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Spellbound (Alfred Hitchcock) 1945
The first time that Dr. Constance Peterson (Ingrid Bergman) and Dr. Anthony Edwards (Gregory Peck) embrace in Alfred Hitchcock’s suspense thriller Spellbound, an image of a hallway filled with opening doors is superimposed on the screen. It’s a bit obvious that from this point the picture will be giving us more of the same, as Peterson attempts to cure her ailing amnesiac lover. Her attempts to unlock his repressed memories with affection and undying trust probably violate every rule in the shrink’s handbook, but the film tells us that, “women make the best psychoanalysts, until they fall in love. Then they make the best patients.” Dr. Peterson is both doctor and cure to her patient and it’s somewhat charming to see her initially icy demeanor melt away as she gets the human experience that her colleagues tell her she lacks. Still, her seeming inability to turn her constant stream of analysis has to leave the audience questioning whether romance with he would be something that you would even want.
Spellbound’s antiquated presentation of the psychoanalysis that fuels its plot is pleasingly outmoded, in the sense that it allows us to watch numerous expository scenes that explain the radical methods used by shrinks, prompting much unintentional humor (these scenes are presumably there since in 1945 psychoanalysis wasn’t a universally accepted science). Every person’s neurosis is a puzzle that can be easily unlocked, and the doctors in this film resemble something far closer to private eyes, looking through their patients’ dreams with a magnifying glass for clues. Whenever a two or more of these super-psychiatrists gathers together, an insurmountable think tank seems to form, and the truth is always weeded out immediately. As each sickness is dispatched with ease, the cure to what ails the patient always seems easily obtainable. Perhaps that sense of assuredness is why the film is loaded with unprofessional, but witty, repartee that makes light of the conditions of the patients.
To examine Spellbound’s use of therapy while making concessions for its age and its Hollywoodization, is much more gratifying, however. The visual manifestations of Dr. Edwards’ guilt complex are an excellent example of the “show, don’t tell” style of filmmaking, and make the film feel more cinematically alive than a film with a script this talky might suggest. The key dream sequence, designed by Salvador Dali (complete with sliced eyes a la Un Chein Andalou), is visually exciting, even if the plot requires it to be far too logical and knowable for its own good. That the lovely Ms. Bergman is the one spewing the majority of the psychobabble makes its inclusion far more acceptable. She is quite good here and completely anchors the movie. Gregory Peck is a bit too spacey to make much of an impact, even when he’s not deep in a trance. As most of Hitchcock’s films do, Spellbound exudes class. Watching Dr. Peterson as she finally learns to trust her heart instead of her head sounds utterly schematic, but this top-notch production redeems the majority of the clichés.
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