By all accounts Spellbound features the ingredients needed to make a tasty Hitchcockian stew. There is a central murder mystery, a turbulent romance, iconic visuals and characters hiding dangerous secrets. Unfortunately, despite some inventive moments of spice, the combination of this dish is both overcooked and surprisingly bland.
The film often feels at odds with itself regarding what it truly wants to be. Early on it establishes itself as a psychoanalytical thriller, but is clearly more comfortable being a run-of-the-mill mystery. As a result characters not only over explain everything, assuming audiences will not understand the basic elements of psychology on display, but also make ridiculous leaps in logic in the process.
Adapted from the novel The House of Dr. Edwardes, the film revolves around Dr. Constance Peterson (Ingrid Bergman), an expert psychoanalyst at Green Manors mental hospital. Consider too clinical by her male counterparts, Dr. Peterson is frequently belittled for her lack of emotion. The icy walls of her heart quickly melt when Dr. Edwardes (Gregory Peck) arrives to assume the role of hospital director, as current the chief, Dr. Murchison (Leo G. Carroll), is being forced into retirement. An instant attraction between the two is formed with Dr. Peterson final experiencing love for the first time. Their love for each other is quickly put to the test when it becomes evident that Dr. Edwardes may not be the man he claims to be.
Alfred Hitchcock tries valiantly to evoke a sense of suspense and intrigue. Spellbound is at its pinnacle when the director’s creative prowess runs wild. There is a great sequence where, while on the run from the law, Dr. Peterson and Dr. Edwardes seek shelter at the home of Dr. Alexander ‘Alex’ Brulov (Michael Chekhov), a mentor of Dr. Peterson. Hitchcock keeps the audience on the edge of their seats by having Dr. Edwardes and Dr. Brulov conversing late at night, with the latter unaware of the knife the other is holding. Providing a point of view shot from within the glass of milk Dr. Edwardes is drinking, Hitchcock evokes the sense of a pending death through the illusion of Dr. Brulov slowly drowning in the white milk which floods the screen.
Hitchcock’s playfulness shows up again in the scene where he purposely exaggerates the size of a revolver to make it seem as if the weapon is aiming directly at the audience. Of course the true Pièce de résistance of the film is the wonderful dream sequence created by famous surreal painter Salvador Dalí. The dream not only provides the audience with insight into Dr. Edwardes subconscious, but also offers key clues that are more engaging than any of the expository dialogue uttered in the film.
Unlike some of Alfred Hitchcock’s best works, where the audience is sent on a winding road of intrigue and red herrings, Spellbound’s script lacks the confidence in both its subject matter and the audience. Aside from struggling to find a convincing way to display internal anguish in a external medium, Dr. Edwardes frequently looks either stunned or passes out due to the stress of trying to remember things, Ben Hecht’s screenplay makes the characters surprisingly one-note given the subject matter. Dr. Peterson’s greatest flaw is simply that she is a woman. While it can be argued that the era needs to be taken in context when viewing others reactions towards her, the repetitive nature of the dialogue only makes the thinness of their quibbles even more tiring.
Characters berate Dr. Peterson for being cold towards their romantic advances one minute, and then chastise her for following her heart the next. Even her trusted mentor remarks that “women make the best psychoanalyst until they fall in love. After that they make the best patients”. After the fifth or sixth time that Dr. Edwardes professes his love for her, but laments her need to psychoanalyze him, essentially disregarding her brain which has pushed their quest forward, it is a wonder that Dr. Peterson remains by his side.
Spellbound attempts to show that the heart can supersede intellect, but it is tough to turn off one’s brain while watching the film. It is nowhere near Alfred Hitchcock’s worst film by any means, as even average Hitchcock can maintain the viewer’s interests, but it is a disappointing one nonetheless. Though there are moments of true brilliance, signaling that a potentially great work lurks underneath, Spellbound’s script simply lets both the film and the audience down in the end.