The Hitchcock Conversations is an ongoing project between me and James W. Powell, in which we study Alfred Hitchcock’s filmography in chronological order. I’ll be publishing one conversation per week.
(By necessity, spoilers ahead!)
Synopsis: The head of the Green Manors mental asylum, Dr. Murchison, is retiring, to be replaced by Dr. Edwardes, a famous psychiatrist. Edwardes arrives and is immediately attracted to the beautiful but cold Dr. Constance Petersen. However, it soon becomes apparent that Dr. Edwardes is in fact a paranoid amnesiac impostor. He goes on the run with Constance, who tries to help his condition and solve the mystery of what happened to the real Dr. Edwardes.
Jason: I didn’t enjoy Spellbound very much until I really started thinking about it later. In fact, that seems to be the rule with a lot of Hitch flicks. Most of these films creep up on you, and it’s only when you start digging more deeply into a given film that it becomes most rewarding. My first impression of Spellbound is that all its psychoanalysis talk is terribly naïve and ends up dating the film horribly. I mean, it’s a very talky movie, and all the dialog seems to just be blather about the most obvious, melodramatic pseudo-psychological hooey. It was very difficult for me to get past all that. And that aspect still bothers me. Because of it, I would say Spellbound is one of Hitch’s weaker works.
James: Yeah, I don’t really like this film. I agree with you that there’s much more to it than what’s on the surface, but sadly, the action of this film leaves a lot to be desired. Sure, we can evaluate and root out all the meanings and metaphors and character growth, but as a movie, it still isn’t that much fun. Are there parts I enjoy? Most definitely. But as a whole, it just seems a bit flat.
Jason: We’re in total agreement that the film, at the top level, is flat and rather obvious. The constant talk (“pictures of people talking”) about psychoanalysis is overbearing, overdone, and overbaked. That’s the film’s primary flaw, I would say. “Let your mind go back to your childhood,” Constance (Ingrid Bergman) says repeatedly. “Don’t you see that you’re imagining all this? It’s a guilt complex that goes all the way back to your childhood!” Blah blah blah. The occasional bristling reactions from Ballantyne (Gregory Peck) to all that talk are completely understandable. “There’s nothing I hate more than a smug woman!” Everything is so telegraphed and obvious. All the talk of amnesia and guilty consciences and traumatic childhoods makes everything in the top-level plot predictable and uninteresting. I laughed, though, when Ballantyne remembers that his initials are JB (my own), and that they give him a headache.
James: You’re right about the psychobabble. It’s too over-the-top, or it matters so little that I wondered why Hitch even bothered.
Jason: Well, Hitch definitely wanted to “turn out the first picture on psychoanalysis,” according to the Spoto book. So that was really the impetus for the film. It’s just that the film is so naïve about psychoanalytical study that it comes across as unintentionally humorous.
James: I think it’s silly that Hitch wanted to make the first psychoanalysis movie. I mean, why? I actually remember writing in my notes something along the lines of, “Is this science new?” because it seems so toned down, almost juvenile. Today, this makes the film very dated and silly, but I can see how it might have added to the film back then. Perhaps it was fresh because the science was new to the audience. That might’ve added a layer of intrigue. But for me, Spellbound is just too dated.
Jason: Yes, this is definitely a movie where we have to imagine what it was like for audiences of the time, for whom the science of psychoanalysis was new. Good point. Still, there are many scenes in the film where psychoanalysis is already mocked and looked down on. Anyway, we’re just the dudes to dive deeper into this movie and see what’s there. I think any real appreciation for this film is going to happen underneath the surface story.
Jason: Well, first of all, despite my overall opinion of the movie, Spellbound has a few intriguing moments and themes. I liked the way it’s revealed that the incoming doctor at the Green Manors mental institution, Dr. Anthony Edwardes (actually John Ballantyne), is an impostor. At first, I just thought he was, himself, a mental case. The idea of a lunatic presiding over an insane asylum is excellent, and I was reminded once again of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (yet another German expressionistic influence). There’s a great moment in the dining room after Constance scrapes the shape of a swimming pool in the tablecloth to show Ballantyne the design, and Ballantyne gets all kooky and says, “I take it the supply of linen in this institution is inexhaustible!” Did you notice that the oval she draws strongly suggests a vagina?
