Spellbound is one of several psychological thrillers produced in the 1940s when psychoanalysis was all the rage. Freudian dream interpretation, guilt complexes, and the miraculous power of psychoanalysis (it can even solve murders!) take center stage in this film.
Producer David O. Selznick had apparently enjoyed a highly successful bout of psychoanalysis, and he wanted Alfred Hitchcock to make a movie about it.
Selznick was so enthused with psychoanalysis that he had his personal psychoanalyst, Dr. May Romm, employed as a “Psychiatric Advisor” on the film. Selznick had seen Dr. Romm for one year, and one Selznick biographer saw Spellbound as Selznick’s “thank you” to the doctor.
(More on Salvador Dali’s credit later…)
The whole field of psychiatry and psychoanalysis was very new to most of America, so much so that the cast and crew had to be instructed in the pronunciation of the various terms and diagnoses used in the movie. Seventeen-year-old Rhonda Fleming, who appears in the opening of the movie as a very disturbed nymphomaniac, had to ask her mother what a “nymphomaniac” was before she arrived on set. Awkward.
Director Alfred Hitchcock was under contract to David O. Selznick. So far he’d made Rebecca (1940) for Selznick, but would only make one more film for the producer after Spellbound, 1947’s The Paradine Case. (Notorious (1946) was sold to RKO after production began.)
The movie opens with a Shakespeare quote from “Julius Caesar:” The fault… is not in our stars, but in ourselves…” before giving us a handy tutorial in mental illness and psychoanalysis.
The words are superimposed over the entrance to Green Manors, the institution for the “emotional problems of the sane” in which our story begins:
Try to remember how new and exciting all of this Freudian/psychoanalysis stuff was when this film was made–that might make it seem less ridiculous. The depiction of psychoanalysis in films of this era can seem old-fashioned and even cliched now, especially the stubborn emphasis on guilt complexes reaching back to childhood, amnesia, and dream interpretation.
Most amusing to me is the doctors’ immediate unlocking of patients’ minds and dreams, and their miraculous assurances that once the repressed memory/dream/complex is brought forward, everything will be fantastic! (It usually is, too…)
Alfred Hitchcock seems to have been less enamored with psychoanalysis than Selznick: he later called this film “just another manhunt wrapped up in pseudo-psychoanalysis.”
Ingrid Bergman is a young, technically brilliant psychoanalyst employed at Green Manors. A very slender and young-looking Gregory Peck is the new director of Green Manors, but when he arrives to take his new post, everyone realizes that something isn’t quite right…murder and mayhem ensues.
The movie is based on a 1927 novel The House of Dr. Edwardes by Hilary Saint George Saunders and John Palmer. Screenwriters Angus MacPhail and Ben Hecht were hired to turn the novel into a movie. Hecht, who wrote a million amazing movies, was currently a patient of psychoanalysis, and, like Selznick, thought it was fascinating. He knew that psychoanalysis and Freudian theories would be great in a movie, so he focused the script on Bergman and Peck’s characters, eliminating the novel’s other subplots.
Hecht and Hitchcock researched the movie by visiting mental institutions in Connecticut and New York. I wonder if Ingrid Bergman, who’d spent some time in mental hospitals to research her role in Gaslight (1944), was excited or bummed to play the “sane” character this time. She’d almost lost her on-screen mind in Gaslight and won the Academy Award for her performance. But in this film she’s rational and in control…most of the time.
One of her colleagues, Dr. Fleurot (John Emery) thinks Bergman‘s Dr. Constance Peterson is much too cool and collected–he’d like to loosen her up a little.
Dr. Peterson does not remove her glasses, shake her hair from its tidy chignon, and pull Dr. Fleurot in for a passionate kiss. Instead, she tells him that he’s not the first colleague to suggest she needs to let loose; in fact, it happens quite often, and the colleague always seems to think she should go wild with him. I like her already. Unfortunately, this is only the first of many insulting female/doctor comments that come Constance’s way.
We learn in these first few minutes that the head of Green Manors, Dr. Murchison (Leo G. Carroll), has been forced to resign after suffering a mini-breakdown brought on by over-work. He’s not thrilled, but seems to accept his fate. Fun fact: Carroll acted in more Hitchcock movies than any other actor. Look for him next time you watch a Hitchcock film–he’s probably in it.
