Alfred Hitchcock’s 1945 film, Spellbound, falls well within many of his frequent themes, especially the innocent man being accused of a crime, but in a different way from most of his films. It uses the relatively novel concept of psychoanalysis, which was becoming popular among the Hollywood elite in the 1940s but was still thought of as black magic by most Americans. It does both a service to the profession, by showing how it helps people, and also a disservice, by reducing it to simplistic terms.
Opening title cards indicate that psychoanalysis is treatment for the sane–I suppose this was to indicate that you don’t have to be crazy to need a psychiatrist. But the film is set at a bucolic “home” in Vermont, and the only two patients we see are a nymphomaniac (Rhonda Fleming) and a man suffering from a guilt complex, who thinks he killed his father (Norman Lloyd).
The plot gets in motion when a new head of the institution arrives. He’s Gregory Peck, who is replacing the old chief doctor (Leo G. Carroll) after he had a crack-up. There’s something a little off about Peck, though, that’s picked up on by Ingrid Bergman, the only female doctor (that a woman would play a doctor in 1945 is pretty advanced thinking). Peck goes a little bonkers whenever he sees a certain pattern, and has problems with the color white.
Turns out he has a repressed memory, and he’s not who he says he is. He’s also an amnesiac, so with the police chasing them, she takes him to her old mentor (Michael Chekov), and they figure things out based on one dream he has, which is pretty amazing good luck. The dream sequence was designed by Salvador Dali, and remains the most famous thing about the film. It last only a minute or so, but was originally twenty minutes long, though there is no footage of it that exists.
The film is not one of Hitchcock’s best, but it has its peculiar charms. It strives to have a kind of B-movie sensibility, even before B-movies were classified as such. There is the use of a theremin, which would go on to be on the soundtrack of every cheap horror film ever made (and was also used in the that year’s Best Picture winner, The Lost Weekend). Peck and Bergman have great chemistry (maybe because they had an affair while filming) and Chekhov, who received an Oscar nomination, is a joy. I also liked Carroll’s performance–what a smooth talker.
We also get a landmark shot of Hitchcock’s–the POV shot of someone shooting themselves in the face with a gun. Because of space restrictions, they had to use a giant hand and gun to pull it off. Also, the film was in black and white, but at the moment the gun goes off Hitchcock had a few frames of red inserted into the film. They had to be inserted by hand, print by print.
As for Dali’s dream sequence, it’s eerie and thoroughly Dali, with curtains made of eyes (they are cut by scissors, recalling his other famous film project, Andalusion Dog) a wheel that is distorted, like the clock in The Persistence of Memory and the use of slow motion when figures are moving. However, that the one dream Peck has contains all the clues necessary to figure out who he was and who really committed the murder in question is laughably coincidental. Dreams aren’t that literal, and to suggest they are makes a mockery of psychoanalysis.
Hitchcock returns to some of these themes in Marnie, which is also about a person with a repressed memory who has a problem with a certain color. It’s interesting to note, though, that the project began with producer David O. Selznick (it was to be his last teaming with Hitchcock), who was undergoing psychoanalysis at the time.