James: I actually caught that vagina, too. But to be honest, I thought I was just being a pervert. My first instinct was that he would react a little differently. I expected him to make a sexual advance, or say something funny with a sexual undertone. But when he doesn’t, I chalked up my impression to just my perverted sense of humor.
Jason: Anyway, at first, I laughed at Ballantyne’s reaction to the lines in the tablecloth, thinking he’s an obvious obsessive compulsive, but gradually the situation turns more sinister, until we see Constance compare two separate signatures—one in Edwardes’ limited-edition book The Labyrinth of the Guilt Complex and the other in a handwritten note. He’s clearly not who he says he is. That’s a terrific moment, particularly when you know that Constance has fallen helplessly in love with him.
James: My question is this: Does she suspect he’s an impostor and thus compares the signatures, or is that a happy accident? I’m not sure I completely buy the notion that she’d suspect him to be a different person—not after the clues we see to that point. Perhaps one extra line of dialog would have made that more obvious, but as it is, I didn’t quite buy it. However, that’s a minor issue at best.
Jason: I think her first inclination that something is wrong is when she goes to the library and finds the book. She grabs it because she’s obsessed with the idea of him, but she’s really up there to go to his room and have sex. She just happens to open the book and find the personalized signature, and I think in her mind she’s comparing it with the signature she got earlier in the handwritten note. I think that’s the spark, but at the time, she wants sex too fervently to start doubting him. And maybe that’s where my problem with this movie is. Okay, I can see Constance—this virginal, mousy librarian type—being sexually awakened by this handsome newcomer and falling for him, but would she really trust an imbalanced amnesiac who claims to have killed a psychiatrist? Then again, she’s wearing glasses (a symbol we understand from way back) and can’t “see” clearly.
James: You know, I actually took her reasoning in a slightly different direction. She loves the man and overlooks some obvious problems that might occur, and I think that mindset—combined with the scientist in her—is what drives her to stay with him and try to help him. She believes in herself that she can help this man, too, so it’s not just the love that puts blinders over her eyes. Sure, Hitch is most likely pointing to the fact that love has clouded her vision (with the glasses), but I just read a little more into it.
Jason: Seems like a lot of Hitch’s films have been at least partly about a woman having some kind of awakening.
James: Yeah, I see that. And we’ve talked about this a few times in our discussions. It’s almost become a narrative device for Hitch, a typical theme to help build a story around. It certainly works, though.
Jason: Okay, so it’s clear that the real story of Spellbound is Constance’s romance with Ballantyne, who becomes her patient while they’re on the run from the authorities. It’s interesting how the plot adheres to the typical Hitchcock formula while also being completely different from anything he’s done before, at least in the area of the central romance—between a man being cured by a woman who herself is being “cured” and becoming a woman. Other than that, this is a pretty typical Hitch “on-the-run” chase film, and you might say the whole psychoanalysis and dream-study angle is the MacGuffin. Once I can give all the psychobabble secondary status as the MacGuffin, Spellbound becomes more interesting.
James: I definitely agree that the MacGuffin is the psychoanalysis. It’s essentially the element of the plot that gets everything rolling, then it becomes secondary and moves forward only when necessary. It’s not exactly the typical MacGuffin we’re used to, but it works. It’s the romance that matters, as usual.
Jason: And this is a pretty powerful romance story, when you get right down to it. I think it’s very well developed. I’m interested to hear what you thought of it, considering your objections to past Hitch romances. I love the corny swell of violins we hear when Ballantyne (as Edwardes) and Constance meet for the first time in that dining room. And the loving close-ups of their faces. Love at first sight develops into much more, and I got both a great laugh and a real feel for their burgeoning love when they have their little picnic on the hilltop. I liked their awkward fumblings and the way she lustfully says “Liverwurst!” The way she stumbles back into the asylum dining room, all unkempt and reeling, feels right on, and their love scene in Edwardes’ room later is masterfully shot.
