Oscar Vault Monday – Spellbound, 1945 (dir. Alfred Hitchcock)

This is definitely one of my favorite of Hitchcock’s films and one that is rich with imagery and ideas. I am going to give you some of my thoughts on the film, but I am not going to claim to be an expert on this film. It’s definitely one that needs many rewatchings and explorations. I would really love to hear thoughts from my readers on this film solely because it is so rife with ideas. Also, beware there will be a major SPOILER about the ending, so if you’ve never seen it, you might want to not read to the end of this post. The film was nominated for six Academy Awards, winning one: Best Score Miklós Rózsa (won), Best B&W Cinematography, Best Special Effects, Best Supporting Actor Michael Chekov, Best Director and Best Picture. The other films nominated that year were Anchors Aweigh, The Bells of St. Mary’s, Mildred Pierce and winner The Lost Weekend.

How many of you have seen this film? I feel like it is one of Hitch’s most overlooked films. Which is a shame, since not only is it so full of ideas, but Gregory Peck is so absolutely hot hot hot in this film. More on that in a bit. Also, I wanted to point out the screenplay was co-written by Ben Hecht, who basically rules and everything he touched is golden.

The film opens with this Shakespearean proverb, and then continues by stating that its purpose is to highlight the importance of psychoanalysis in the treatment of mental illness. I’m guessing there must be some really great written works out there about psychoanalysis in film. In October TCM is showing a handful of films on the subject, although Spellbound is suspiciously missing.

Rhonda Fleming had her first major role in this film and she really sets the tone nicely. Her description of a dream wherein she bites a man’s mustache clean off is so incredibly chilling. She would go on to star in many films, including Out of the Past, and was nicknamed the  “Queen of Technicolor” because her complexion and gorgeous red hair filmed so wonderfully when the process became so popular in the 1950s.

Ingrid Bergman is great at Dr.  Constance Petersen. Although she was not nominated for her performance in this film, she was nominated this same year for her work in fellow Best Picture nominee The Bells of St. Mary’s. Arguably, Bergman is most well-known for her performance as Ilsa Lund in Casablanca; ironically she was NOT nominated for an Oscar for that role. She was, however, nominated a whopping seven times, winning three times (she is tied for second-most wins with Walter Brennan, Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep; Kate Hepburn still holds the record for most with four Best Actress wins). Her nominations were: For Whom The Bell Tolls (Best Actress), Gaslight (Best Actress, won), The Bells of St. Mary’s (Best Actress), Joan of Arc (Best Actress), Anastasia (Best Actress, won), Murder on the Orient Express (Best Supporting Actress, won) and Autumn Sonata (Best Actress).

Let’s just first stare at Gregory Peck’s fine ass face. I mean. Just. Gaze. At. It.  He is so beautiful it hurts. This was Gregory Peck’s fourth film; he had already received an Oscar nomination prior to its release for his second film The Keys of the Kingdom, although he would not win the award for another two decades. All in all, Peck was nominated for Best Actor five times, winning on his last nomination: The Keys of the Kingdom, The Yearling, Gentleman’s Agreement, Twelve O’Clock High and To Kill A Mockingbird (won). Like Bergman, Peck was NOT nominated for one of his most famous performances, opposite Audrey Hepburn (who won the Best Actress Award) in Best Picture nominee Roman Holiday.

So here we have Bergman’s Dr. Petersen meeting Peck’s Dr. Edwardes (or is her really Dr. Edwardes?) for the first time. I would make that same face. You would, too. What I love so much about Hitch’s direction here is that Peck is so casual and nonchalant and Bergman is immediately struck by him. The audience can see it, but Peck’s Dr. Edwardes remains completely unaware of her sudden change in demeanor.

Hitch uses this technique a little later in what I think is one of the absolute HOTEST scenes in cinema history. Peck looks directly at the screen and as he talks, walks closer and closer, as if he were coming right at you. Then you see Bergman’s response and you realize what you just experienced as a viewer, she experienced. The scene continues as basically a close-up starring contest between Peck and Bergman, and, as the tagline says, Bergman is unsure if he is going to kiss her or kill her. And you as the audience are unsure which you’d rather happen. Hitch’s ability to sexualize terror is one of my favorite things about him as a director.

I’m not going to lie, I just wanted to post another screencap of Peck looking disturbed. There may or may not be one more coming in this post. This movie is just so full of him looking upset and scared and crazy and with each variation on the theme, Peck gets more and more frenzied and you as the viewer get more and more aroused (or at least you better be) and that just adds to the disturbing tone of the film.

