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All Critics (36)
| Top Critics (1)
| Fresh (30)
| Rotten (6)
| DVD (22)
Not to be speechless about it, David O. Selznick has a rare film in Spellbound.
Today this seems above all a forward-thinking portrait of a woman battling for authority in a man's world.
...a rare misfire within Hitch's otherwise solid body of work.
I don't agree with her much, but Pauline Kael was right about this one.
It may not be first-rank Hitchcock, but even second-tier Hitchcock is better than what most other directors produce.
Made in an age when master shots often became a standard scene style, Hitchcock shows some real thought behind his composition.
A commercial and critical hit in its day, this Best Picture Oscar nominee has seen its standing slip in the ensuing decades, as it's never mentioned on any list of Alfred Hitchcock's best works. That's a shame.
It has a lot of great stuff, not least of which is the odd dream sequence, designed by none other than Salvador Dali.
Uneven film, with fascinating dream images.
One of Hollywood's most explicit films about psychoanalysis, Spellbound takes a dubious and contrived approach to the subject, but the stars (Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck)shine and their love story is enjoyable.
One of the director's most laughably dated films.
Severely dated but supremely entertaining psychological thriller
Much of Alfred Hitchcock's work in the 1940s is characterised by his tempestuous working relationship with producer David O. Selznick. The period between 1940 and 1947 saw the continuous clash of these two almighty reputations - Hitchcock's being founded on his 1930s output, such as The 39 Steps and The Lady Vanishes, and Selznick's being based largely on the success of Gone With The Wind. The partnership's output varied greatly (Rebecca on the one hand, The Paradine Case on the other), with its greatest legacy being Hitch's experimental work in the late-1940s.
In an interview on the legacy of Hitchcock, Kim Newman described Spellbound as "the one that Selznick won"; he argued that Selznick's interest in psychoanalysis drove the project, whereas on Notorious Hitchcock had more room for manoeuvre to make the film as he wanted it to be. It is quite true that Spellbound is not a thorough-bred Hitchcock film, in that it is not an entirely singular vision (thanks in part to the involvement of Salvador Dali). But it scores out over Notorious by more consistently maintaining the suspense it generates, resulting in a rounded and very enjoyable work.
Like Notorious, Spellbound's trump card is the often fractious nature of its central relationship. Even in magnificent works of the period, like Powell and Pressburger's A Matter of Life and Death, it can be frustrating when two people fall so deeply and unquestioningly in love after only a few minutes of screen time. Hitchcock uses Ingrid Bergman's naturally combative sensibility to his advantage, setting up her character as someone who seeks to explain love as a rational phenomenon and thereby resist any of its impulsive qualities.
Gregory Peck doesn't have to do much to oppose her, since she is fighting against herself, something which is both entertaining and serves to deepen her character. But it would be wrong to presume that he was coasting. Peck has a fantastic ability to be restrained and understated without looking like he is forcibly reining himself in. He has the same earthy yet magnetic presence that he had in To Kill A Mockingbird nearly two decades later, and unusually for a Hollywood leading man, he has no qualms in going all out in the more vulnerable moments of his character.
As a director, Hitchcock was usually more interested in how best to tell a story than what the story was about. Many of his films are more fondly remembered for the camera tricks they pulled or the iconic scenes they created, to the extent that the story of even some of his stronger works tends to be more easily forgotten. His approach to the source material, The House of Dr Edwardes, is akin to the approach that would later be applied to the James Bond series; he takes the bits that interest him, or which he thinks would make for exciting viewing, and ignores or discards the rest.
To this end, Spellbound combines efficient storytelling on the one hand and a brilliant use of props and setting to create tension on the other. If such a film were being made today, the status of Peck's character as an amnesiac (a twist on Hitch's beloved 'wrong man' motif) would have been stretched out for ages. Hitchcock, by contrast, treats it as just another piece in developing the story, and introduces it before we're half an hour in. Equally, the envelope scene is a great example of turning a simple piece of dialogue into a moment of great tension for the audience; the police are standing on the very item which tells them Peck's location, with Bergman having to simultaneously watch it closely and not look as though she is watching it.
