Birds, Vertigo, Rear Window, 1954; Notorious, 1946; Psycho, North by Northwest).

With Spellbound, Hitchcock wanted to "turn out the first picture on psy­choanalysis." It is not, of course, the first, but it remains one of the best of the "madmen take over the asylum" genre films. An amnesia victim, John Ballantine (Gregory Peck), thinks he has murdered his friend, Dr. Edwardes (Edward Fielding), a psychiatrist due to take over the head position at a mental hospital. Ballantine masquerades as the murdered man, joins the hospital staff as their leader, and falls in love with Dr., Constance Peterson (Ingrid Bergman). Ballantine behaves strangely when he sees parallel lines, and Constance discovers he has amnesia and believes himself to be a mur­derer. She takes him to her old teacher and psychoanalyst, and together they analyze his dreams (surreal sequences created by Salvador Dali) to find the source of his trauma..The dream imagery reveals the source of his problem to be his guilt over his role in the accidental death of his younger brother. This was transferred when he saw the murder of Dr Edwardes by the man Edwardes was to replace at the hospital, Dr. Murchison (Leo G. Carroll). Murchison kills himself in a spectacular burst of red (a subjective shot, with the audience in Murchison's place as he pulls the trigger), and the lovers are free to begin their life together.

The joining of the crime (or at least its essential clue) to a psychological neurosis is the essence of Hitchcock's vision. Ballantine's legal dislocation is bound up in his mental loss of identity, and the solution to both is primarily love and secondarily analysis. The dream interpretation of Ballantine's symptoms (aversion to parallel lines) are too simplistic, but the essential unity of all forms of isolation is as clear here as it was to be in Hitchcock's later, greatest films.

John Ballantine is not the only dislocated character in the film. Hitchcock's films are insistent that the seemingly "normal" characters are implicated as well, and Dr. Peterson is characterized as a psychiatrist who is unfeminine, cold, and emotionally crippled, and who is perhaps unable to give her patients the understanding they require because she is so shut off from the world and the range of human emotion. In the first scene she is accused by a fellow doctor (who would like to initiate her into the world of romance) and then by a woman patient (who appears to be a nymphomanic, making the contrast clear) of having only a textbook knowledge of life. Her pulled-back hair and glasses further lock her into a stereotyped image of a frigid woman.

This aspect of the film is rather grating; it is never implied that the male doctors are hiding from their real selves in their work. Constance's professor (Michael Chekhov) is the perfect father and the perfect psychiatrist, complete with Austrian accent. Constance's oppressively narrow character development is a flaw of the kind which does not occur in Hitchcock's later. films (such as Marnie and The Birds), where women's sexual neuroses are fully as complex as men's and proceed from more than their choice of a traditionally male profession.

In Spellbound, it is John who will awaken Constance from her frigidity. Their meeting, in a scene that is rather irritating because of its conventional romance cues, is accompanied by an upsurge of music. The climactic opening of doors, while questionable as a cinematic device, certainly makes clear Hitchcock's feelings of what is wrong with Constance: she has been isolated from the world of feeling, and in a graphic depiction of her reaction to Ballantine, superimposed doors actually open in her psyche. The job of the film is for both characters to rediscover themselves, to break through their own isolated situations into emotional commitment, and they do this through each other's love. This is not easily accomplished, and the fact that surrealism is used in the film is perhaps a key to understanding a cinematic device of Hitchcock's which is widely misunderstood. The effect of his artificial backgrounds and rear-screen projection is to cut his characters off from their physical surroundings and thus to put them into closer contact with their inner environment.

This cutting off seems the point of the surrealism in Spellbound: through a total warping of the objects of reality and their environment, the inner conflicts of the character whose surrealism we are seeing are better brought into focus. The effect is the same in the skiing sequence: the obviousness of the rear-screen projection may annoy people seeking unobtrusive, technical realism, but it seems that what Hitchcock is forcing us to do is to see that artificial background as a metaphor for the character's inner state. By isolating him from his environment totally, he has achieved a condition of unreality that is responsive to the demands of the characters' emotional torments and release: we see what they are feeling, not what they are seeing, and their emotions which are reflected in their surroundings are the impressions to which we respond.

Hitchcock carries out his theme of isolation in visual nuances as well. When John and Constance are at her old teacher's house, joined in two-shot and talking intimately, the wall behind her is a totally different tone from the one behind him, thus separating them emotionally even though they are together in the shot. Sometimes John's head is perfectly framed by the frame of a picture behind him, cutting him off from the rest of the composition and presenting him in a metaphoric cage. This meticulous attention to technical detail as well as to narrative is characteristic of Hitchcock, and makes his films textbooks for the creation of an idea through both formal and narrative means.

Spellbound was both a commercial success and a critical success, and it earned a place on the New York Times "Ten Best Films of 1945" list. Ingrid Bergman was the New York Film Critics Circle Award's choice for Best Actress of 1945. Although the 1945 film does not achieve the total artistic success of Hitchcock's later films, it points to them in its themes and formai expression, and is one of his finest pre-1950 productions. Spellbound was parodied, along with other Hitchcock films (notably Vertigo), in Mel Brooks's 1978 tribute to the master, High Anxiety.

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