Welcome to Paracinema’s Hitchcock appreciation month.
Throughout November, Andreas, of Pussy Goes Grrr, and I will be revisiting (and just plain old visiting) some under-discussed Hitch entries. My personal goal with the series is to fill in some of my glaring blind spots, and to reevaluate some films I thought deserved a second look. Up first for me is 1945’s Spellbound staring Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck. This is a revisit and a none too pleasant one at that. Here’s hoping the opening film doesn’t set the tone for the rest of the celebration.
It’s not easy to articulate my issues with Spellbound. I find the film sort of infuriating. From the ridiculously pandering way our heroine is treated, to the frustratingly short Salvador Dali dream sequence, there is a tone present that I just can’t get on board with.
Dr. Constance Petersen (Bergman) is at the film’s center as a cool-headed psychoanalyst. Enter Gregory Peck’s troubled amnesiac John Ballantyne and you have a love story complete with psychobabble and a wrongly accused man. And although that sounds awesome, it isn’t nearly as captivating as it reads on paper.
We quickly find out Peck is not who he appears, and there is a chance he may have killed a man and assumed his identity. But it’s too late for Bergman; she’s already (at lightening speed actually) fallen in love with the troubled man. What follows is a lot of obsessive doctoring/maternal interfering that, not surprisingly, ends in a happy, lovey-dovey place.
Not losing sight that this is a film from the mid-1940s, I detested the way the other doctors, specifically a Dr. Fleurot, treated Bergman’s character. While I’m typically able to set aside such feelings because of what was, at the time, socially acceptable (not right or fair), I couldn’t wade past lines like “Something’s missing from her life” when discussing her passion towards her profession. Because she is a successful and semi-respected doctor she is cold and has thrown herself into her work because she lacks male love. This is not an uncommon theme, but here it’s too prevalent; practically shoved down our throats whenever Bergman interacts with her colleagues.
To the character’s credit, she takes it in stride, referring to a room of pandering men as “this nursery.” But instead of relieving my agitation, this self-awareness only made the actions more infuriating. It extended far beyond the walls of the mental hospital. Bergman is harassed by a surly hotel patron, and talked down to by a foolish hotel detective. (That hotel was simply awful.) The detective goes so far as to say she must be a librarian or school teacher looking for a man. And he should know, as he fancies himself a bit of a psychologist (har har). It’s times like these that I get it. She’s not the “typical” woman: she’s a self-possessed professional. But damn, it sure made for some ugly and irredeemable characters.
Other than the deplorable side characters, the story is pretty by the books, and it takes us til the final third of the film to see some Hitchcock flourishes. Once we get to Dr. Brulov’s home, Bergman’s mentor and one of the few likable characters, we get some nifty shots including a glass of milk and a straight razor. Here we also get a taste of the fantastic Salvador Dali dream sequence. Apparently a much shorter version than intended, the scene is mesmerizing and honestly worth watching this film for. It’s a shame it didn’t remain longer. It’s this film’s anchor; what really reminds us we’re watching The Master.
Donald Spoto counts this as one of Hitchcock’s “experimental films” because of the Dali sequence. But unlike Rear Window and Rope, films that also carry that moniker, it’s not prevalent enough to make it anything but a welcome distraction. I’m sure the film has its champions, I’m just not among them. Perhaps it’s because I got wrapped up in the sexist treatment of a female doctor… either way, mine are the only eyes I have to watch with.