James: I actually enjoyed the romance in this film. The way Constance is set up as a cold scientist instead of a living, breathing woman is perfectly done, so when Edwardes walks in, we see the change in her instantly. And it feels right in every way. Particularly, as you mentioned, the picnic scene. I even accept the fact that she dismisses her scientific personality and tries to discover his innocence instead of just turning him over to the ward.
Jason: Constance is an interesting character. On the surface, she’s an earnest, bookish type hell-bent on curing Ballantyne with her psychoanalytic skills. Underneath, she’s suddenly blossoming into a sexual being. This is most evident in her later line on the train, “I always loved very feminine clothes but never quite dared to wear them. I’m going to after this, I’m going to wear exactly the things that please me—” She lifts her eyebrows. “—and you.” It’s alarming, really, how much she wants this guy. You can feel the sexual need wafting from her like heat. In a way, her awakening is foreshadowed by the sex-maniac patient Constance is treating at the beginning of the film, Mary Carmichael (Rhonda Fleming), in the same way that the traumatized and eventually suicidal Mr. Garnes (Norman Lloyd, the villain from Saboteur) foreshadows Ballantyne’s guilt-complex trauma. (By the way, I thought Garnes, with his silly “I killed my father” trauma, was a too-obvious mechanism to walk the audience through the machinations of amnesia.)
James: I’m a little torn about the Constance character. I like her transformation, especially after her picnic-scene monologue about love and how what you read in poetry isn’t the same as what happens in real life. What sort of grates on me isn’t the fact that she falls in love, or the fact that she changes, but the inconsistency of her wanting him. For example, in one scene, Ballantyne wants to drop his pants right then and there, but in the next, he doesn’t want her to get involved. I mean, that works. It shows he cares. But when Constance fluctuates the same way, it doesn’t work nearly as well. Is she smitten or isn’t she? If she is, why push him away? Why not give in? Sure, you could make the argument that she’s still a doctor and that part of her wants to maintain a level of professionalism. Or that she still maintains, on some level, that love isn’t a fairy tale. But it felt wrong that she says she wants to buy new clothes to impress him at one moment, but in the next heartbeat, she’s pushing him away. (By the way, my favorite quote comes from Dr. Burlov: “Women make the best psychoanalysts—till they fall in love. After that, they make the best patients.”)
Jason: I agree that the whole way their romance is dealt with—burgeoning sexual heat along with the doctor/patient hands-off element—is a little weird and awkward, but then again, I like that Hitch even attempted it. It must have been a difficult balance to achieve. I can understand both points of view: You don’t want her to immediately give herself to him, because he’s a possibly dangerous enigma, and yet you want to see her awaken sexually, from out of her librarian funk. Actually, she does give in to him before she understands his deception, then she backs off until she trusts him more. I didn’t have as much of a problem with this dichotomy as you had. She’s really conflicted throughout the film, and I think it works pretty well, all things considered. But the most fascinating aspect of the relationship is her bullheaded determination to prove that he’s innocent and good. Because of him, she’s blossoming into a woman. I really didn’t know whether he was innocent or guilty until the very end.
James: C’mon. You knew he was innocent. He’s Gregory Peck. There’s no way he’d be the bad guy.
Jason: Yeah, I knew deep down he’d be found to be innocent. History has taught us that much. But a certain part of me can lose itself to the narrative. I’m still capable of willing suspension of disbelief.
James: I hear you.
Jason: I liked the sequence with the letter on the floor. Ballantyne writes a note to Constance and slips it under her door. In it, he essentially confesses to a crime he didn’t commit and tells her where he’s staying in New York. Then, the authorities walk into her room while the letter is right there under their feet, getting kicked around. And it’s Murchison who seals his own fate by picking up the letter and innocently handing it to her. Nice sequence, pure Hitch!
James: That’s a fabulous sequence. It’s something so simple, yet at the same time rather suspenseful. I especially love the way Murchison picks up the letter and hands it to her. Classic.
