Wednesday, 30 August 2017

Spellbound (1945)

The central issue with Hitchcock's 1945 film Spellbound is one of expectations which are perhaps best summed up by Francois Truffaut. The French filmmaker, in his series of conversations which led to the acclaimed book Hitchcock Truffaut, argues that one expects a Hitchcock film about mental frailty and psychoanalysis to be 'wildly imaginative' and 'way out', in a similar vein to the later Vertigo. Though I haven't read it, I believe the novel on which Spellbound is based, The House of Dr Edwardes, is apparently very wild in its approach to the notion of 'the lunatic taking over the asylum', so - like Truffaut - you'd be forgiven for thinking Hitchcock would use such a melodramatic and offbeat approach. However, Hitchcock instead turned in a 'sensible picture', full of logic and a sympathetic, somewhat earnest approach to psychoanalysis since both the film's screenwriter Ben Hecht and the producer Davis O Selznick were keen proponents of the science. However it's fair to say that we've come a long way forward from our understanding of the subject since 1945. It's commendable I guess that a Hollywood production is tackling a psychiatry in such a respectful light, but I can't help but wish Hitchcock went against the grain of his colleagues and cocked a snook at all this Freudian talk, because what we have here is a very dull picture.

Something that staves off the dullness at times is Ingrid Bergman's performance, which I really liked. It's so refreshing to see her, a woman in the 1940s working in a male dominated environment, essentially running rings around her colleagues and swatting aside their attempts at flirtation and chauvinistic remarks. However, this notion of a strong and independent woman is somewhat lost the minute Gregory Peck arrives on the scene purporting to be the asylum's new chief doctor. One minute she was effortlessly undermining all the blokes sniffing round her and the next she's sighing wistfully at the thought of Peck's liverwurst sausage on an impromptu picnic, and I'm not sure if that's intentionally Freudian or not!

As for Peck himself, he's a little stiff and unconvincing here (Truffaut voiced his disappointment to Hitch, claiming the lack of expression in his eyes, combined with a shallowness, stopped him from being a comfortable or archetypal Hitchcockian actor) and, despite both he and Bergman being attractive leads, their is surprisingly lacking given they apparently hit it off romantically off screen. Still, Hitchcock knows how to shoot them at least; look at that moment where they kiss - the doors opening. Just sublime.

Indeed, what does pretty much save Spellbound in the main is the way Hitchcock enlivens so much of the plodding nature with his trademark visual audacity; those doors, the unique use of POV - firstly inside the glass of milk Peck is drinking and later of the gun pointed directly at Bergman - and the breakthrough moment that reveals Peck's childhood flashback in all its vivid horror as both he and Bergman are skiing towards a sheer drop. But perhaps most famous of all is the film's unique dream sequence designed by none other than Salvador Dali in all his ommetaphobic glory. Hitchcock initially wanted to shoot this sequence outside with bright sunlight to break the tradition of dreams being presented in a hazy manner and to offer up something more sharp and hyper-real, but unfortunately the budget wouldn't stretch to it alas.

Whilst Spellbound is occasionally visually splendid, the same cannot be said for its aural nature. Miklós Rózsa's score is so overbearingly used, carpeting every scene and giving the action no opportunity to breathe at all. I suspect Hans Zimmer took notes from him here! Overall, this is a disappointing miss-fire from Hitch. The potential is there, but it doesn't come through to the end result. It's only because of the way he shoots the damn thing, that it bags itself three and a half stars. Under any other director, this would be easily forgettable.

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