Spellbound (1945)

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

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Spellbound is a Hitchcock thriller about psychoanalysis, the first mainstream Hollywood movie to tackle such a topic.  That being said the psychoanalysis angle is just the way into this thriller.  As Hitchcock himself said the film was “just another manhunt wrapped up in pseudo-psychoanalysis.”

It’s a love story between Dr. Constance Petersen (Ingrid Bergman) and Dr. Anthony Edwardes (Gregory Peck) but one made complicated when Edwardes’ identity is called into question.  From there the story becomes the manhunt to which Hitchcock refers.  Authorities believe Edwardes, a man suffering from some kind of mental breakdown, may have killed the real Dr. Edwardes and impersonated him.  He goes on the run, and Constance takes it upon herself to help him work through whatever the hell is going on in his mind.

In many ways Spellbound is just another Hitchcock movie, but it stands out for two reasons: a Salvador Dali-designed dream sequence and a large fake hand.

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That fake hand is maybe the best example of Hitchcock’s ingenuity as a filmmaker.  Other examples include his use of forced perspective in Dial M For Murder and the construction of a giant shower head for the famous scene in Psycho.  In Suspicion he put a small light in the bottom of a glass of milk to make it glow, and in The Lodger he uses a translucent floor to reveal a character walking above a trembling chandelier.  The point is that Hitchcock is a creative guy, yeah?

He at least does what is necessary to make a moment more dramatic, and the effect works very well in Spellbound.  The fake hand had to be as big as it was in order to pull off the camera effect, and the moment might be nearly as suspenseful as the night vision scene in Silence of the Lambs.  I wouldn’t even be surprised if Jonathan Demme was inspired by this moment.  In each scene the hero/possible victim is the subject of the frame, but we see them flirting with the villain’s trap.

The effect of the large hand is frankly a bit surreal in this film, and I think it’s due to that absurdity that it works.  This moment puts the villain offscreen so that we can’t see his face and thus anticipate any actions.  We don’t know if he’s about to pull the trigger, and when Constance leaves the room, the hand rotates towards the camera before firing, bleeding the screen red.  This stands out all the more, of course, because the entire film is in black and white.

The absurdity of that moment works well as a part of the whole because of that Salvador Dali dream sequence.

There’s an abundance of eyes, a man running through a desert, a game of cards, a man falling from a roof and melted metal reminiscent of that melting clocks painting.  It’s surreal, jarring and quite effective.

Producer David O. Selznick did not originally want to use Dali in any way until he realized there was marketing potential there.  Sure enough when the credits open the film, Salvador’s Dali is in big print, and I’m sure that at the time his involvement in such a movie had to have been noteworthy.

Despite all the visual intrigue, Spellbound is not much different than other Hitchcock thrillers.  The act 2 climax is a little silly as the two main characters ski down a mountainside towards a steep cliff while the adrenaline helps Edwardes remember who he really is.

See, he’s not a killer like he fears.  Instead that thing in his past that he’s been running from is the accidental death of his brother as a child.  Edwardes remembers sliding down a railing and kicking his brother onto a fence spike.  We see that moment play out, and it’s appropriately, effectively hard to watch.  Edwardes remembers that he is really John Ballintyne, and then he and Constance can live happily ever after.

Well, before that they have to deal with Ballintyne being charged with murder.  The real Dr. Edwardes was found dead, but soon Constance figures out that it is Dr. Alexander Brulov, the man for whom the fake hand is a stand in above, who has set Ballintyne up.  Constance calls his bluff, leaves to alert the authorities, and Brulov shoots himself.  The end.

Up Next: Avengers: Infinity War (2018), Tully (2018), Overlord (1975)

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