Even typing the name of this film gives me a tremor of pleasure – it’s marvellous, inventive and ambitious and succeeds on just about every level. Personally, I think James Stewart is the ultimate Hitchcock star, followed of course by Cary Grant – but Gregory Peck in ‘Spellbound’ gives them both a good innocent-man-on-the-run for their money.
The film opens with two sets of captions, the first from ‘Julius Caesar’:
‘The fault – is not in the stars but in ourselves’ – Shakespeare, seeming to express that people’s mental disabilities are their own responsibility and can therefore be solved by themselves. The second (scrolling) caption moves up the screen (the first instance of this I believe in a Hitchcock movie) and explains various psychoanalytical terms and the intention of the story.
Peck plays ‘Dr. Anthony Edwardes’, who ostensibly is the next boss at Green Manors asylum run by Leo G. Carroll (playing Dr. Murchison – I love Leo G. Carroll). Ingrid Bergman plays Dr. Constance Petersen, whose cold-fishedness is thawed by the incoming head doc. But (who would have thought it) not all is as it seems – ‘Dr. Edwardes’ is actually an amnesiac patient himself and is then suspected of murdering the real Dr. Edwardes by shoving him off a snowbound cliff (shades of ‘Secret Agent’ here). ‘Edwardes’ – now known as ‘John Brown’ and later by his real name John Ballantine, goes on the run, aided by the loved up Dr. Petersen. Together they unravel that the real villain is Murchison himself who finally twists the (big, false-handed and a little unconvincing/mechanical) gun on himself.
The photography in the film is luminously beautiful, strong blacks and bright whites giving the whole production a feel of sophistication and great style – it’s a complete pleasure to watch just as a visual experience.* Graceful camera moves abound – a lovely one where the nympho patient (played by Rhonda Fleming) of Petersen lies on the couch and the camera glides around them or later when Ballantine realises he has third degree burns on his wrist. Hitchcock uses many seemingly effortless camera moves to tell his tale – even later pulling off a camera move that prefigures the transitions in ‘Rope’, Ballantine moving past the camera in the guest room scene, but in this case without a transition cut, very elegant**. There are also a fair amount of longish takes in ‘Spellbound’ that also feel like the director is pushing these boundaries.
Petersen’s first sighting of Edwardes/Ballantine is backed by a sweeping theme, the first real music since the credits, and Hitchcock uses Miklos Rosza’s music as a key storytelling technique: the romantic theme ruptured by the more discordant as Ballantine sees the pattern on Petersen’s dressing gown/later, when he realizes later that he is not who he thinks he is, there is an even more clashing refrain.
Bergman is great at evoking the slow awakening of a woman whose sexuality has remained buried in books for so long. Hitchcock opens the film up by having them go off to the country for an excursion – showing the fusty docs back at the Hospital seated at their usual table – but the two chairs that the new couple had occupied so closely remain tellingly empty. When they kiss, Hitchcock illustrates her awakening in a way that only he would and could do: a shot of a series of four doors opening into the distance – absolutely brilliant. By the time Petersen realizes the new man in her life is an imposter it’s too late, she already loves him.
The repeated Ballantine-losing-it scenes are well handled and intriguing – he seeing something in the lines of the tines of a fork on a tablecloth and the pattern of a bedcover which remain a mystery until the dream-scene payoff/reveal.
This is all great, confounding the audience as well as the characters in a really puzzling and fascinating manner. And, ultimately, it all adds up and makes sense – although I am slightly confused about why Ballantine turns up at the asylum in the guise of Edwardes in the first place. The scene where he is about to have a shave but is then tripped off by the sheer amount of whiteness in the bathroom is pure Hitchcock – Ballantine descending the staircase clutching a straight razor, the good Dr. Alex Brulof (Michael Chekhov) offering him milk as the razor looms large – the milk consumed as a p.o.v. shot through the glass.
This stuff beggers belief, the matching of narrative to style to ingenious ideas is staggering. The director is at his peak, the apotheosis of the director/storyteller. Plus, the milk’s full of bromide to knock out the razor-clutching mentalist Ballantine.
The skiing scenes are quite clearly false and offer up some very creaky back projection, and combined with Rosza’s racey music it comes across as quite funny from a modern perspective – but I have to say it’s forgivable in the grand scheme of the film. The pace of the narrative by this point is pretty relentless and so these pass by at some speed – it’s all so revealing and exciting that it doesn’t seem to really matter (the whole reveal of him accidently killing his little brother is thrown into this section superbly also). As they scream towards the snowy precipice it seems impossible for them to stop – but stop they do. Petersen looks genuinely scared of what Ballantine may do, he more manically staring across at her as they ski towards their destiny.
Bergman’s wardrobe throughout the film becomes more and more relaxed – from the opening scenes of starchy buttoned up primness, through to the casual pullover in the snow lodge scenes, it’s a lovely subtle way of thawing her out with her newfound love. The fairly abstract (but not that extreme in comparison to other sections of the film) dissolving montage as she pleads his case is good – the previous opening doors becoming prison bars shadowing her ever more desperate face.
As the slow dawning realization that Murchison is the bad guy occurs to her, Hitchcock pulls out classic profile shots of Bergman for emphasis.
Of course, one unparalleled set piece in the picture is the central Salvador Dali-created dream sequence that is absolutely wonderful. Ballantine relates his dream and the camera slickly, and repeatedly, zooms to his temple and we enter into this fantastic image-laden sequence of distorted perspective, bent wheels, scissors, eyes, extreme slopes and running figures. It’s something to behold and is very Dalinian – and also evokes Georgio de Chirico in its playful perspectives. Hitchcock deliberately shoots in a sharp, focused manner, eschewing the usual fuzzy soft focus dream sequences so commonly presented. (The little aside mentioning another of Petersen’s patients who dreamt of her as ‘an eggbeater’ is cheeky – it’s just dropped in casually and the most likely explanation is as some kind of testicle pounding man-hater. Nice).
Aside from the Dali dream sequence, Hitchcock executes another marvelous teeny tiny detail. As Murchison pulls the trigger on himself (that big false model hand – which actually is pretty great as it tracks across the room following Petersen) there is a two frame flash frame explosion – in red!!
This has to be the shortest colour sequence ever in a black and white movie and would have been most probably been hand tinted in the original prints. This is exactly the kind of precise detail that makes you wonder and marvel at the director’s skill and ingenuity. I am running out of superlatives…
The film does have elements of being just another variation on the innocent man on the run aided and abetted by a beautiful woman, but what a great variation – it’s dressed up in such stylish ways and has a great main theme of amnesia and murder and psychoanalysis that it works extremely well on so many different levels. It’s a smashing success, beautifully crafted and executed with universally strong performances and admirable imagination.
*The version I watched was on the UK Fremantle label and is very clean and sparkle/scratch free – they also released the very fine version of ‘Rebecca’. There is also a version available on the always dependable and impressive Criterion Collection. Anyone who includes colour bars on their releases gets my vote.
Some good staircase action in the sanitorium – Bergman going upstairs at nighttime reminiscent of Cary Grant as Johnnie in ‘Suspicion’, but without the murderous milk.
Mr. Hitchcock appears at the Empire State Hotel, emerging from a lift carrying a violin case and smoking a cigarette in a curiously effete manner – 38 minutes in.
**It looks like there are a couple of frames missing @ 1 hour 2 mins and 38 secs – the picture kicks slightly as they chat, curious…