April 12, 2005

Spellbound (Hitchcock)

Posted by Matt

Tonight I watched Alfred Hitchcock's 1945 film Spellbound (not to be confused with a documentary about spelling bees). I think I first heard of the film when Amazon listed it as a recommendation for me several years ago, but it seems to be out of print and generally not easily obtained, though Netflix had it.

The film stars Ingrid Bergman as Dr. Constance Petersen and Gregory Peck as Dr. Edwardes (or so we are led to believe at first). The plot centers around psychoanalysis, and in some ways feels rather dated. As the film opens with a shot of the Green Manors mental institution, some text on the screen helpfully clues us in:

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

I would like to imagine some snarkiness to that line that probably wasn't meant to be there, that is, that analysis invents problems that do not exist in the "sane." The statement is somewhat accurate, though: most of those treated by psychoanalysis are sane, and do have emotional problems. (Where I see the statement breaking down, of course, is in the phrase "modern science.") Oddly, after telling us that psychoanalysis treats the sane, the setting of the film seems to be an insane asylum. (That is, the patients are "institutionalized," and some of them are apparently dangerously psychotic.) Thus the viewer is immediately confronted with a strange ambivalence toward psychoanalysis that persists throughout the film. I will have more to say about this below.

The story begins with Dr. Edwardes arriving to take the place of one Dr. Murchison, who has been the director of Green Manors for twenty years. Edwardes and Petersen quickly fall in love, but it shortly becomes apparent that Edwardes is not who he claims to be. He is amnesiac, believing himself to be Edwardes, but coming to the realization that he is not. He also demonstrates severe psychological disturbances provoked by seeing certain patterns. When this is discovered, and the real Edwardes cannot be found, suspicion builds that Peck's character (who finds from a cigarette case that his initials are "J.B.") murdered the real Edwardes, and Petersen and Edwardes flee. As they are on the run, she tries to psychoanalyze him with the help of her former mentor. Along the way we get some nice suspenseful scenes in the tradition we expect from Hitchcock; one well-done scene has a group of policemen and doctors questioning Petersen about the disappearance of Edwardes, while a letter from him lies in plain sight on the floor. Tension builds as we wonder if the letter will be noticed.

The film's most striking scene, though, is a dream sequence, designed by Salvador Dalí but heavily cut. It involves striking pictures of a gambling house with drapes decorated by large staring eyes (unsliced; I've never gotten around to seeing Un Chien Andalou, "I want you to know"), blank playing cards, a man in a white mask, and a scene of a man falling from a rooftop with a rocky outcropping in the background shaped like a human head, in characteristic Dalí style (click for a link to a still from that scene).

This dream is analyzed by Petersen and her mentor, in a scene that struck me for its lack of any apparent relation to Freud's notions of dreams. I've probably mentioned here before, in relation to something Nabokovian, that I have little patience with people who take psychoanalysis seriously. I've taken some very good psychology classes, and I appreciate that there is a lot of interesting scientific work being done in psychology, but the sort of psychoanalysis depicted in this film is bunk. I think this is pretty widely appreciated now, and looking at various articles about this film on the web, people seem to think this is one reason the film is so dated. But the film's portrayal of psychoanalysis seems to me to not be very faithful anyway; the analysts in the film do interpret the dream in terms of "latent content," but not in terms of wish-fulfillment. I don't know the detailed history of psychoanalysis between the time Freud wrote The Interpretation of Dreams (which was printed in 1900, and is actually a really entertaining read) and the time the film was made, but I doubt the interpretation offered in the film has much resemblance to anything a psychoanalyst would have said. Instead the images in the film are to some extent just distorted versions of real events that Peck's character would have had on his mind, and though they transform in ways that I don't think correspond to actual dreams, I think Hitchcock's version of dream interpretation is probably more rational than Freud's. This strikes me as interesting, because I think he might have meant it as a parody.

Watching the film, I had a tough time disentangling how seriously Hitchcock and the others behind the film took psychoanalysis. Poking around the Internet, I find that Hitchcock called the film "just another manhunt wrapped up in pseudo-psychoanalysis," but that producer David Selznick had been psychoanalyzed himself and hired his analyst as a technical advisor. Maybe it is the clash of these two opinions that explains what I saw as an ambivalence toward psychoanalysis in the film's treatment.

Another ambiguity in the film is its treatment of Petersen. She initially seems to be a very strong, smart, rational female character. She seems more serious than the other analysts with whom she works. All of this starts to go downhill when she meets Edwardes; they fall in love unreasonably quickly, and she is all too eager to help him without any clear evidence that he is innocent and with a fair amount of circumstantial evidence to suggest he isn't. At this point some misogyny seems to creep into the film; her former advisor at one point tells her, "Women make the best psychoanalysts until they fall in love. After that they make the best patients." At one point Peck's character says to her "if there's one thing I hate, it's a smug woman," a line that shocked me as out of character and totally unreasonable. I had to wonder whether audiences in 1945 would have seen it in the same way. I've heard accusations of sexism against Hitchcock before, and although Bergman's character at first seems to contradict this idea, these later developments definitely have an undertone of sexism. Still, by the end of the film she again demonstrates great strength. It's ambiguous whether the sexism comes from Hitchcock, or whether we're meant to notice it in the male characters and see that they are proven wrong in the end.

I can't say that Spellbound is one of the best Hitchcock films I've seen, but on the other hand, even a film-illiterate like me has seen Vertigo and Rear Window more times than I care to count, and a few of his other films multiple times. It was nice to see a good Hitchcock film for the first time, and despite the lackluster reviews I've read, I did think this was a good film. Dated, yes, but as I've noted, the psychoanalysis and the sexism seem to be questioned to some extent by the film. It's beautifully filmed, with the exception of a skiing scene in which the lack of modern special effects is keenly felt. The dream sequence and another brilliant scene at the end more than make up for that, though.

I should also mention the score by Miklós Rózsa, which won an Academy Award. It's notable for its use of a theremin, which I'm sure was much more interesting in 1945 than it is now, but it's still an interesting sound and works well. At times the score seemed to me to perfectly support the story without being intrusive, while at other times it felt strained and melodramatic. That's another dated bit of the film, as such composing seems common in older films. Then, most films today have boring, cookie-cutter scores, so I would say that overall things have deteriorated. Give me a Miklós Rózsa score over a John Williams score any day.

Anyhow, that's enough rambling. I recommend seeing the film. Some other interesting stuff on it can be found at DVD Journal.

(Speaking of Hitchcock, I also watched The 39 Steps the other day, but I have less to say about it. It was enjoyable, though.)

Posted by Matt at April 12, 2005 10:30 PM
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