I saved this screencap as FACE SMASH because basically that is what is happening here. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

I would be remiss if I didn’t discuss Miklós Rózsa’s Oscar-winning score. In the scene depicted above, the two new lovers are sharing an intimate moment, when Peck glances at Bergman’s shoulder and something in the lines of it makes him start to go nuts. Now, looking at the caps it doesn’t look like a terrifying scene, but Rózsa’s score makes those shoulders the most terrifying thing you have ever seen and you think, “What is it? Why are they scaring him so much? I don’t know, but I am freaking out, too!” This scene is a perfect example of how a score can be invaluable in the storytelling process that is film.

Hitch makes his cameo in this film after Bergman follows Peck to New York. This happens at about 37 minutes into the film and if you blink, you’ll miss him.

Michael Chekhov was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his performance as Dr. Petersen’s mentor Dr. Brulov. He adds some much-needed levity to the film and is a real delight to watch as he shares the screen with Peck and Bergman. Their sizzling chemistry might have overshadowed a lesser performer, but somehow he manages to exude just as much energy as the two of them combined. Chekhov was a lauded stage actor in Russia, where he was considered by Constantin Stanislavski as one of his brightest students. This was Chekhov’s only Oscar nomination; he lost to James Dunn in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.

I don’t think I am qualified at all to discuss the dream sequence in this film. There is just way too much symbolism throughout the three minute segment. I can tell you that it was designed by Salvador Dalí and is one of my favorite dream sequences in cinematic history.

Here is that one more screencap of Peck looking disturbing. This comes late in the film, when he and Bergman are skiing and he finally remembers what it is he has repressed all this time.

SPOILER ALERT. I will be spoiling the end of the film if you keep reading.

First, we realize that the real Dr. Edwardes somehow died on this ski trip. Second, we find out that John Brown (as he is now calling himself) is actually named John Ballantyne and that when he was a child he slid down a rail and accidentally killed his brother. The depiction of this memory is pretty graphic, even for today’s standards and remains, for me, one of the most chilling moments in any Hitchcock film.

The penultimate sequence of the film where Dr. Murchison (Leo G. Carroll) admits to the murder of the real Dr. Edwardes (exonerating Ballantyne who is at this point in jail) and indicating his own mental unbalance is also a favorite of mine. Hitch again uses a fourth wall breaking shot (and clear allusion to the end of The Great Train Robbery) as Carroll faces down the barrel of his own gun. Fantastic filmmaking is fantastic.

True to form. Hitch ends the film with a reunion of the two lovers and a slightly comic reminder of the crazy situation they found themselves in earlier. The funny look Peck gives the porter reminds me of the ending of Strangers on a Train, another collaboration between Hitchcock and Ben Hecht six years later.

And last, but not least, one final breaking of the fourth wall. Pure perfection.

About Marya E. Gates

Cinephile to the max.

Posted on August 13, 2012, in Oscar Vault Monday and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. I think it’s definitely one of Hitchcock’s most overlooked, but, then again, I tend to think his entire run in the 40s is under-appreciated compared to his 50s work. Between this and Rebecca, and Shadow of a Doubt, I feel like Hitchcock really found the right balance between psychology, melodrama, and thriller elements, and I like how surreal Spellbound feels especially. Very sublime, and I agree that the dream sequence at the end is among the most chilling stuff Hitchcock ever shot.

  2. I truly believe this film is underrated. For me, it’s one of my favorites and I even searched high and low for the Criterion DVD. I love how it’s so surreal, romantic, and creepy all at the same time. I also really like the usage of lights and shadows, it adds on to the surrealist feel of the movie.

  3. This is a wonderful film and of course as a girl I was totally in love with Gregory Peck. His lookes his voice, everything about him formed my idea of the ideal man.

    Now this movie is fantastic. And I agree with the writer above that Hitchcock’s 40s work is somehow neglected for his 50s and 60s work.

    He is such a master of suspense and his ability to blend crime suspense with psychological suspense is astounding. And of course, always that little bit of sly humor. 🙂

    Nice article. Thanks

  4. Interesting to note that Peck was taking lessons from Michael Chekhov on acting at his private studio along with many other Hollywood legends at the time.

    Chekhov was ahead of his time.

  5. This is truly a fantastic movie ! From Hitchcock in the 40s I also like “Notorious” and “Shadow of a doubt”, these are actually among my favorites of all time

  1. Pingback: Oscar Vault Monday – Gaslight, 1944 (dir. George Cukor) « the diary of a film history fanatic

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