Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Spellbound



Steadily, I am working my way through Alfred Hitchcock's ouevre. Over the course of several film classes, I have seen both Rear Window and Vertigo a thousand times each. They are awesome films, but the time has come to branch out. I've also seen the other usual suspects--The Birds and Psycho. Also, I just watched Notorious recently, so I decided to stick with Ingrid Bergman, because she's the best.

Spellbound is fun, because it is incredibly overt. Instead of the lurking, subtextual psychoanalytic elements that comprise standard Hitchcockian fare, psychoanalysis comes to the forefront, as a plot element. Dr. Constance Peterson, played by Ingrid Bergman, is a psychoanalyst who unexpectedly falls for the new head of staff, Dr. Edwardes (Gregory Peck). When it quickly becomes apparent to the others that he is not who is says he is, the two of them run off together. She attempts to penetrate his repressed memories to discover whether he has committed murder. In this midst of a psychological frenzy that is already totally extreme, Hitchcock employs Salvador Dali to create a dream sequence. Far out.

Edwardes portrays a fear of emasculation, particularly by his lover, as she attempts to penetrate (key word) his subconscious. He becomes incredibly defensive, consistently spouting pathetic phrases like, "If there's anything I hate, it's a smug woman," while she continues to look at him smugly. He is similarly emasculated by his lack of identity. As such, he expresses surprise at Dr. Peterson's willingness to love someone who is no more than a set of initials. He is just a specter, haunted by his own ghosts.

There is a great deal of gender discussion, particularly in relation to Bergman's character. She is the only woman in an office full of men. Devoted as she is to her work, they describe her as unfeeling. Yet, the minute she falls in love, taking on more feminine characteristics, they assume that she is acting foolishly. As the men surrounding her continually purport, she stops thinking with her head, and begins thinking with her heart. Her mentor states, "women make the best psychoanalysts... until they fall in love. Then, they make the best patients." Eventually, she overcomes this defamation when her instincts turn out to be correct.


Like always, Hitchcock has a unique visual style. In this case, the more severe the characters' psychological state becomes, the more severe the perspective becomes. As Edwardes relapses, the blade of his razor is the central image of the shot. In moments of greatest danger, the viewer enters the perspective of the psychotic character. As Edwardes experiences a revealing flashback, we are put in his perspective. Later, as Dr. Murchison (Leo G. Carroll) aims a gun at Peterson, we see his quarry framed behind the mouth of the revolver, as if is we who are fingering the trigger.

Of course, Dali's contribution is beautiful too--a surrealistic tableau with eyeball-lined walls, faceless men and angular shadows. In the course of this sequence, someone takes a pair of scissors to one of the eyeballs, in a moment reminiscent of Dali's first foray into filmmaking, Un Chien Andelou. Directly following this, there seems to be another filmic reference. Edwardes is set off by the sight of children sledding. The composition and deep focus, as well as the subject of children sledding outside suggests a nod to Orson Welles.


Film has an enormous capacity for representing dreams. It is unparalleled in its capacity to portray the mind's eye. For Hitchcock, the cinematic eye basically is the mind's eye, and narrative cinema is an outlet for his obsessions. In a way, the dream that Dali constructs forms a parallel to the one we are already watching. We, like Peterson, use the evidence to dissect the puzzle of Hitchcock's complexes. This relation of the subconscious and the cinematic is sort of an earlier version of the self-reflexivity he later demonstrates in Rear Window.

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