Reviews of Classic Movies: 'Spellbound'

Over Christmas, I got the chance to catch up on some more classic movies, giving me lots of material for another round of my Reviews of Classic Movies series. First up is a tale of psychiatry, love and murder – woven into the early Alfred Hitchcock 1945 thriller Spellbound.

Starring Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck, Spellbound has all the twists and turns we expect from Hitchcock. It also contains a fascinating dream sequence designed by surrealist artist Salvador Dalí, and yet the film doesn’t often spring to mind when we think of Hitchcock. Read on for the full review, including my ranking out of four stars!

Bergman plays the resolute Dr. Constance Petersen, a renowned, if slightly cold, psychiatrist working at a mental hospital called Green Manors. Petersen effortlessly wards away the advances of her colleague, Dr. Fleurot, claiming she is married to her work. That is, until the charming Dr. Edwardes (Gregory Peck) arrives to take over the direction of Green Manors, leading Petersen and Edwardes to fall in love within a few short scenes.

Soon, however, Constance suspects that Edwardes is not who he claims to be, and she concludes that the man claiming to be the established psychiatrist might have a violent, even murderous, past. Making matters worse is the fact that "Edwardes" suffers from acute amnesia, blurring out who he really is. Constance must figure out if she can use her skills in psychiatry to cure her lover, before his real past catches up with him.

If the plot description sounds routine, that’s because it has the bones of a typical thriller, including falling in love with a tall, dark stranger and being chased by a murderous threat. But as with almost every film he made, Hitchcock infused the simple story with compelling camera work and great pacing that keeps us guessing until the final pieces drop into place.

Bergman and Peck own the screen as Constance and “Edwardes”, though their performances are tinged with that melodramatic 40s acting that betrays the profession’s roots on the stage. There are a lot of sudden embraces, passionate statements of feeling and quite a few fainting spells, mostly from Peck as the tortured amnesiac.

Nevertheless, Bergman plays Constance Petersen as a strong, layered woman, which sets her apart from many of her contemporaries. Bergman is believable as a woman who dedicated herself to her career, only to be blindsided by her love for Peck’s character. In him, she sees a chance to both save the man she loves and prove her skill as a psychiatrist. It’s interesting that at the time the film was made, psychiatry was still a very new field, and much was made of the potential of the “talking cure”.

Obviously, Constance’s medical ethics, and her common sense, might be questioned by some modern viewers. The “let’s talk about your mother” field of psychiatry is not nearly as substantial as it used to be, and it’s obviously dangerous for a doctor to run away with a possibly murderous patient, even if she is in love with him. Given how charming Bergman and Peck are, though, I’d suggest most will be willing to let them try it out.

Michael Chekhov puts in a standout supporting performance as Dr. Alex Brulov, Constance’s mentor. As some of you may know, Chekhov was the nephew of Russian playwright Anton Chekhov, and also worked with Bergman as her acting teacher before shooting Spellbound.

Chekhov’s Freudian psychiatrist is both funny and smart – his heavily accented English almost sounds like Yoda at times – and he helps ground the two leads in reality. It was little surprise to me that Chekhov earned a Best Supporting Oscar nomination for the performance. Spellbound really hooked me when the film introduced a threat to Brulov’s life – I didn’t want to see a great character get bumped off so soon.

I mentioned the Dalí dream sequence in the intro – aside from Chekhov’s character, this was one of the main selling points for me. I love Dalí’s painted works, and when I heard the film included a sequence he designed, I was intrigued. Before Spellbound, I hadn’t even heard of Dalí’s Hollywood work, and had only seen one of the films he made with Luis Buñuel, the mind-bending Un Chien Andalou.

The Dalí sequence is very cool – the backgrounds have that stark, painted quality of Dalí’s surrealist works, and the actors carry exaggerated props and move through twisted landscapes to sell the audience on the nightmarish qualities of the dream. I was glad that Hitchcock was able to fully integrate the sequence into the story – it was not merely a case of the studio wanting to attach a well-known artist to help sell the picture.

I watched a short documentary on the Spellbound DVD that revealed how Dalí and Hitchcock planned a much longer sequence here, with more sets and mini-scenes. Still images from the set reveal ideas like turning the “dream Constance” into stone. Learning this made me feel like the film was missing something – given the way the dream wove itself into the plot that followed, I’m curious to see how the movie would have changed if all the surrealist imagery had made it into Spellbound.

Not every sequence holds up to the test of time. After 66 years, the skiing sequence (specifically the medium and close shots of Bergman and Peck going down the hill) looks dated and awkward. It’s an effect that might have got the job done in 1945, but since this is a “modern” review, it bears pointing out.

I was also unsure about the strange looks a railway employee gives the camera midway through the film and at the end. It seemed like an attempt at a self-aware joke, but for me it broke the fourth wall unnecessarily. Details like these reminded me that a classic movie isn’t always a perfect film – the inconsistencies in a film can survive as much as the memorable acting or innovative storytelling.

Spellbound loses a few points mostly to these little quibbles – some over-exaggerated acting, the missing dream scenes, and the dated skiing sequence. Still, it’s a must-see for new Hitchcock fans or those looking for an introduction to early thrillers. Spellbound gets three stars out of four.

Have you seen Spellbound? What did you think? How does it compare with your favourite Hitchcock films? Did you like the Dalí dream sequence as much as I did? Post your thoughts in the comments section below, and catch up on my previous Reviews of Classic Movies:

The Graduate (1967)Rope (1948) | 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)