A true Hitchcockian thriller with a strong theoretical basis in psychoanalytic psychology, Spellbound (1945, dir. Alfred Hitchcock) is a mystery wrapped in the symbolism of its own story. Psychiatrist Dr Constance Petersen (Ingrid Bergman), who is regarded as cold and emotionless by her peers, is charmed by the new director of the mental institution in which she works, Dr Anthony Edwardes (Gregory Peck). When Dr Edwardes is revealed to have a complex and forgotten past, Dr Petersen feels the need to protect his identity whilst also assisting him to recover his lost memory.
I have always intended to watch Spellbound, solely based on the fact that there is one dream sequence that was conceived and designed by Salvador Dali and Hitchcock together. The concept of two visual geniuses working together was so exciting to me, that I didn’t really consider what the rest of the film might be like – I was focused on seeing that scene and that scene alone. However, what I found when watching Spellbound for the first time, is that it is a very solid mystery thriller, and that it was particularly interesting to me given that the vast majority of my university study has been in the field of psychology and counselling.
For those who don’t have much experience or knowledge of the field of psychology or psychoanalysis, the film conveniently opens with an explanation of psychoanalysis. The opening titles state that the intention of psychoanalysis is to assist a person to “open the locked doors of the mind”, with a description and identification of Freudian ‘complexes’ that can be resolved, and in so doing “the evils of unreason are driven from the human soul”. I quite loved these initial titles as it was a statement of the film’s point of view. There are a million different approaches within the huge umbrella of psychology, and the Freudian approach is certainly the most well known. For those who don’t know much of Freud apart from penis envy and blaming the parents, these titles were a good way to begin. It is also worth noting that although this approach is sort of dated in today’s day and age (where solution-focused, recovery-focused, and cognitive behaviour therapies are in fashion), this approach is still very valid – although the methods seen in the film definitely show signs of decay (e.g. popping someone on some medication and stating “he’ll be better in a few days”).
I love Gregory Peck and Ingrid Bergman almost as much as each other, and I am happy to say that they are both luminous in Spellbound. Bergman in particular is simultaneously commanding and vulnerable in her role as a female psychiatrist at the male-dominated institution in which she works; she is the target of sexism and blatant sexual harrassment, yet in order to maintain her position and career trajectory, she must tolerate and deflect. It is humorous to note that the majority of her character’s supposed failings are consistently attributed to her being female and having a woman’s perspective on a man’s field of study. Although Dr Petersen’s actions in the film are blatantly unethical in terms of approaching the therapist-client relationship, the way that she acts this relationship feels entirely human, with the conflict between her professional role and personal feelings on clear display. Gregory Peck also maintains the delicate balance of power and vulnerability with a masculine edge; some of his lines are delivered directly to camera where we are treated to an intense delivery of increasingly irregular behaviour. It is worth noting that Bergman and Peck had an extra-marital affair whilst on the set of Spellbound, and this chemisty is extremely evident as their connection on screen appears genuine – either it’s their supreme acting talent on display, or it’s something more than that. In any case, it’s difficult to take your eyes away from this pair.
Hitchcock’s direction is flawless as always. His camera collects shadows and light, and shapes shrouded in smoke, the overall effect being that your eye doesn’t quite know where to rest – leading to a tense and unsafe feeling. Throughout Spellbound, he continually makes an otherwise mundane scene tense by showing objects of threat to the audience, but not the characters in the scene. There is one scene where a character drinks a glass of milk that is not only shot impeccably, but is one of the most tense moments in the film; and you would never guess that a scene where someone drinks milk might feel that way. However, there are also sweet moments, and the romantic parts of the story are treated to some beautiful shots that rest directly on the faces of two lovers as they regard one another. I particularly loved one moment as Dr Petersen shares a romantic moment, and we see into her mind as doors are unlocked and opened one after the other – as aforementioned, the film defines the goal of psychoanalysis as unlocking the doors of the mind. It therefore implies that Dr Petersen sharing a romantic moment, allowing herself to be vulnerable and shedding her cold exterior, may be a kind of therapy for her. This is but one of the film’s amazing symbolic moments.
The aforementioned dream sequence is also one of my most favourite symbolic moments of Spellbound. This dream leads to an adventure with clues from the subconscious that are reflected in the dream. In the dream, a room is described that has eyes all around, eyes on a curtain which is cut in half, and other innocuously symbolic images that are key to the mystery of the story. As also aforementioned, this scene was a collaboration between Hitchcock and Salvador Dali. It was originally intended to be about twenty minutes in length, however was mercilessly cut down to a couple of minutes. The direction in this dream sequence feels a lot like Dali’s Un Chien Andalou (1929), where the direction is a lot more fluid, surreal and (surprise) dream-like when compared with the rest of the film. There is some typical Dali imagery such as atypical shapes in buildings and rocks, melting objects, faceless men, and long shadows across expanses of land. I would have loved to have seen the original twenty-minute cut of the dream, because what we see in a mere two minutes is quite beautiful indeed.
Ultimately, what makes Spellbound a truly psychoanalytic affair is the fact that the dream, although it is highly surreal and symbolic, is the resolution to the mystery at hand. Spellbound is a solid mystery slash psychological thriller in true Hitchcock style, with two wonderful leading actors and a difficult puzzle that requires solving. I don’t think I’ve ever heard people discussing Spellbound when discussing Hitchcock’s prolific filmography. It goes without saying that he has a couple of other iconic films that steal quite a lot of the spotlight. As a result, I didn’t have a high expectation for Spellbound, but I was pleasantly surprised – it is a truly fascinating film and one that is well worth a watch, whether you are interested in psychology, or just enjoy psychological thrillers.
Watch the trailer here.