Jason: By the way, that Dr. Fleurot (John Emery) is a callous bastard, insulting Constance’s womanhood and brazenly trying to kiss her. Then, dressing her down in the dining room.
James: I found that opening scene with Constance and Fleurot rather interesting. I mean, he’s a complete ass, but at the same time I thought there was a chance for romance there. I mean, she doesn’t really turn him away, and while she certainly doesn’t kiss him back, she doesn’t push him away either. At first, I was hoping to have more of a love triangle going on in this film, but it would’ve been hard to follow through with that. The lunch scene is great in that regard because it shows Fleurot’s jealousy.
Jason: Here’s another interesting symbol: the opening of doors when Constance and Ballantyne kiss (i.e., have sex) for the first time.
James: That instance of door symbolism—at the moment they kiss—doesn’t work for me. I understand it, but the moment is too contrived. Forced. Fake.
Jason: Actually, this film is filled with doors—locked and opening. I didn’t catch all of them, but I find the symbolism interesting. I connected it with the Shakespeare quote that starts the film, about the doors of the mind opening.
James: You know, I remember noticing a lot of doors, but I never really made the symbolic connection (except in the obvious multiple-opening-door sequence). Interesting. There are doors in many of Spellbound’s scenes.
Jason: The film extends that symbolism to matters of the heart.
James: While I certainly enjoyed the romantic feel, I think Spellbound takes too long to get into the suspense. We’re over 30 minutes into the film before we get any inclination that Edwardes isn’t who he says he is. After that, there’s a steady buildup of doubt, but it takes a bit too long to get there.
Jason: I agree that the film takes its time to get started. In fact, I wasn’t sure where it was going for a while. As I said, I thought the film was going to be about a lunatic presiding over a mental hospital, which might have been better. The first half hour gives an adequate setup but nothing really compelling—that is, until you start to look deeper. Or, more importantly, when you look at the opening with the knowledge that Dr. Murchison is actually orchestrating all of it. Okay, here’s something I was confused about while watching: How elaborate is Murchison’s deception in this film? I assume Ballantyne was his patient? Could he really orchestrate Ballantyne’s childhood guilt complex so that he could dictate when amnesia begins and ends, and force Ballantyne to take over the persona of Dr. Edwardes? I mean, how talented is Murchison in mind control?
James: I never took the leap to assuming Ballantyne was Murchison’s patient. I might’ve missed a piece of dialog, but it seems a bit far-fetched that the doctor could manipulate Ballantyne that way. But then again, Murchison wouldn’t have acted so innocent and calm had he not had that control. Hmmm, interesting hypothesis.
Jason: Allow me to go deeper into it, just to get it clear in my head: Murchison and Ballantyne and Edwardes all know each other, right? Ballantyne and Edwardes plan at the 21 Club to go skiing, and Murchison decides to follow them and kill Edwardes on the slopes, in order to retain his position at the hospital. Because Murchison knows about Ballantyne’s childhood guilt trauma, he knows that he’ll blank out the incident and subconsciously accept the blame for it? How does he know Ballantyne will take over Edwardes’ identity? How is Murchison so confident when Ballantyne arrives as Edwardes to preside over the hospital? This is all very confusing to me.
James: I think you nailed it. But putting it all out there like that just makes everything more far-fetched. I’m happier with the film not thinking about all that, actually. But it’s most likely what happened.
Jason: After all, it’s the MacGuffin, right? We shouldn’t look too closely at it.
James: Well, it works for me on one level. I like the idea of Murchison killing Edwardes and Edwardes falling over the cliff. But I really don’t like the idea that Ballantyne would turn into some freak job as a result. Plus, I don’t really see how he would’ve known that Murchison was the one who shot him or that he was hiding behind a tree, as we see in Ballantyne’s dream. I can see how it happened, sure, but it doesn’t feel right.
Jason: Moving on…
James: Easily my favorite scene is the one in which the couple meets Dr. Alex Brulov (Michael Chekhov). What a great old actor! I loved him immediately. I really liked the shot of Ballantyne walking down the stairs holding the open razor at waste height, then the repetition of that angle when Dr. Brulov is holding the glass of milk.