Brilliant, prolific Dr. Edwardes (Gregory Peck) is arriving that very day to assume his new post. He walks into the dining room and it’s something at first sight when he and Dr. Peterson lock gazes. You can watch his arrival at Green Manors here.
Whew! Suddenly cold Constance is feeling warmer, and it’s not just because of the lights illuminating her face in such a striking way.
Everything is great until Constance draws the shape of the proposed swimming pool with her fork on the tablecloth:
Dr. Edwardes starts to freak out and changes the subject abruptly before trying to wipe out the fork marks. Weird, right?
He recovers quickly and later that day asks Constance to show him around the grounds. Apparently Green Manors is in the middle of absolute nowhere.
There’s nothing like an afternoon stroll to fan love-at-first-sight-sparks into flames. Constance keeps her cool, though her hair escapes her normally tidy updo (a sure sign she’s loosening up!), but Dr. Edwardes in his tidy tweeds is extremely taken with her. He can’t take his eyes away, even when she asks him about the scenery. Cute, right?
Constance can’t sleep that night. So, just like any lovesick woman, she heads to the asylum library for some light reading. She chooses her crush’s latest tome.
I always say, if you can’t be with the man you love, reading his crushingly dull psychiatric study is the next best thing.
But Constance doesn’t stop there. No, she heads down the hall to Dr. Edwardes’ office and its adjoining living suite! Perhaps she’s taken Dr. Fleurot’s words to heart and is ready for some experience. Dr. Edwardes is reading beside his bed when Constance, fetchingly attired in a robe, arrives in his rooms. He’s pretty psyched to see her.
As one might expect from two people in the grips of a strong infatuation, they don’t sit calmly and discuss guilt complexes. Nope, they start in with the kissing. Hitchcock films the approach in an odd way, moving from close-up to extreme close-up on each of their faces to show them getting closer until Constance closes her eyes and the kiss is on. The film cuts to images of a hallway and doors that slowly open to reveal other doors that slowly open.
The doors-thing was Selznick’s idea and ties in nicely with the “locked doors” theme of the opening words about psychoanalysis. Selznick thought the doors were a great psychiatric symbol showing that the characters were opening up in ways they never had before. Hitchcock thought that same idea came across perfectly clearly just from the actors’ performances, but Selznick won. It seems heavy-handed and laughably symbolic to me…You can watch it here and decide for yourself.
It must have been a nice change for Ingrid Bergman to play opposite a man who was taller than she was. Bergman was 5’9, and usually her co-stars had to cheat with boxes or ramps as I discussed in my reviews of Gaslight and Notorious. But Peck was 6’3, so no tricks were needed, and Bergman didn’t have to worry about accidentally knocking her co-stars off various height-adding apparatuses.
Anyway, it seems that Constance and Dr. Edwardes are in love. The film ends.
No, it’s actually just getting started. It seems that Dr. Edwardes is much younger than anyone thought, and he seems to lack basic psychiatric knowledge, which is especially odd since he’s written several books on the subject and is an acknowledged expert. He also gets phone calls from people whom he doesn’t seem to know, and any time he sees dark lines on a white background he has a freak-out. (That’s how the kissing stuff ends, by the way. Dr. Edwardes’ notices the subtle pattern of stripes on Constance’s white robe, which kills the mood.)
Dr. Edwardes also passes out in the operating room. Apparently all the psychiatrists are also surgeons?
Constance notices that the signature in a note Dr. Edwardes sent her does not match his inscription in his book, and then he confides in her that he isn’t actually sure who he is…though the initials J.B. keep coming up in his mind.
What is going on at Green Manors?
Peck’s character, let’s call him J.B., decides to flee. He is suffering from amnesia but he’s pretty sure that he killed the real Dr. Edwardes. J.B. writes a note to Constance, slips it under her door, and leaves in the middle of the night.
Nice of him to leave a forwarding address, right?
The next morning the police show up at Green Manors searching for “Dr. Edwardes.” I wouldn’t put too much faith in their ability to find him though, since the whole crowd fails to notice the J.B.’s note beneath their feet. No one even notices Constance’s obvious reaction when she sees it. For psychoanalysts and detectives, there’s a shocking lack of observational skills.
