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Hitchcock’s SPELLBOUND is the Weirdest Movie Ever

Hitchcock’s SPELLBOUND is the Weirdest Movie Ever

One of the many reasons the TCM Film Festival–which has taken place in Los Angeles in the spring for the past nine years–is my favorite festival to attend is that it affords people the opportunity to catch up on classics they may have missed, projected on the big screen, often in brand new restorations or, more enjoyably, on very old nitrate film prints, which are rare. If that classic you’ve never seen happens to be an Alfred Hitchcock movie, then you’re really in for a treat. This year’s allowed me to finally see his 1945 film Spellbound and it might well be the most preposterous thing I’ve ever seen, in a way only Hitch could make it.

Almost all of Hitchcock’s movies play up suspense and melodrama for the purposes of making audiences uneasy, and a great many of his most famous films employ some sort of logical leap, a flight of fancy that allows the movie to work but doesn’t quite bear the scrutiny of real life. This is perfectly fine; it’s a narrative film and not a documentary. But with Spellbound, it’s possible the logical leaps only worked for the time, because a lot of the revelations and twists are based on a rudimentary understanding of psychological and medical practices that were new and sexy at the time. Like amnesia. Oooh, what’s “amnesia?!”

The movie is called Spellbound, but a more appropriate title might be Malpractice: The Movie, because it features psychiatrists acting astoundingly unprofessional–in ways that might actively harm their patients. Another apt title could be Well That Couldn’t Happen, because of how spectacularly far-fetched most of the narrative twists are. That said, there’s a great deal to admire about the movie, not least of which is the infamous Salvador Dali dream sequence. Also, for a movie that features the classic beauty of Ingrid Bergman, Hitchcock’s camera decides to take her subjective point of view for much of the proceedings, as she gazes at the handsome, career-threatening visage of Gregory Peck.

The movie is set at Green Manors, a psychological hospital in Vermont, and centers on Dr. Constance Petersen (Bergman), the lone female doctor on the staff. She’s often the object of jape from her male colleagues due to her bookish, cold nature and the fact that she seems utterly disinterested in men and romance (gasp!). The longtime head of the asylum, Dr. Murchison (Leo G. Carroll), is retiring and will be replaced by a famous psychiatrist named Dr. Anthony Edwardes (Peck). Almost immediately, Dr. Petersen is besotted by the handsome and accomplished Edwardes, but all is not as it seems.

The doctors can’t help but notice Dr. Edwardes has some strange compulsions; if he sees anything approaching parallel lines (like the pattern on a bedspread or fork lines in a tablecloth) he begins to lose his mind and become incensed, only to be calmed down shortly thereafter and act like nothing has happened. After opening her mind barriers to him because of love (Hitchcock shows us these doors opening), Petersen discovers he’s not who he says he is, after comparing his handwriting to the handwriting of Edwardes’ signature in a book in her library.

That–plus the fact that he clearly doesn’t know anything about what he says he does–lets her know this man is an impostor. The man comes clean, says he has severe amnesia, but he knows that the real Dr. Edwardes is dead, and he must have killed him. Rather than go to the police, which he’s trying to do, Dr. Petersen leaves her job to go on the lam with this man she just met, because she knows he’s not really a murderer.

From there it’s a typical Hitchcock road movie, with Petersen and John Doe heading to find answers, and aid from her mentor Dr. Alex Brulov (Michael Chekhov), before the authorities catch up. But this is precisely where some of Hitchcock’s best suspense happens. For most of the movie, we’re not sure we can trust Peck, because whenever he sees parallel lines on a white background, he goes into what could be a murderous trance, but Petersen is sure he’s innocent, she just needs to break him down, which is something a doctor can do, but not the person who’s got the hots for him. For 1945, there’s some palpable sexual tension, like something out of a 1990s Cinemax erotic thriller. You know they’re gonna bone somethin’ fierce but since it’s a WWII-era flick, they won’t do it onscreen.

And all of this comes from Gregory Peck being a sexy hunk of a man. Spellbound was only his fourth feature film in two years, and his second film–1944’s The Keys of the Kingdom–garnered him a Best Actor nomination at the Oscars. He was 29 in Spellbound and he’s given the kind of soft-focus, stare-down-the-barrel closeups Hitchcock would usually save for sexy blondes like Grace Kelly, Kim Novak, and Eva Marie Saint. Bergman herself was coming off of her star-making turn in 1942’s Casablanca and was fresh off an Oscar win for 1944’s Gaslight. Despite her beauty–and youth; she was only 30 in Spellbound–Hitchcock would often make her not the object of the gaze, but the subject, as he’d do later in 1946’s Notorious as someone taken in by the altogether more sinister Cary Grant.

But just look at that picture above! This is a shot from the moment after Peck’s character wakes up after dozing off in an armchair. Bergman has just discovered he’s an impostor and is coming to confront him, and instead he looks at her like that and she melts. Her care for him–be it lust, affection, or genuine care for his well-being–becomes her one weakness and propels her further into the land of malpractice and possible ruining of career. While I wouldn’t classify the movie as a straight up and down Film Noir, it’s Bergman’s character who would fulfill the flawed hero role while Peck is the mysterious femme fatale. Or “L’homme fatale,” as is the case.

The most famous sequence in the movie is the dream sequence, designed by surrealist painter and public figure Salvador Dali. Dali had designed a much more elaborate sequence but producer David O. Selznick thought it was too much. As a result, the most lauded, publicized bit of the entire movie lasts a paltry two minutes and 40 seconds. It happens fairly late in the film, and it eventually plays into the discovery of Peck’s character’s real identity and memories, and ultimately to the guilt of the person who killed the real Edwardes.

Much like amnesia, dream therapy was new and sexy and all the rage at the time, so of course it’d be used in the movie. Dali’s work was equally new and hip, so put it all together and you get one of Hitchcock’s most cutting-edge films…or is it just silly? Looking at it now, the sequence is pretty impressive, if brief, but Peck suddenly remembers a dream, that’s all abstract and fluid, and somehow Bergman is able to put everything together and not only prove he didn’t kill the real Edwardes but eventually figure out who did. It’s narrative leap after narrative leap.

Hitchcock always played fast and loose with logic, but Spellbound might take the cake. His movies tended to have what he famously a MacGuffin, a “something” that makes the plot happen but isn’t actually all that important–the microfilm, the stolen cash, Maltese Falcon. Spellbound‘s MacGuffin might just be the memory, the truth behind Peck’s amnesia. Because once you’ve watched Ingrid Bergman fall quickly in love with a Gregory Peck with no memory and a possible homicidal streak, is any amount of truth really going to matter?

Images: United Artists

Kyle Anderson is the Associate Editor for Nerdist. He is the writer of 200 reviews of weird or obscure films in Schlock & Awe. Follow him on Twitter!

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