A good friend of mine once said that your average Alfred Hitchcock film consists of little more than “white people eating on trains.” With him not typically sprouting off contrarian views, I was surprised by this statement and more than a little amused. It also colored my subsequent viewings of Hitch’s work. No longer do I simply watch the films with a slavish reverence. Instead, I now attempt to approach the man’s output as analytically as possible, governed by an awareness that he was, in fact, only a man. Hitchcock’s 1945 effort Spellbound showcases his boundless ambition, but also his frustrating inconsistency. Although the film largely avoids the “eating on trains” trope, it still suffers from a sluggish pace and more than one or two unintentionally hilarious moments.
Set initially in a Vermont looney bin, Spellbound’s central preoccupation is the theory of psychoanalysis, which it explores through the journey and relationship of Dr. Constance Petersen and Dr. Anthony Edwardes (played by Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck respectively). The story begins with the arrival of Dr. Edwardes at the hospital, where he soon begins to exhibit signs of being mentally disturbed.
One of the good doctor’s central phobias is seeing sets of parallel lines against a white background. After collapsing during a medical procedure, he admits to killing the real Dr. Edwardes and assuming his identity. He also claims that he can’t remember who he really is. Soon after, he absconds from the hospital, and the police quickly follow. Dr. Petersen, who has fallen in love with him and believes in his innocence, sets out to track him down and solve the mystery of what really happened.
Hitchcock’s typical bag of tricks is largely absent in Spellbound. The filmmaker instead opts for restrained compositions and camera movements, avoiding the flash and frills seen with the dolly zooms of Vertigo and the frenzied editing of Psycho’s shower sequence. A majority of the story functions as a stark chamber piece, with a series of intense therapeutic sessions between Peck and Bergman’s characters driving events forward. To their credit, the actors (for the most part) excel in their given roles, despite the script wanting us to believe that their characters have fallen passionately in love after a single lunch date. Bergman is especially good here, with the different (and somewhat silly) emotional beats of her character feeling genuine due to her emotional yet controlled performance.
Peck has always been an inconsistent actor. For every beautifully nuanced performance (such as Atticus Finch) there are a series of ham-fisted shockers (like his roles in The Omen and The Boys From Brazil). His amnesia-addled character in Spellbound falls somewhere between the two. He plays this flashy character straight enough. However, while watching him I couldn’t help but think about my younger brother, who used to hurl himself to the ground when he was little as a means of getting attention. In Spellbound, Peck flops and drops more than any petulant preteen I’ve ever met.
Now, I understand that this an integral part of a character who is tormented by deeply repressed memories, but the way these moments are staged often provides the film with unintentional comic relief. And really, these pratfalls happen with such consistent regularly that you could almost set your watch by them. “Oh, there goes Peck again!” you could exclaim. “Time to take the dog out to pee!” This may feel like a digression, but this type of overly melodramatic flavor seeps into several aspects of the production. From the syrupy sweet-nothings that Peck’s and Bergman’s characters whisper to one another (which would make even an ardent romantic queasy), to the film’s final twist on the fate of Peck’s character, Spellbound is often a film difficult to take seriously.
Strangely enough, the famed surrealism sequence (designed by Salvador Dali) is perhaps the film’s most redeeming quality. While dreams and surrealist touches in general have rarely worked in film (at least to my very limited knowledge), the sequence in Spellbound where Peck’s character recounts a dream to Bergman’s Petersen is spectacular. This is due primarily to its aesthetic value. The scene is so well-designed, and such a refreshing change from the somber tone and banal look of the rest of the film, that one can’t help but marvel.
One scene though does not make a movie. While Spellbound is by no means a Hitchcockian travesty (that would be Torn Curtain – a cinematic snoozer if there ever was one), it doesn’t approach his more accomplished efforts. The film offers more than “white people eating on trains.” Yet, its implausible, melodramatic script, and Hitch’s dubious staging of it, outweighs its positives, ultimately doing a disservice to the very psychological system upon which its story is founded.