A manhunt is underway to find J.B, whom the authorities believe was a patient of Dr. Edwardes, as another search is underway for the real Dr. Edwardes’ body. Constance is terrified that the man she loves, and believes is innocent though very mentally unstable, will be caught and imprisoned. His mind would never recover from such trauma! So off she goes to the Empire State Hotel.
It’s fortunate that she has that trim dark suit and mini-beret for such a clandestine errand. (Bergman’s husband Peter suggested that Bergman buy some of her Howard Greer-designed costumes from this film for her personal wardrobe. So she purchased $122.77 worth of pretty, boring clothes from Selznick.)
Even in her tidy, conservative outfit, Constance attracts unwanted attention from a lout in the lobby, which brings the house detective over. She says she’s searching for her husband, and he helps her figure out which guest is her beloved by comparing handwriting in the hotel register. How far has uptight, impeccably ethical Constance fallen since the beginning of the film!
Meanwhile, Alfred Hitchcock appears in his famous cameo leaving the elevator with a violin case while smoking a cigarette.
Constance finds her love, John (he registered at the hotel as John Brown), and explains to him that the truth about Dr. Edwardes is locked away inside of his memory. Most people assume that J.B. murdered Dr. Edwardes, then got amnesia as a way to cope with his horrific crime. J.B. even pretended to be Dr. Edwardes so that he wouldn’t have to face the fact that the doctor is dead…
Constance thinks thatJ.B. only witnessed the death and wasn’t responsible for it. She believes that something in John’s childhood, a longstanding guilt complex, is contributing to his amnesia. Constance tells John that she can help him through psychoanalysis, and runs an informal session in the hotel room, complete with John prostrate upon a couch. But first there is more kissing, just after Constance proclaims that she is there only as his doctor, and that it has “nothing to do with love!”
Once the kissing’ is out of the way, Constance gets down to the doctorin’.
It starts out alright, but as Constance pushes and pushes John to dig deeply into his mind, he gets frustrated:
Don’t worry, gendered slurs about Constance come up frequently in the rest of the film. Constance assures him that patients always hate their psychoanalysts at some point in the process, so it’s actually a good thing when he acts like a jerk.
Constance’s picture is in the paper as possibly assisting the fugitive, so Constance and John decide they have to move. They head to Grand Central Station, hoping that the location will unlock a piece of the puzzle for John. He seems to remember going to the station with Dr. Edwardes…
The station looks so beautiful, and I like the “Buy More War Bonds” banner hanging in the image on the right. This was filmed in July-October 1944, and released on December 28, 1945, almost five months after the end of the war. This banner is the only reference to WWII that I could find in the film.
Constance encourages a very nervous John to approach the ticket window and say what he said last time, hoping the environment and the action will trigger something in his subconscious.
It does, but just barely. He whispers “Rome” and nearly collapses at the ticket window. But he and Constance are delighted to have made some progress. So delighted they can make little insanity jokes with each other.
Hilarious, especially coming from a mental patient and his psychiatrist.
Instead of taking the train to Rome, GA, they board one for Rochester, NY, where Constance’s mentor, Dr. Brulov lives. Constance introduces John as her husband, claiming they are on their honeymoon and decided to stop by Rochester at the last minute. Dr. Brulov accepts the lie and welcomes them to stay in his house as long as they like.
That night, John wanders into the all-white bathroom and starts to shave. But the color white sends him into another fit. He takes the straight razor and walks to the bed where Constance sleeps. Are you holding your breath?
He walks downstairs instead of harming her. Dr. Brulov is still awake, and he chatters on about silly things while fetching John a glass of milk. The doctor doesn’t seem to notice the razor in John’s hand, though Hitchcock frames the shot so that we cannot look at much else.
It’s very scary, very suspenseful, and one worries terribly about John’s reaction when he sees the milk, since the color white seems to make him crazy. You can watch this scene here.
Cut to the next morning. Constance wakes up to find John gone. She goes downstairs to find Dr. Brulov slumped in a chair. Is his throat cut? No, thank goodness. He was only sleeping.