Jason: The Brulov sequence is great. He’s a wily old guy, and incredibly smart, even though he seems overprotective of his former student, Constance. I enjoyed suspecting that he might be Ballantyne’s next victim—perhaps Ballantyne is a serial murderer of psychologists! Ballantyne ominously walks down the stairs, very purposefully, with that razor, and confronts Brulov in his office. (The shot of the shadowed stairwell—big symbol—as Edwardes starts coming down, tracking him and closing in on the razor, is absolutely masterful.) And it looks like it’s all over for Brulov, who’s innocently gabbing and strolling to the kitchen to get Ballantyne some milk. Then, we get that great camera trick of Ballantyne drinking the Bromide-powdered milk and watching Brulov through the bottom of the glass.
James: Great shot.
Jason: And I loved the suspense the next morning of Constance going to check on Brulov, and we find that Brulov has second-guessed Ballantyne’s illness the whole time. Very nicely done. It sets up his psychoanalysis skills for the dream-analysis scene, which is the highlight of the film for me, because I’ve loved Salvador Dali’s work for years. We should talk at length about that dream sequence. I read the DVD text about the dream sequence and came away fascinated by how it all materialized. Spellbound was only the second film, after Rebecca, that Hitch created under Selznick. All the films in between were loan-outs to other studios. Anyway, Hitch wanted Dali because he understood how surrealist art spoke to the subconscious, the dreamscape. (The collaboration reminds me of his usual collaboration with writers—for example, with Thornton Wilder on Shadow of a Doubt.) But when Dali stated his fee, Selznick balked, and there was a lot of back-and-forth about who would get to keep the art that Dali came up with, and finally the dream sequence was really compromised. Still, I think it’s an amazing sequence that must have been really bold for the time. I wouldn’t say it perfectly fits with Ballantyne’s character, but I love the balls it took to put it in there. It really has a Dali feel to it, and it molds perfectly (if too obviously, with very easy symbols) to the events of the narrative.
James: The way Brulov and Constance analyze Ballantyne’s dream is good stuff. This bit of psychological detective work elevates the film for a while. I would’ve preferred it to be a little more fluid and realistic (it’s too stilted when the guy cuts the drapes), but that was a product of the time, not a fault of the filmmaker. I could almost imagine that Hitchcock was taking a huge risk putting that in the film because of its “weirdness,” but at the same time, it had to be in there because the whole film revolves around the science of the mind. Personally, I like the scene because it steps up the whole detective nature of the story. It’s like having all your clues thrust at you in one scene, and later, when the dream is further explained, it all makes sense.
Jason: Yeah, even though all the symbols from the dream are completely obvious within the context of the mystery, it’s really well done and intriguing. I’d even say the sequence and the analysis of it saves the top-level mystery from being totally ridiculous. Plus, the dream contains the film’s only bird imagery: “A pair of great flying wings, following me.” This occurs just before the death over the cliff.
James: I actually hadn’t recognized the bird reference. Nicely done.
Jason: It just occurred to me how the specter of multitudes of eyes in Ballantyne’s dream speaks again to the whole preoccupation with vision that Hitch has. Constance is constantly reaching for her glasses—as Lina (Joan Fontaine) did in Suspicion—and she ends up being precisely right about her psychoanalysis of Ballantyne. Brulov wears thick lenses, and we know he’s the sharpest psychoanalyst in the film. And now Ballantyne’s dream is filled with eyes, perhaps suggesting that it requires the eyes of analysis for interpretation, to “see” its meaning clearly.
James: I totally agree. I also made the connection between the eyes on the curtains and the doctors looking into his psyche.
Jason: My second favorite scene in the film is the extremely expressionistic sequence of Constance falling into despair after Ballantyne is convicted of murder. This happens in the second of the film’s three endings. In the first, Ballantyne is determined to be innocent because of Constance’s success at coaxing his childhood trauma out of him and revealing what really happened to Dr. Edwardes on the ski slope. In the second ending, we learn that Edwardes had a bullet in his back, and so Ballantyne is once again implicated. The third ending occurs after Murchison reveals that he “knew” Dr. Edwardes, and Constance discovers that he killed Edwardes on the ski slope in order to keep his post at the hospital. But all that shadow work of prison bars and overlapping shots is wonderfully done.
