**This is an entry in participation with the 2013 TCM Summer Under the Stars Blogathon hosted by Sittin’ on a Backyard Fence and ScribeHard On Film**
I went into dictator mode today, making a last-minute change and foregoing Gene Hackman day (sorry, Gene!) and going with TCM’s scheduled tribute to Gregory Peck. I’ve had Spellbound on Blu-ray for awhile, and it was part of my TCM Top 12 in January, so it made sense to review it. A review of The Poseidon Adventure will come at a later date.
Alfred Hitchcock comes with a cachet of ingrained expectations on his name alone. I have a few movies of his unopened in my room, and all of them are considered classic…or are they? Spellbound may have a dreamy, enchanting title but there’s little enchantment to be found. A conventional “innocent man chased” has been done in other Hitchcock films, but that element within this film comes after over 30 minutes of psychological jargon and a love story that’s cold and contrived. There’s a few set-pieces that are intriguing, but Hitchcock has little faith in his audience, and amongst the verbosity of the cast is a plot that’s never as grandiose as you’re led to believe.
Dr. Constance Petersen (Ingrid Bergman) finds herself drawn to new doctor, Anthony Edwardes (Gregory Peck). When she finds out that Edwardes is an imposter, Constance makes it her mission to figure out who this man is and what happened to the real Dr. Edwardes.
I’ve talked about a few films dealing with psychology and mental illness in the past (The Three Faces of Eve immediately springs to mind), but Spellbound is a visual textbook of prominent theories (and outright assumptions) about psychoanalysis in 1945. The movie opens with a quote by Shakespeare as the foundation for its fairy-tale story of a doctor who discovers love with a mental patient, and by giving him love curing him of his mental illness. Yes, the entire trajectory of the plot is that love can cure mental disease, which is frustrating for 2013 audiences, particularly ones who have dealt with mental illness.
Constance Petersen isn’t a Hitchcock leading lady, but a rather stereotypical and underdeveloped character. There’s no complexity or history to Constance as there was with Bergman’s character in Notorious; if anything, Constance Petersen is an early prototype for Notorious‘ Alicia Huberman. I wish Hitchcock had delved deeper into Constance’s obviously hostile relationship with her fellow doctors, all male. Constance is the only female, and the other doctors spend a great deal of time flirting with her and committing other minor forms of sexual harassment; at one point a male colleague tries to smooth her hair! When they learn about Constance’s burgeoning relationship with Anthony, they look her in the eye and call her a wanton woman, poking fun at her disheveled appearance. They have zero respect for her as a woman and a colleague. They’re just as morally unethical with their colleagues as Constance is with a fellow doctor/mental patient, and yet Hitchcock lets that all go in favor of a loved story that’s isn’t dangerous or particularly sexy (as it was in Notorious); instead, Edwardes is a clearly damaged man who shouldn’t be involved in a relationship and a psychiatrist would know that!
The dynamics and gender politics within psychiatry are frivolous to Hitchcock because the rest of the runtime is devoted to Constance following John around and curing his mental illness. In the rush to get to that, the romance between Constance and John is slammed together. One minute they’re wandering around in nature, and the next they’re in love. There’s little chemistry between Peck and Bergman; it’s nowhere near as passionate as Cary Grant and Bergman. Constance’s character is meant to be cold and analytical (or that could be a defense mechanism to fend off the horndogs she works with), but that wall never comes down. She’s standoffish at the beginning, and then wildly swings over to a wailing, obsessively needy woman. The character is such a Florence Nightingale that her identity is erased.
Gregory Peck is the only truly surprising character, and even then this isn’t a career-defining role. He’s frightening with he needs to be, and is intense in his moments of conflict and confusion. The problem with his character is the hype that builds up over his identity. It’s a similar issue with Cary Grant in Suspicion. You wondered whether Grant was good or bad, with the latter becoming the strongest option which made the surprise all the better (and by the same token, worse). Here, you’re wondering whether John is a murderer, and just what was so horrific in his childhood that he’s violently blocked it out. Unfortunately, the murder feels shoved in from a different movie (with an ending that’s just ridiculous), and the issues of his childhood leave the audience to say, “That’s it.” It’s anti-climactic and I’m unsure what I expected.
Peck’s performance is great, while Bergman’s is simply okay. The problem is Spellbound feels like a weak precursor to Notorious; that Hitchcock was testing out what worked and fine-tuning the script and relationship that would be so spectacular in his next film. Spellbound has a fun and psychologically loaded dream sequence created by Salvador Dali, and I think that’s the kicker that goes into this being labeled a classic. Hitchcock gets a free pass, generally, but Spellbound is dry and flat. The relationship between the characters is cold, and the clinical aspect came off like Hitchcock smirking at his knowledge of psychology. A watch for Hitchcock completists.
Interested in purchasing today’s film? If you use the handy link below a small portion will be donated to this site! Thanks!
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.