Dr. Brulov explains to Constance that he knew something was up as soon as she arrived at his house. A woman like her would never get married so quickly! Plus, Dr. Brulov is an excellent doctor and noticed John’s symptoms. So when John came downstairs in a trance-like state with a razor, Dr. Brulov drugged his milk and knocked him out to keep Constance and himself safe. The scene ended on this cool shot through John’s glass of milk, which hid the ending of the scene from the audience until I ruined it for you. Nicely done, Hitch.
John is still stretched out on the couch sleeping off his drugging. Dr. Brulov is rather clever, eh? I’m glad John didn’t murder him. Dr. Brulov is played by famous acting coach Michael Chekhov who also happened to be Anton Chekhov’s nephew. Bergman took acting lessons from Chekhov in the 1940s, so it’s a nice real-life twist to have him play her mentor in this film.
He’s kind of a sexist jerk, though. He berates her for her actions, though I grant you, it is pretty dumb to take a very mentally disturbed and possibly murderous individual on a road trip, especially when you’re both being sought by the police.
Then he finishes his lecture with this gem:
If I learned anything from this movie, it’s that women really shouldn’t be doctors. And they definitely shouldn’t if they are in love. Thanks, Spellbound! Isn’t it ironic that at first Constance was criticized for being too cold and clinical, and lacking real world experience in love, and now she’s criticized for being too warm and irrational, and actually having that experience? She can’t win. She never should have become a doctor.
You just have to shake your head at stuff like this in old movies, or perhaps shake your fist at the screen to make yourself feel better. For the record, women definitely should be doctors.
Anyway, back to the movie. Here’s Hitchcock working with Peck and Bergman on this scene:
When John wakes up, he announces that he’s had a dream. The two Freudian psychoanalysts jump into action. This is what they do!
John tells them about a casino with eyes everywhere, and a man cutting the eye-covered draperies with giant scissors. There’s a man in a mask, terrific landscapes with steep precipices, John running from a winged something, and the masked man on a roof dropping a wheel.
The dream sequence was designed by Salvador Dali, and it’s super-weird and very dream-like. Hitchcock and Selznick wanted to do a dream sequence that was more “realistic” and less hazy colored smoke, the way that Hollywood usually did dreams.
Dali worked with Hitchcock on various images and then created five paintings, getting $1,000 for each one. The budgeting department estimated it would cost $150,000 just to film the dream the way that Dali wanted it. (That was how much Hitchcock was being paid to direct the film, by the way). Selznick was about the cancel the whole thing, but Hitchcock and his team came up with a way to use projections of the paintings and other special effects that would only cost $20,000, so Selznick agreed to keep the dream in the film.
The dream was originally planned to be about 22 minutes–can you imagine? It was cut to two minutes in the finished movie, but a lot more was planned and filmed. One sequence was to have shown Ingrid Bergman turning into a statue. She was covered in plaster with arrows “piercing” her neck, and then she broke out of the plaster. They planned to project the sequence backwards so that she seemed to be turning into the statue instead of breaking out of one. Here are some images of this sequence from the filming, and a production still of Bergman in her statue dress:
You can watch the dream here. Hitchcock finished the film in October of 1944 and left Hollywood for London. But Selznick thought that the dream sequence that Hitchcock had filmed looked cheap. So he asked Josef von Sternberg to film a new sequence, though Sternberg turned him down. Next, Selznick looked to William Cameron Menzies, a fantastic production designer who also wrote, directed, and produced. (Menzies had been in charge of the visual effects and look of Selznick’s Gone with the Wind.) Menzies designed a new dream based on Dali and Hitchcock’s ideas. Selznick, Hitchcock, and Dali approved it, though Selznick still wasn’t crazy about it. It was cut to two minutes, so what you see in the film is a combination of Selznick, Dali, Hitchcock, and the uncredited Menzies.
Remember the scissors cutting the eye-draperies I mentioned? Hitchcock put that in there as a tribute to Dali’s work with Luis Buñuel on the avant-garde Un Chien Andalou (1929) and it’s famous eye-slitting scene. (It’s a cow’s eye, but it’s still horrifying.)
Anyway, Dr. Brulov and Constance interpret the dream very quickly and astonishingly accurately.
They determine that John needs to go skiing at a resort called Gabriel Valley. It’s amazing how they get the name of the resort out of all that surrealist mess, right? So Constance and John climb the mountain (on location) and ski down (with very fakey rear-projection which Hitchcock used all the time; see Notorious.)
