Alfred Hitchcock‘s Spellbound commits the cardinal artistic sin of trying so hard to tell us something important that it tells us nothing insightful or interesting. It puzzles me why a director who generally understood better than any other the power of the camera to show rather than tell would want to pontificate about the use of psychoanalysis to investigate repressed memories as if he were delivering a thesis at a symposium of mental-health professionals.The film constitutes little more than dime-store Freudian pedantry.
The blame, however, may lie more with control-freak producer David O. Selznick, who wanted to use the film to trumpet the wondrous efficacy of psychoanalysis. The reason? Selznick himself claimed to be one of the beneficiaries of this new “science.” Selznick unequivocally presents his agenda at the beginning. After quoting fragments of two lines from Shakespeare‘s Julius Caesar—Cassius’s “the fault lies not in our stars but in ourselves”—the film’s textual preamble lectures about how psychoanalysis represents a panacea that can “free the souls” of the sane from evil. Stuart Smalley would love to use this film in one of his 12-step programs. “Only you can help you,” as his self-help mantra goes.
The principal subject of the film’s mental dissection is John Ballantyne (Gregory Peck), an amnesiac who’s suspected of murdering a psychoanalyst at a mental institution (called Green Manors—how’s that for rosy optimism), then attempting to take his place. The problem is that despite fessing up to the deed, he doesn’t remember having done it. At the behest of the institution’s sinister ex-director, Dr. Murchison (Leo G. Carroll), most of the doctors can’t wait to send him to the gallows. Luckily for him, Dr. Constance Petersen (Ingrid Bergman) is convinced that he couldn’t have done it; rather she believes he’s the victim of a self-imposed “guilt complex.” She even manages to convince her skeptical former mentor in Freudianism, Dr. Brulov (Michael Chekhov), of his innocence. After all, Ballantyne has a handsome face. And naturally, it only takes her a couple of hours to fall in love with him.
Contrived romances are one of Hitchcock’s trademarks, but he usually exploits them to much greater effect. In Spellbound, there’s no conflict to keep things interesting. No tragic female caught between duty and desire as in North by Northwest or Notorious. Or complex identity crisis as in Vertigo. Petersen’s and Ballantyne’s love for each other is steadfast, unconditional, and, well, boring. Peck’s and Bergman’s wooden performances don’t help matters any, particularly Peck’s, which has as much life as a toy soldier’s. He might as well have been playing the soporific lawyer from The Paradine Case. Bergman does strain hard to find meaning in the clumsily didactic script by Ben Hecht but, with her string of truisms about recalling childhood memories, fails to make her feelings seem like anything more than the normal clinical interest associated with a doctor-patient relationship.
Even the dream sequence designed by famed surrealist painter Salvador Dali, visually provocative though it may be, can’t save the film from its snore-inducing messaging. As in another of Dali’s collaborations, the silent short Un Chien Andalou of Luis Buñuel, the sequence’s principal image is an eyeball that’s being torn apart, presumably symbolizing the proverbial mind’s eye and its blinding through dreams. There’s also a scantily clad waitress, men playing cards, and a man wearing a ski mask looking like a criminal. In other words, it’s pure nonsense, except by association. Such stream-of-consciousness thinking (read: shock for its own sake), juxtaposed against a barrage of academic and psychological point-making, sticks out like a monsoon in the Sahara.
Hitchcock’s own visual touches abound and are one of the film’s few bright spots. In addition to the usual lovers’ close-ups, there’s a series of doors opening in succession, evocative of an entrée into the workings of the mind, and a letter on the floor from Ballantyne that no one seems to notice but Petersen (she’s the only one who loves him, after all). At least a few glimmers of Hitch’s customary power to suggest shine through.
Alas, in a word, the film lacks tension, that defining feature of the thriller genre and usually one of the director’s greatest strengths. Hitchcock would later indulge in other ponderous ruminations about the repressed mind—for example, in Marnie and Psycho. But in those two films, we were at least eagerly anticipating the final outcome, waiting to see whether Marnie’s catatonia and man hatred were curable or whether Mr. Norman Bates truly self-identified with his mother. (The final scene of Psycho is admittedly anticlimactic filler, but it pales by comparison with Spellbound‘s pontifications.) In Spellbound, by contrast, we never doubt for a second that Petersen and Ballantyne will live happily ever after or that Ballantyne will be cured. I don’t mind admitting that I had no sympathy for Ballantyne’s plight anyway and wished that his banal thoughts would be swallowed up by the caverns of his mind and never again see the light of day.
Joe’s Grade: C