Thursday, August 10, 2017

Spellbound (1945)

Director: Alfred Hitchcock


The master of suspense adds a layer of surreal, physiological complexity in this 1945 thriller. The picture brings together the direction of Alfred Hitchcock and the surrealist artist Salvador Dali, but would see it’s original vision unfortunately altered by its producer David O. Selznick. Yet another tale of murder mystery, this picture delves into the interpretation of dreams in a way that was far from the conventional style of Hollywood. Ultimately the film was a source of great contention between director and producer despite being a well-received by viewers and critics.

Spellbound is a noir thriller about a new head of a metal institution that turns out not to be the man he claims. The film follows Dr. Constance Petersen (Ingrid Bergman), a psychoanalyst at mental hospital in Vermont, who begins to fall in love with the surprisingly young new head of the hospital Dr. Edwardes (Gregory Peck) when things begin to fall out of place. She discovers Edwardes is not who he says he is, but rather a man simply acing as the doctor as he battles with his own mental issues, amnesia, and the suspicion that he had killed the real Edwardes. Due to her feelings for him Petersen follows this mystery man, now going by the pseudonym of John Brown) in hope to discover his true self and exonerate him of the supposed crime, leaving the hospital in the hands of the former head doctor, Dr. Murchison (Leo G. Carrol).

Peterson with the help of her mentor, played by Michael Chekhov, help decipher a reoccurring surreal dream that Brown shares. They attempt to match the images and visions to actual events Brown had seen or experienced constructing together Brown’s true self and he nature of Edwardes’ demise. This surrealistic dream designed by artist Salvador Dali is filled with bizarre men, including one without a face, with odd objects and action that could be likened to a medically induced hallucination. Ultimately Brown discovers himself as John Ballantyne, piece together the traumatizing accident that had haunted him and the actions surrounding him witnessing Dr. Edwardes’ murder at the hands of the jealous Dr. Murchison.

Not necessarily Hitchcock’s best suspense picture in his résumé of Hollywood features, the film remains quite entertaining and refreshingly different as a psychological thriller that attempts to visualize the sometimes unusual nature of dreams. Overall the film’s plot feels conventional in nature, with moments of Hitchcock-ian suspense, although watered down from his usual bravura. Its interesting nature lies with the bizarre style of Salvador Dali thrown in with the dream sequence, clearly the most unique scene in the feature.

The product that is Spellbound originates from producer David O. Selznick, the famed man behind one of Gone with the Wind and Hitchcock’s Academy Award American debut feature Rebecca. Hitchcock’s original Hollywood contract with Selznick binded him to three picture and brought the British filmmaker instant success. However, Selznick was not one to play second fiddle to the features he produced. With Rebecca the two had creative difference that although culminated with a Oscar for Best Picture, clearly kept Hitchcock from achieving his clear cinematic vision, essentially making Hitchcock’s produce more conventional that he would have liked.

For the second of the three picture deal together Selznick wanted a movie about the psychology, after having seen his own personal success with seeing a psychotherapist. The decision was to adapted the 1927 novel “The House of Dr. Edwardes,” a psychological thriller penned by two British writers under the pseudonym Francis Beeding.

Casting of the lead roles would not go to the first choices of director or producer, eventually landing of Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck. Bergman was coming off a string of highly successful features including Casablanca, For Whom the Bell Tolls, and Gaslight, becoming one of Hollywood’s more recognizable actresses. Hitchcock would take the liking to the Swedish born star as future productions would feature Bergman as his cool blonde, a trait the director unashamedly would carry in films for decades to come.  The 29 year-old Gregory Peck was a success on the stage and was making his first successes in Hollywood on to becoming one of the industry’s leading actors. The two shared great chemistry both on and off screen. A few short years after Bergman’s death in the 1980s Peck would reveal the two shared a love affair during their time on production. The two professionals kept the relationship a secret as the two stars were married to others at the time. The affair was short lived and Peck attributed the short fling to being young and in close quarters for the period of production.

Hitchcock was an admirer of Salvador Dali and recruited the unconventional visual artist to help bring his style to the surreal apparitions of the dream sequence which the plot revolves around. It was claimed that when the scene was first shot and edited that the sequence was far too long. Bergman, years later, claimed it to be as long as 20 minutes. Selznick disapproved of the sequence and forced the scene to be cut down to two minutes, as well as re-shoots that did not include Hitchcock’s own input.

Disagreements such as the alteration of a major segment in the picture led further to the straining professional relationship between producer and director. The scene remained a highly creative portion that haunted some viewers long after watching the picture, and despite being inspired by Hitchcock’s original idea, it was not what Hitchcock envisioned for his film, widening the rift between the two. Despite all the turmoil. Selznick’s production would be nominated for Best Picture, Hitchcock for Best Director, and even the film for Best Special Effects with help of the Dali dream scene.

The picture was an international critical and financial success. Nominated for six Academy Awards the picture took home prize for Best Original Score for Miklós Rózsa’s amazing score which featured the unique use of the theremin. This electronic instrument that used invisible waves manipulated by hands to create different pitches of sound would become later known for creating the cheap, yet unique soundtracks of many science fiction films of the 1950s and 1960s. Róza saw in it an eerie quality that added to the surreal plot and visions shared in the feature.

Despite the continued quarrel between producer and director over creative differences, Spellbound was one of the finest pictures of the year. As awards go, this along with Rebecca, was one of Alfred Hitchcock’s most successful pictures in his career. Much of the picture does not have the general feel of Hitchcock’s usual style, but there are wonderful moments that simply scream out “that is Hitchcock!” for his lovely use of suspense and drama.

To watch Spellbound is not to give one a sense of the filmmaker auteur qualities, but it is a study of how the filmmaker can yield a well concocted motion picture despite a controlling producer. Although David O. Selznick is not one to scoff at as he was the man behind of a few of the all-time classics from Hollywood’s “Golden Age.” With the mix of producer, director, artist, and stars, Spellbound is a marvelous picture for any old Hollywood movie admirer.

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