Poor John seems to be wearing his normal suit jacket. At least Constance has a scarf. Fun fact: to make it look as though snow was falling on the pair, cornflakes were thrown on them.
The skiing expedition does finally break through John’s amnesiac guilt complex. Constance has solved the case and saved her love! Or has she…? I’m actually going to exercise some restraint and not spoil everything for you, except to say that John is still in danger, we do find the source of his guilt complex, and it’s a nasty surprise.
Let’s talk about the soundtrack. Selznick originally wanted Bernard Herrmann, who composed incredible scores for many films, including several for Hitchcock, Psycho (1960) being perhaps the most famous. But Herrmann wasn’t available, so Selznick got Miklós Rózsa, a Hungarian-born, German, French, British, and American-trained composer who would craft almost one hundred film scores and many concert pieces in his career.
Rózsa composed a beautiful score which used the theremin to emphasize Peck’s fits of mental instability. The theremin was patented in 1928 by a Russian inventor–it’s sort of L-shaped and is played by moving one’s hands through an electronic field. One part controls volume, the other pitch, but you never touch anything.
Here’s a video of a theremin being played, and here’s a theremin in “The Big Bang Theory.” You might recognize the instrument from science fiction scores. It was used so often for alien movies that it’s almost a cliché, now.
Spellbound was the first film to include the theremin, which Selznick was really excited about. Then he found out that Rózsa was also using the theremin in his score for The Lost Weekend (1945). Selznick knew that The Lost Weekend was going to be released before Spellbound, thus spoiling his “first-score-with-theremin” thunder. He was furious but Rózsa didn’t back down.
The theremin had big premieres in both films that year. It’s used in Spellbound to signal John’s freak-outs and moments of insanity, and it’s used in The Lost Weekend to signal Ray Milland‘s alcoholic hallucinations and cravings. It’s eerie and highly effective in both films. Here’s a recording of The Lost Weekend score, and of Spellbound’s music.
The soundtrack to Spellbound sold well, helping to forge the way for a new revenue-source for Hollywood. It was also one of the first film scores to be crafted into a classical concert composition when Rózsa turned his work into the “Spellbound Concerto” for piano and orchestra.
Oddly enough, Spellbound‘s theme was originally going to have lyrics. Rhonda Fleming, who plays the nymphomaniac in the opening scenes of the film, recorded the song, but Hitchcock and Selznick cut it.
Spellbound did very well at the box office, making almost eight million dollars (it cost $1.7 million to produce) and becoming the third highest-grossing movie of the year. It broke the Astor Theater’s box office record, set by Gone With The Wind (1939), when it premiered in New York City. Taglines like “Will he kiss me or kill me?” and “The maddest love that ever possessed a woman” brought in the crowds, I guess.
After the success of this film, Hitchcock quickly put another Ben Hecht-penned, Ingrid Bergman-starring project together, 1946’s Notorious in which she spies on Nazis in Brazil with the help of Cary Grant.
Fun fact: Gregory Peck confessed many, many years later that he and Ingrid Bergman had a short but intense affair during the filming of this movie. Both were married at the time.
The film ends in a very unique way that I can’t help but discuss. Beware; here’s sort of a spoiler. Constance hasn’t given up on proving that John is innocent. She very stupidly confronts a suspect, who tells her condescendingly, with one more jab at her gender:
After some more conversation, this whole suicide thing happens:
It’s the only color in the whole film: two frames hand-tinted red. To get the effect of the gun turning to point at the camera, Hitchcock had to use some special effects. They created a fake gun and a fake hand, both four times bigger than life size. This enabled them to keep Bergman and the gun in focus at the same time, and to turn the gun 180 degrees towards the camera. It’s a nice effect, though the hand-tinting of the final frames wasn’t done for most prints because it was too putzy. Fun fact: Hitchcock would use a similar technique with an enormous telephone and finger in Dial M for Murder (1954).
Rózsa won the Academy Award for Best Score (vindicating his work even though he was Selznick’s second choice), and Spellbound also garnered nominations for Best Cinematography (Black and White), Best Director, Best Effects, and Best Picture. Michael Chekhov got a nomination for Best Supporting Actor, though Bergman and Peck were not nominated for their work. Don’t feel too badly for them; both actors were nominated for their performances in other films that year: Bergman for The Bells of St. Mary’s and Peck for The Keys of the Kingdom, though neither won.
