Spellbound (1945)

A Selznick International Film, USA, 111 minutes, black and white

Producer: David O Selznick
Based on the novel The House of Dr Edwardes by Francis Beeding
Adaptation: Angus MacPhail
Screenplay: Ben Hecht
Music: Miklós Rózsa
Photography: George Barnes
Editor: William Ziegler
Production designer: James Basevi
Dream sequence: Salvador Dalí

Dr Constance Petersen: Ingrid Bergman
John Ballantine: Gregory Peck
Dr Alex Brulov: Michael Chekhov
Dr Murchison: Leo G Carroll
Dr Fleurot: John Emery
Mary Carmichael: Rhonda Fleming
Harry: Donald Curtis
Garmes: Norman Lloyd
Dr Graff: Steven Geray
Dr Hanish: Paul Harvey
Hotel masher: Wallace Ford
Hotel detective: Bill Goodwin
Sgt Gillespie: Regis Toomey
Lieut Cooley: Art Baker
Ticket taker: Irving Bacon

While Spellbound won warm audience approval as one of the most popular Hollywood films of the 1940s, the critics remain divided over this 1945 Alfred Hitchcock thriller famous for its dream sequence designed by the surrealist artist Salvador Dalí.

While some see the movie as one of the rotund, brilliant, London-born director's finest films, others denigrate it as an average effort with phoney psychoanalytic overtones. François Truffaut, in a famous book on Hitchcock based on face-to-face interviews, curtailed discussion of Spellbound to get on to the director's next film, Notorious, which he found much more interesting.

In fact, this vastly enjoyable movie expertly combines a classic Hitchcock murder mystery with the Hollywood gloss and star performances expected of a David O Selznick production of that era.

Hitchcock (1899-1980) later said that the end result was some way from what he wanted with the plot too complex and the lushly romantic musical score too intrusive. The film also reflects the input of Selznick, the domineering producer who had Hitchcock under contract to his independent film studio.

Spellbound is, however, the first major American film about psychoanalysis, the method of curing people's neurotic problems by investigating their distressing and often unconscious life experiences.

Sigmund Freud, the founder of the psychoanalytic movement, had died six years previously at a time when his ideas were becoming all the rage in America.

Selznick himself had been in analysis since 1943 at the suggestion of Spellbound's screenwriter, Ben Hecht, although the producer often claimed that he was analysing his shrink rather than the other way around.

In any event, he brought in the good lady, Dr May Romm, as a technical advisor on the movie, leading to friction with the director. At one point Hitchcock told an interfering Dr Romm: 'My dear, it's only a movie.'

Romm might well have complained that analysts don't run off with their patients in the way in which the Ingrid Bergman character does in Spellbound but the fact remains that this plot device makes for an entertaining movie.

Another point to note was that during filming Hitchcock became infatuated with his leading lady. Bergman did not reciprocate and the director was forced (as often happened, apparently) to channel his frustrated libido into his movie-making.

Spellbound was a highly personal project for Hitchcock, who inserted these moving lines into the script: 'People often feel guilt over something they never did. It usually goes back to their childhood. The child often wishes something terrible would happen to someone and if something does happen to that person, the child believes he has caused it. And he grows up with a guilt complex that was only a child's bad dream.'

One can only speculate as to how much these words mirrored the experiences of Hitchcock in his own family.

Incidentally the title Spellbound, which refers to the amnesia/guilt complex of the Gregory Peck character, was suggested by a secretary at the Selznick studio.

Spellbound also boasts a fine musical score by Miklós Rózsa, expert photography by George Barnes and fine performances by Ingrid Bergman, Gregory Peck, Leo G Carroll and Michael Chekhov. Although Hitchcock did not get on terribly well with the 28-year-old Peck, he coached Bergman, 29, to a confident, intelligent performance.

As almost always with Hitchcock, the film is about murder. It includes his classic 'transference of guilt' theme in which an innocent man is accused of a crime he did not commit and is wrongfully pursued by the police.

This harks back to an incident in his childhood when he was locked in a police cell on the orders of his father for a misdemeanour he neither committed nor understood. 'Unlock the doors. You can't keep people in cells,' says the Peck character.