James: I agree, there are some masterful shots in Spellbound. As you point out, I too liked that passing-of-time sequence as Ballantyne is thrown in jail. And I like that the film is circular in regards to the killer being someone we’ve already met. The story comes back around and ties itself up nicely. But what did you think of that final shot with Murchison’s gun pointing at the camera? I like the way the camera/gun follows her across the room, but when it turns toward the viewer and fires, it looks hokey as hell. I mean, it’s too far away to seem like the real deal. Hitch was always trying new things, but this effect only works to a point.
Jason: I agree completely with your thoughts about Murchison’s gun. Shown pointed away from the camera, it looks fine, as it follows Constance out of the room, and you’re reminded that he shot Edwardes in the back on the cliff. A little suspense there. But the moment that huge hand turns, you can tell it’s a giant prop, and it just wrecks the realism of the scene. It’s too bad, because the idea is interesting—creating a giant prop so that both the extreme close-up of the gun and the background action of Constance walking are in focus. Oh, and we get the first moment of color in a Hitch movie—two frames of tinted red as Murchison fires the gun and commits suicide.
James: It might’ve worked better had Murchison actually shot at Constance.
Jason: Another scene that really suffers from lack of realism is the scene where Ballantyne and Constance are skiing down the slope toward the cliff (where Edwardes was killed). The rear-projection shots are terrible, and you can tell that Peck and Bergman are just standing in a studio with a fan blowing in their faces. That’s really too bad, because that’s the film’s biggest climax and we should be totally involved in that moment. But the shoddiness of the shot took me out of it.
James: That skiing scene is terrible. Not only does it look fake, but what are the odds that these two are Olympic-caliber skiers? I mean, they’re flying down that mountain . . . in suits, no less.
Jason: That’s hilarious. I hadn’t realized they were still in their suits. And looking fresh and ready to go after slogging up the mountainside. I did, however, like the gruesomeness of Ballantyne’s flashback to his childhood, when he accidentally killed his brother on that wrought-iron fence. Damn!
James: Actually, the whole flashback with the brother seems a bit out of place to me. We’re told the guilt complex starts in a traumatic instance and that it can develop after another similar instance (which foreshadows the main deception of the plot), but I wasn’t expecting Ballantyne to suddenly realize he’d accidentally killed his brother (which was a startling, fairly graphic scene).
Jason: You’re right about the brother sequence. It seems to come out of nowhere there on the mountain, even though it’s foreshadowed heavily that he’ll have some kind of revelation about his childhood. The whole sequence is laughable in the way it’s telegraphed, and in the context of the absurd psychological “insight.”
James: Yep, big problem with this film.
Jason: We haven’t talked about the use of “tracks in white” as symbolism for the crime in the snow. Do you think it works throughout?
James: I think the tracks in white work as a whole, but I’m not sure it works that their meaning is revealed as ski tracks. Especially the first one that Constance draws into the linen. I do like the use of the stark white in the bathroom before he walks downstairs with the razor.
Jason: Your thoughts about the ski tracks echo my own. I thought it was a bit of a reach when Ballantyne says creepily, “Something’s happening,” and Constance looks out the window to see tracks in the snow, and she very obviously puts two and two together. The use of pure white is better, and maybe Hitch should have stuck with that. (“We have the word ’white’ on our side.”) Maybe Ballantyne should’ve just freaked out at pure white things. After all, how would he be traumatized by ski tracks if those are always behind him? When you’re skiing, you don’t see your tracks, right?