Here’s the trailer–enjoy! For more, follow me on Twitter, tumblr, Pinterest, Instagram, and Facebook. And you can buy this film here!
Wow, this must be one of the most interesting reviews I’ve ever read! And Gregory Peck and Ingrid Bergman together in one movie, directed by Hitchcock, produced by Selznick, and with a score by Rózsa? I’ll be watching this soon! Thanks, Cam!
Thank you, Jay Bee! It’s a really odd movie, but loads of fun!
‘Spellbound’ is an interesting film and this is a terrific review of it.
Thank you! Glad you enjoyed this review. Thanks for reading!
With havin so much content and articles do you ever run into any problems
of plagorism or copyright infringement? My site has a lot of completely unique content I’ve either created myself or
outsourced but it appears a lot of it is popping it up all over the web without my
permission. Do you know any ways to help reduce content from being stolen?
I’d genuinely appreciate it.
Hi Milford. I started watermarking my images because I found them all over the internet without any links back or credit, but so far it hasn’t been a big issue. I know a lot of sites have disclaimers about using their content without permission, so maybe that would help? Sorry I don’t have more help for you! Thanks for reading!
Hi Cameron, thank you for your wonderful assessment of one of my favorite Hitchcocks! It’s really a fascinating movie with great actors and a clever script.
In your article, you seem to think that the sexist slurs occurring here and there are somehow reflecting the filmmakers’ own opinion. However, the aspect of Dr. Petersen being a woman and the relationship between feeling and intellect is the most modern and most intriguing aspect in the movie, in my opinion.
Notice for example that the sexist remarks are all undermined and disproved by the story itself, where it turns out that exactly by being BOTH an accomplished psychiatrist AND a loving woman, Constance is able to heal John and even bring down the real criminal. Actually, it is Dr Fleurot who is right when he tells her in the beginning that she is not a really good psychiatrist until she knows strong emotions (i. e. love) from her own experience. If she didn’t love John, she would surely have come to the same conclusions as everyone else, namely, that he is the murderer. The film suggests that so-called feminine traits like emotionality or intuition are not a hindrance to good science, but rather complement and enhance it.
What is also intriguing is that this is that unusual kind of love story where the woman is thoroughly the stronger of the pair, intellectually, emotionally, even corporeally. The man, seemingly reliable at first sight, is actually the one constantly in need of help, falling down, having fits… It’s the woman who is propelling the plot, taking most decisions, being in control. I’ve never read a feminist assessment of this movie, but it would be well worth to analyze this… I think these are the aspects that make “Spellbound” really a film ahead of its time.
Hi Petra! What a fantastic comment! I agree with you–and I need to look back at my post and make sure I didn’t attribute too much of the sexism to the filmmakers. As you say, it is much more complicated than that, and I do think you can read this film through a feminist lens. Indeed, it is the “bad” characters who evince the most sexist attitudes, and Dr. Petersen certainly shows herself to be smarter, braver, and much “better” than most of the other characters. Her actions and intellect provide a strong answer to the sexist comments leveled at her, and she absolutely is the “stronger” in the romantic couple. She has to save John, repeatedly, physically, emotionally, and intellectually.
I love what you say about the conflict between rationality/intuition. The idea that she has had to shut down her “feminine” side in order to become a psychiatrist, and that she needs to learn to love to become a “whole” person/particularly woman is really interesting. She certainly is able to combine both sides by the end.
Thank you for this great comment. This film deserves a complex look, and I need to go back and make sure I gave Spellbound and its feminist elements its due!
just passed through Grand Central Station which reminded me of this beloved movie so I found your review. I was always tickled by the fact that Constance is a very intelligent woman but plays dumb in order to get the hotel detective to help her find JB. This sort of scene is not one you would see even in modern films. Thanks for your review and all the information about the dream sequence.
You’re welcome! I’m glad you enjoyed my review!
I watched this last week, and I loved it! Glad I found your review. Constance and JB are adorable together, even if it is an ‘unconventional’ relationship. What a suspenseful ending! No wonder he repressed that memory… Great images! 🙂
Glad you enjoyed this movie and my post! It’s kind of a strange one but so enjoyable! I always love watching it.