"Following the footsteps of a rag doll dace, we are entranced, spellbound!" ...So, um, yeah, does anyone remember Siouxsie and the Banshees? I figured someone would, because this film is somehow substantially older, and it's only kind of remembered, although, in all fairness, this was a film by Alfred Hitchcock, whereas Siouxsie and the Banshees were part of the post-punk movement, which is deader than, well, Alfred Hitchcock. This film also gets some points for having Gregory Peck, because when Gregory Peck said something, oh baby, you better believe that it was worth remembering, and Ingrid Bergman was always a sight worth remembering. Seriously, Bergman was a little too good-looking for me to buy that they would allow her to work in a mental hospital full of potential rapists and murderers and whatnot, although this was the 1940s, and no matter how hard Hitchcock tried, he couldn't completely shut the doggone censorship up. Ironic how I said, "doggone" when referring to censorship, but hey, it fits, as this film is nothing if not ironic. Well, it's that and actually pretty darn good (Doggone censorship!), though nevertheless flawed.
The drama is refreshing in a number of ways, whether it be in its subject matter or in the way it interprets such subject matter, yet its uniqueness keeps alive for only so long before storytelling slips into tropes, all but installing glaring predictability through effective suspense, no matter how audacious the film is in its attempts at freshening things up. As irony would have it, a big problem with the film is that it isn't quite audacious enough, because as much as I joke about how Hollywood had to have hold back Alfred Hitchcock's full intense vision, there is something tamed-feeling about this approach to potentially biting subject matter which is done plenty of justice, but also watered down by Hollywoodisms. Of course, Hollywoodisms don't just water down the dramatics, as they also have a tendency to, if you will, bloat them, with histrionics that go reflected in fluffy dialogue and light characterization, neither of which are especially questionable, but shake the believability of this drama, and subtlety with it. Subtlety and grace to almost gracelessly gritty storytelling drive the final product as rewarding, and that makes those subtlety lapses, no matter how occasional, all the more distancing, and make no mistake, this film has plenty of time to make those subtlety lapses. At just shy of two hours, the film isn't sprawling, but it outstays its welcome, and gets there with material that is either excessive or even meandering, so much so that, before too long, it becomes kind of aimless, wandering along a meaty, but dragged out path that is further bumped up by the aforementioned Hollywoodisms, which, against subject matter this sensitive, can mean underwhelmingness. The story's natural shortcomings mostly derive from the Hollywood superficiality I touched upon earlier, but I can't help but feel as though the basic premise itself has limitations that, when stressed by consequential shortcomings, hold the final product back a little bit. However, the final product is not held so far back that it doesn't reward, being ultimately pretty, if you will, "binding", even aesthetically.
Improvably mixed, limited in bite, and formulaic, Miklós Rózsa's score isn't especially outstanding, or has at least gotten to not be through the ages, but its sheer recurrence, alone, is endearing, and when quantity is matched with quality, tonal and aesthetic value are flavored up quite a bit by visual style. Perhaps more effective is the drama's visual style, as once-frequent Alfred Hitchcock collaborator George Barnes delivers on cinematography that takes full advantage of a black-and-white color palette through subtle lighting and shadow plays that are not only subtly lovely, but encompass the polished bleakness of this smart, gritty subject matter. Really, the story concept deserves to be justified as much as it can be, even stylistically, as the substance through all of the Hollywood superficialities, while minimalist, has enough juice to it to make this an intriguing study on instability to mentality and humanity, sold by a thoughtful characterization to Angus MacPhail's and Ben Hecht's script that is itself sold by thoughtful performances. Relatively gutsy as a study on mental instability and how it's interpreted by patience and professionals in the psychiatrics field, this film has a decent bit of acting material, milked for all its worthy by the leads, with Ingrid Bergman having the charisma and subtle human depth to sell her Dr. Constance Petersen character as a respectable, but flawed woman of mental medicine, while Gregory Peck steals the show in his predictably charismatic and otherwise dramatically unpredictable portrayal of a man who gradually comes to terms with his insanity, but only enough to see how harshly it plagues his life. Conveying confusion, frustration, anxiety and, of course, cerebral instability, Peck captures his particularly compelling Anthony Edwardes role as best he can with dated, superficial material, and that's enough to drive the film, which is further driven by the other strong performances, both on the screen and off. Indeed, what ultimately secures the reward value of this thriller is Alfred Hitchcock's performance, for although his directorial efforts are held back by pesky Hollywoodisms, the nifty style and tasteful atmospheric storytelling that he graces this drama with was ahead of the time, and is still effective enough to prevent the slower spells from slowing down too much, while making the dramatic heights - of which there are many - fairly heavy. When the film bites, it sinks its teeth pretty deeply, and while it does so only so often, there's enough teeth to this drama to chew through all of the superficialities, both in concept and in the Hollywood execution, and keep you hung.
Once the spell is broken, the film falls so far under the weight of Hollywood conventions, limitations and histrionics, in addition to dragging, that underwhelmingness is almost hit, overpowered enough by tasteful scoring and cinematography, and strong performances, both on and off of the screen, behind an intriguing story concept to make Alfred Hitchcock's "Spellbound" a compelling dramatic meditation upon the exploration of the human mind and being by the unstable and the peers of the unstable.
3/5 - Good