Spellbound is set in Green Manors, a cosy mental institution in Vermont where the staff spend as much time romancing each other as they do treating their patients.

The chief shrink, Dr Murchison (Carroll), is standing down to make way for a younger man Dr Anthony Edwardes (Peck). However, all is not what it seems and Edwardes turns out to be an imposter who swiftly cracks under pressure.

However, when he is befriended by the irresistible Dr Constance Petersen (Bergman), the stage is set for a vintage Hitchcockian cross-country pursuit as the pair try to solve the mystery of what happened to the real Dr Edwardes while dodging the cops.

After hiding out in the Empire State Hotel and Grand Central Station in New York, Dr Petersen seeks refuge at the home of her mentor, the cuddly Dr Brulov (Chekhov), who psychoanalyses her patient in record time (20 minutes!) with help from Dalí's startling dream sequence. Dreams, of course, were a major source of inspiration in the Spanish master's work.

Hitchcock wanted to film this sequence outdoors in bright sunlight to get away from the traditional way of showing movie dreams as hazy and blurred round the edges. Selznick vetoed this as too costly and the sequence was shot in the film studio.

What appears on screen is only a small part of the longer sequence originally planned but is still a mightily effective evocation of the dream state - a series of Dalí paintings come to life.

It gives us curtains with eyes painted on them, scissors cutting through the eyes (shades of Dalí's 1929 film Un Chien Andalou), a man without a face holding a small wheel on a rooftop and a man running down a slope pursued by a winged figure.

Not included in the final print was Dalí's idea of a statue which opens to reveal Ingrid Bergman inside covered in ants.

Dalí's work on the film is equalled by some of Hitchcock's directorial touches, notably the shot of doors opening into a brightly lit distance after the first kiss between Peck and Bergman, the extreme close-up of a spiked glass of milk, and the subjective camera shot of the suicide of the villain, which made use of a giant mechanical hand.

The film is also enhanced by several wryly comic moments involving attempts by some of the minor cast members, Dr Fleurot (John Emery) and hotel sex pest (Wallace Ford) to romance Dr Petersen.

Not surprisingly, they fail and it is left to 'JB', the dashing mystery man played by Peck to win her hand, but not before they have almost leaped off the edge of a cliff together during a skiing trip to rekindle his memory of the traumatic incident in his childhood which left him literally spellbound.

This scene with its laughable back-projection is the weakest in the film. It presumably did not look so unconvincing in the 40s when audiences presumably thought the stars really were on the edge of a cliff.

If old-fashioned special effects can spoil Hitchcock movies for modern audiences, nothing can detract from the subtle scripting, direction and acting in this film.

The denouement in which the real murderer is unmasked is a masterpiece of understated acting. The murderer then turns his gun on himself - two frames of the film are painted red - to leave the way clear for Bergman and Peck to share the final clinch.

Two other stalwart actors also help make Spellbound a gem to be watched over and over again. Leo G Carroll, who appeared in more Hitchcock films than any other actor, shines as the fatherly Dr Murchison while Michael Chekhov, a nephew of the great Russian playwright, has several fine moments as Dr Brulov.

Chekhov was considered such a fine actor in his day that many drama schools in America still bear his name.

Spellbound gave him one of his relatively few good roles in the movies. He also has the funniest dialogue including this comment to Dr Petersen: 'Women make the best psychoanalysts until they get married. Then they make the best patients.' Later he tells her: 'Goodnight and happy dreams, which we will analyse in the morning.'

The dream, meanwhile, is more a series of clues to a murder mystery than a Freudian revelation. To divulge its meaning would be to spoil the film's ending for anyone who hasn't seen it.

Spellbound is a charming, strangely innocent film and a foretaste of Hitchcock's later classics which look at disturbed mental states, Vertigo (1959) and Psycho (1960).

It was Oscar-nominated in several categories including best picture. It won one award for Rózsa's music, which uses an early electronic instrument, the theremin, to create spooky, ghost-like effects. Hitchcock was nominated for best director but lost to Billy Wilder for The Lost Weekend.