Sunday, October 14, 2012


Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Starring: Ingrid Bergman, Gregory Peck

Hitchcock was an incredibly prolific director. Dude made a lot films. He was interested in certain genres, certain themes, and he produced some tremendous films on these themes. Having said that, if we’re playing a sheer numbers game here, he also made some stinkers. This film falls squarely in the mediocre section of his work, with just a few unique tricks that make its inclusion in the 1001 Movies list somewhat understandable.

Dr. Constance Peterson (Bergman) is a devoted psychologist, living at her hospital while working with her patients. When a new department head arrives (Peck), Peterson is smitten immediately, both from a physical, professional, and emotional standpoint. Problem is, the newly arrived doctor is soon revealed to be an impostor. He is no psychologist; instead, he is an amnesiac who reacts badly to certain things but cannot remember why. Will her love affair with this strange man end with her murder at his hands?

This movie has a lot of flaws. How flawed is it? About halfway through my rewatch, bored and annoyed, I reached for my copy of 1001 Movies to remind myself exactly why such a tedious film should make the ranks. So let me address both sides of this: what are its problems, and why it’s in the book.

One of the themes that Hitchcock was interested in was psychology, the idea of the diseased mind; witness the (maligned) epilogue to Psycho, where the villain’s problems are explained away. Psychoanalysis, as a concept, was still fairly new in the 1940s. Freudian ideas were relatively novel, and it’s easy to see why filmmakers would latch onto the idea and turn it into highly romanticized films. Perhaps this can explain the nonstop ridiculous psychobabble throughout the movie. The Spellbound doctors continually talk about psychology, but in an unrealistic manner. They seem bound and intent on referencing the basics of psychology, but in an overly reductive manner. Everyone’s problems can be solved if they just talk long enough, the film suggests, and they talk in such overly simplified emotional ways. There is no subtlety, no complexity to these emotional problems. They are all simply problems because the patient is “blocking something off.” It’s utterly ridiculous. Watching the doctors “figure out” our amnesiac’s problem is akin to watching the Scooby Doo Gang piece together the mystery at the end of the episode; it’s only lacking the bad guy shaking his fist and crying, “And I would have gotten away with it, if it weren’t for you pesky kids!” I did find a way to make it more palatable, though. Take a shot every time a character says “guilt complex;” it might make the movie more interesting.

Next up: another sterling display of Hitchcock misogyny. Constance is the only significant female in the story, and she is constantly belittled by nearly every man around her. The opening half hour is utterly ludicrous. It’s a nonstop tirade of the male doctors hitting on Constance, getting rebuffed by her, then calling her frigid. Yes, guys, because if we turn you down, it’s because we’re essentially asexual. Constance’s depiction, though, isn’t much better. Hitchcock shows her as such a frigid persona, completely devoted to science, cold, cruel, calculated, stand-offish. Utter rubbish. Why is it that if we are devoted to our careers, we cannot be devoted to anything else? It’s such a frustrating portrayal of scientific women, practically an insult. Yes, Constance falls in love, but she is then soundly mocked for it. The male doctors call her a foolish schoolgirl for falling for the amnesiac; her psychoanalyst mentor chides her for it, even saying that the judgment of a woman in love is the lowest of the low. So our poor Constance can’t win either way; she’s either mocked for being cold and career-focused, or mocked for being in love. This type of portrayal of women drives me utterly nuts.

Alright, given that this is the point in the film that I start to wonder why on earth this was included in “the book,” let’s address that point, shall we? Short answer: the photography. The story is utterly ridiculous, the characters are flat, the dialogue, ludicrous. But this is Hitchcock after all, and he had an eye for interesting shot composition, shots that were able to ramp up tension even with the poorest of plot devices. A lovely shot has Gregory Peck’s hand holding a straight razor by his side, all while an elder psychoanalyst blunders on, small, in the background. This is followed by a neat point-of-view shot of Peck drinking milk. As bizarre as it sounds, it’s a great little piece of composition. The finale of the film contains a second point-of-view shot, terrific and thrilling. I’m not going to give it away, but the end does help to right some of the many wrongs perpetrated in the rest of the film.

The big reason, however, that this apparently is good enough for “the book” are the dream remembrances of our amnesiac. Constance and her psychoanalyst mentor plumb the amnesiac’s dreams in order to figure out who he is and what his problem is, and no less a creator than Salvador Dali designed the set production for these dream sequences. There is the melting wheel, the barren landscape with morphed trees, men with no faces, a glut of eyeballs, and even a shot of a man cutting a large paper drawing of an eye with gigantic scissors, directly referencing the famous first shot of Un Chien Andalou, also by Dali (and Bunuel). These are easily the most interesting parts of the film. Granted, I’m a fan of Dali (prints of his hang in my living room), so I jump at the opportunity to see filmic versions of his surrealistic visions.

Is the interesting photography enough to justify Spellbound’s inclusion in 1001 Movies? Ultimately, I don’t think so. There’s far too little of the interesting stuff, and far too much of inane drivel. I even think I prefer Hitchcock’s lesser Suspicion to this, and Suspicion didn’t make it in. My husband even kept asking me why I was watching it if I dislike it so much. Well, when one writes about movies, that means one watches movies, even movies one finds incredibly annoying.

Arbitrary Rating: 4/10. Believe me, none of those points are for plot, script, or characterization.


  1. I just read a review of another Hitchcock film (Blackmail) from the list at Jay Cluitt's site. I'll say the same thing here - while I like most Hitchcock films I've seen, does he really need 18 entries in the book when other deserving films by other directors were left off? I think half that number would have sufficed.

    While I didn't have the problems with this film's plot that you did, I consider it only middlin' Hitchcock.

    1. Yeah, I really don't think ALL of the Hitchcock movies in the book should be there. Dude was talented, dude made some rockin' flicks, but not every one is a masterpiece.

  2. Hollywood has always been about stereotypes, here combining sterotypes of scientists and women. This is of course cause for a major groan. I am personally fed up with Hollywood scientist. In this case Hitchcock makes matters even worse for Dr. Petersen. When he finally allows he to fall in love he places her in a position where she has to throw all logical integrity out the window. He confirms his own predjudice the a woman in love is an absolute lowpoint of reason. Not very nice. Now we can all go and cry Stupid Woman. It does not matter that she is right in the end because her argumentation is wrong all along.
    At the end of the day I think "Spellbound" is more intended as a Hollywood tele-novella Brasilian style with doctors in love than a thriller. Moan.