James: Yeah, and all these visual reminders are still a pretty big leap to ski tracks. While we’re talking about symbolism, let me revisit something we’ve discussed before but I’m still not sold on. I often read that every shot has meaning for Hitch. “Hitch uses the high-angle shot here to symbolize that the audience has knowledge that the character doesn’t.” Or, “Notice how we only see the back of his head. That means the main character doesn’t know this man.” Now, I can believe that to a point. But I’m not a firm believer that nearly every single shot has such symbology or meaning. Do you think Hitch actually said, “I want a shot of the back of his head because she doesn’t really know this man”?
Jason: I don’t know if I’d go so far as to say that every shot has “meaning.” For most of his shots, I’m sure he just looked at how he blocked or choreographed the scene and found the best location for viewing the action. That being said, I’m also sure that if he had something important he wanted to communicate to the audience in a subtle way, he used the camera to that effect. There’s a moment in the Spellbound commentary when Marion Keene points out how we’re just seeing the back of Ballantyne’s head, and the moment is ominous because we, along with Constance, realize that we really don’t know much about this man. He’s an enigma. Watching that, I realized she’s exactly right. I definitely felt that while watching that shot, but it’s not something I would really put into words on first viewing. It was more of a gut thing, and that’s exactly what Hitch was after. I think Hitch deserves even more credit that we’ve even given him so far.
James: Hmmmmm, that’s just . . . I don’t know. I know Hitch was a genius. But man, that’s just hard to swallow—at least, on so many occasions. I just wonder if he’s been studied for so long by these historians that these things are “uncovered” because the historian wants to see them. Sure, it makes total sense. It works. But I wonder if it was more of a subconscious, subtle thing for the filmmaker too, or if the thought was more pronounced. “Oh, I shouldn’t show his face here because of such and such.” See what I’m saying? I can believe that he did it on purpose, but how conscious was it to him? In college, we’d discuss novels for weeks, and everything seemed to have ulterior meanings. I was one of those people who kept asking, “Did the author intend to mean that, or are we reading that into it?” My question is, Was it a conscious thought, or a happy accident on some level?
Jason: I see where you’re coming from, and I think there are many “intellectuals” who ascribe meanings to works of art that just aren’t there. But I would say that more often than not, the use of symbols and meaningful style are completely intended, even if the director/creator himself is doing it subconsciously. Even if, as you suggest, Hitch isn’t shooting a specific shot in a certain way consciously, he’s so close to the story and the character and the theme and the moment that he might shoot the angle in just the right way to capture a perfect mood—totally unconsciously. I also believe that most of the time, he shot very specific angles with every intention of capturing a certain emotion or thought.
James: I’m beginning to feel a little more comfortable with this line of thought. I like how you put it. He’s so close to the story that unconsciously he decided to do this shot, which works for the characters and the scenes. Or perhaps it was unconscious at first, then while thinking about it, he realized the true meaning behind this shot or that camera angle, and perhaps re-did it slightly to make it fit that mold a little better. In a way, it falls back to the “how” of creating. A lot of professors or historians seem to be making these artists out to be superhuman. As in, “This is the way Hitchcock did it and here’s his reasoning. He’s a master. He’s perfect. There’s no other meaning behind it.” What often got me upset in class is that these teachers made it sound almost as if there was no creative process. The writer just did it. And that there’s no other explanation. But thinking that it was more of a process and not just immediately inherent, I can dig that.
Jason: So, what did you think of Ingrid Bergman? This is her first of a few Hitch films.
James: You know, I don’t think I really like Bergman as a Hitch leading lady. At least, not as much as many of the others. I’m sure a lot of that has to do with the fact that her character is a little more stilted than some of the others, but there’s something about her that I didn’t like. Her accent? Her looks? Something was just off.
Jason: I found myself really getting into Bergman, although my first reaction to her and her accent was that she was a little off. But about halfway through, I saw the allure. I think it was the combination of her presence and her character’s sexual awakening that really did it for me. I saw her as similar to the Joan Fontaine characters in Rebecca and Suspicion—innocent and yearning for something, but in the grip of a mystery she doesn’t understand. A little fragile but gaining inner strength throughout the film.
James: I think what hurt Bergman in my eyes is that she seems too strong of a woman to be naïve. Does that make sense? I can see Fontaine being nervous and out of sorts, but Bergman? No way. Maybe it’s just that I couldn’t imagine her being head over heals in love.