That's not to say, however, that Spellbound is merely a mechanical exercise with nothing between its ears. It is as topical for its time, reflecting the growing interest in psychoanalysis in America, as Notorious was in focussing on Nazis hiding out in South America. Hitchcock is assisted in this regard by Ben Hecht, who also worked on Notorious as well as writing the original version of Scarface. While the use of psychoanalysis and dream logic to solve a mystery may seem quaint to modern viewers, raised on The Sopranos or Woody Allen's back catalogue, this was one of the first films to treat the subject seriously and use to tease out deeper themes.
The film is very interested in the scientific approach to love, and the clash between reason and emotion. Bergman's character is so devoted to her scientific principles that she forbids any form of personal preference or feelings which could cloud her judgement. Having been surrounded by men to whom she felt no affection (call them father figures if you must), Peck's arrival slowly causes such an attitude to crumble - just as her persistence and devotion causes a breakthrough for him too. To save him she goes against her profession, including her mentor, who states that her attitude is "the way science goes backwards".
Spellbound is also adept in its exploration of how memory works and how recollection of events can be triggered. Again, if you were brought up on something like Memento, this will all seem pretty basic, but even as an historical document the film holds up in a surprisingly naturalistic way. The film takes the principle of memory being fragmented or tied to a particular place, action or symbol, and uses it to make the plot flow better; the frustration of the characters, and the inherent stop-start pace that it brings is more believable than Peck suddenly remembering everything out of nowhere.
This brings us on the famous dream sequence, designed by Salvador Dali - and it isn't hard to spot his signature touches. It contains big references to Un Chien Andalou, particularly the recurring motifs of eyes and blades, and the whole experience is like wandering through a moving version of his painting The Persistence of Memory (the one with the melting clocks). But while the imagery is compelling and tied up in a neat way, it's edited in a slightly disappointing manner. Rather than playing out in one go, like the dream sequence in Vertigo, we have three interruptions to endure, which don't benefit the storytelling or make the sequence more exciting.
Dali's dream sequence may be the film's most striking part, but it is not the only example of visual beauty on offer. The skiing sequence is much more convincing than the version in The Man Who Knew Too Much, being more physically believable and composed in a more attractive manner. Likewise the ending with the revolver is interestingly staged, foreshadowing the first-person work that Michael Powell would later use in Peeping Tom. Both examples give Hitchcock the means to barrel through exposition or plot twists while keeping the audience on the edge of their seats.
There are a couple of flaws with Spellbound which prevent it from being first-rate Hitchcock. Even taking the values of the period into account, the central relationship is slightly hysterical, and sometimes the script over-emphasises the stress and strain at the expense of moving on to the next important event. Likewise, there are moments of contrivance where you can feel Selznick's meddling hands on the script; it would make no sense for a couple who are wishing not to be seen by anybody to go to the busiest station in New York and think they could pass unnoticed.
Spellbound is a finely assembled thriller which has largely stood the test of time and represents one of Hitchcock's more successful pieces of the period. For all its melodramatic moments, it handles its subject matter with sufficient dexterity and his direction brings out the best in the two central performers. While Hitch's greatest work was still ahead of him at this stage, it's an example of the master slowly continuing to refine his craft in spite of the efforts of lesser talents.
A poorly-written film that deserves more credit for a surreal dream sequence designed by Salvador Dalí than a dated plot full of holes and casual sexism - especially how, for someone who is supposed to be so rational, Bergman's character is more stupid than our patience can take.
Dr. Alex Brulov: What is there for you to see? We both know that the mind of a woman in love is operating on the lowest level of the intellect!
"Will he Kiss me or Kill me?"
Spellbound is just another good thriller from the master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock. This isn't one of his best movies by any means, it isn't Vertigo, Rear Window or Psycho. What it is, though, is a thoroughly interesting, engaging and suspenseful thriller.
A new director is arriving at a mental asylum where he will begin his new job, replacing a man that has been there for 20 years. When he does arrive, the rest of the staff is baffled by his young age. The man also is showing signs of mental distress and lack of knowledge about his job. Anymore knowledge on the film would just take away from it.
There's a lot of great art direction going on in Spellbound. There are some masterfully constructed and original scenes, the least of which, not being Salvador Dali's designed dream sequence.
This Hitchcock classic is a fun ride and features all the elements of a Hitchcock film that make them so great. Obviously this is one you should see.
The Dali dream sequence was genius! Ingrid Bergman as a cold psychiatrist was perfect as well as a confused Gregory Peck. A story that never fully reveals itself until the last minutes, Spellbound is a film that takes commitment but is a psychological classic.
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