Jason: I would have to agree that she doesn’t nail the “nervous innocence” that Fontaine does so well, but I think Bergman is pretty powerful in her own right. I would say it’s a slightly different characterization, in that Constance isn’t the nervous type but rather a seemingly confident professional who is blindsided by her feelings of love.
James: Maybe it’s just that I couldn’t imagine her character so quickly falling head-over-heals in love.
Jason: I read that Hitchcock had an unrequited-love thing going on with Ingrid Bergman. They had a lot in common—they were both frustrated contract workers under Selznick, and they were both foreigners working in America. I think there was a certain intensity there, maybe the real beginning of that unhealthy obsession Hitch sometimes had with his leading ladies, culminating in some actual unwelcome advances in the case of Tippi Hedrin. Later, Hitch said in an interview, “Ah Ingrid, so beautiful but so stupid.”
James: No comment on Hitch’s obsession. At least, not yet. I’ll probably have something to say once Hitch actually succumbs to the dark side.
Jason: What did you think of Gregory Peck?
James: Peck obviously had sex appeal during that time. Do you think he was right for the part? Do you think Joseph Cotten would’ve been a better Ballantyne?
Jason: Weren’t both Cotten and Cary Grant considered for the role? I think Cotten would have been a great choice, but Grant would have been all wrong. Cotten has that brooding, inner thing going on, but Grant is too much the playboy.
James: I didn’t like Peck too much. He did a fine job, but he always felt too young, and to be honest, he never felt like a doctor, which made his deception of the others a tad unbelievable. I guess I liked this movie less than I thought.
Jason: I thought Peck was great in the role. He played a good cipher. You were never sure what he was all about, so the amnesia worked.
James: I thought it was interesting how Hitchcock fit in his marriage-on-the-rocks or infidelity theme when Constance is looking for Ballantyne in the hotel lobby.
Jason: I also noticed the infidelity theme in the hotel lobby. That was a nice way to bring that theme into play, as the house detective buys her story and lets her have access to all the information she needs. And of course, this is where Hitch’s cameo occurs. He steps out of the elevator smoking, carrying a violin case, of all things.
James: I’m spoiled after that perfect cameo in Lifeboat.
Jason: We should also mention the writer, Ben Hecht, who is absolutely legendary. He wrote the final scene of Foreign Correspondent, did some work on Lifeboat, but this is his first full screenplay for Hitch. He would go on to do Notorious, The Paradine Case, and some work on Rope and Strangers on a Train. Another important Hitch collaborator.
James: Ah, that’s where I remember the name. I thought I recognized the writer’s name. Just couldn’t place it. I’ll have to compare Spellbound to the later collaborations.
Jason: He’s legendary. Wrote Scarface and Wuthering Heights, and did a ton of uncredited script work throughout the golden years on titles like Gone with the Wind and His Girl Friday.
James: I’m fascinated by the fact that the book Spellbound is based on, Francis Beeding’s The House of Dr. Edwardes, sounds so different from the movie. Hitch and Hecht really changed this thing around. I understand the need for the changes, but wow, it’s like something completely different. Sure, it wasn’t really ’based’ on the book, but it’s interesting to see how different this story is from the source material.
Jason: Yeah, this is another case of Hitch and his writer(s) taking a source novel and departing wildly from it. That was just Hitch’s way. I think the credits said that the film was “suggested by” that novel.
James: You know, Selznick sounds like a completely controlling jackass. Yet I don’t think Hitch could’ve made it as big without him.
Jason: It’s funny, the more I read about Selznick, the more I agree with your comment, but it’s hard to deny that he had a profound impact on Hitchcock’s career. We have to remember that he just exemplified the way the Hollywood contract system worked at the time. A lot of directors, writers, and actors had the same problem as Hitch.
James: Well, I guess the biggest drawback of Spellbound is dry spells between the suspense pieces. I like the romance, but the drama and intrigue and mystery elements are spread just a hair too thin for me.