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Spellbound

Based loosely on a Francis Beeding novel, called The House of Dr. Edwardes, Spellbound (1945) was intended by Hitchcock to be the follow-up to his 1943 production, Lifeboat, and the completion of his two-picture deal with 20th Century Fox, a deal arranged by David O. Selznick. But when Darryl Zanuck returned to Hollywood after his war service in the Signal Corps, he got into a bitter argument with Bill Goetz, the head of Fox and Selznick's brother-in-law. Goetz was forced out of Fox and Selznick pulled out of the Hitchcock deal. Since Hitchcock had actually bought the rights to Beeding's novel himself, he continued to develop it and brought in British screenwriter Angus MacPhail to help him turn the novel into a workable script. Hitchcock had known MacPhail since 1926, when they had worked together on Hitchcock's The Lodger (1926), and together they produced a treatment called "The Mind of Dr. Edwardes."

But as Hitchcock told Francois Truffaut in 1962, the script "rambled." Hitchcock returned to Hollywood where he found a very receptive David O. Selznick. Though not yet committed to the film, Selznick was keenly interested in it, particularly the story's focus on psychoanalysis. Selznick had been persuaded to try psychoanalysis by the great screenwriter Ben Hecht, who was also in analysis. Selznick gave the project to Hecht and agreed to produce the picture.

Hecht made a number of important changes to the script, now called "The Guilt Complex." He beefed up the love story and added the visual motif of parallel lines that link the hero's memories of the two deaths he was witness to, his brother's and Dr. Edwardes'. Though Selznick had originally intended the film to be a vehicle for Joseph Cotten, Dorothy McGuire and Paul Lukas, he quickly changed his mind and settled on Ingrid Bergman and newcomer Gregory Peck.

Recently acclaimed for her Oscar winning performance in Gaslight (1944), the twenty-nine year old Bergman thoroughly enjoyed working with the mercurial director, though she found his methods a bit dictatorial. According to her autobiography, Hitchcock was so prepared with his storyboards when he came to the set that he never even looked through the camera. His preparation impressed Bergman but it left little room for the actors to make suggestions. "Sometimes I thought I got through, and that Hitchcock was going to change the set-up. But as a rule he used to get his way by simply saying, 'If you can't do it my way, fake it'."

Bergman claims to have found this advice useful in later years, but her co-star, the twenty-eight year old Peck, was unhappy with the director's formalism. Peck later admitted to a sense of failure with respect to Hitchcock: "To my regret, I don't think I was his kind of an actor-certainly not at the time. I would like to have worked with him ten years later. I'd like to work with him now-because I think I could produce any kind of effect he would want."

To make the psychoanalytic breakthrough at all plausible, the dream sequence was critical. Hitchcock and Hecht somehow managed to convince Selznick that Salvador Dali was the right man for the job, and so the great surrealist painter was commissioned to produce a series of paintings whose images could be used to convey the hero's troubled unconscious. Hitchcock told Truffaut that the reason he wanted Dali was because he "wanted to convey the dreams with great visual sharpness and clarity, sharper than the film itself." Selznick was so interested in doing justice to psychoanalysis that he hired his own analyst, May Romm, to serve as technical advisor on the film. The dream is, according to Sigmund Freud, a puzzle: "We cannot help concluding, then, that there is a causal connection between the obscurity of the dream content and the state of repression (inadmissibility to consciousness) of certain of the dream-thoughts, and that the dream had to be obscure so as not to betray the proscribed dream-thoughts."

As Hitchcock tells it, "Dali had some strange ideas; he wanted a statue to crack like a shell falling apart, with ants crawling all over it, and underneath, there would be Ingrid Bergman, covered by the ants! It just wasn't possible." Nevertheless, the original sequence was 22 minutes long and, according to Bergman, it was so good that it "really belongs in a museum." They did actually cover Bergman in plaster so as to create the illusion of a woman becoming a statue when the film ran in reverse. "It was marvelous," Bergman recalled, "but someone went to Selznick and said, 'What is all this drivel?' and so they cut it. It was such a pity." The entire sequence was directed not by Hitchcock (who was back in London at the time), but by William Cameron Menzies. Menzies, though, was apparently so displeased with the project and the results that he asked that his name be removed from the credits.

Despite all the emphasis and interest in psychoanalysis, in the end, none of it really matters. As Hitchcock scholar Donald Spoto notes, the "psychological apparatus by which the mystery is solved in Spellbound . . . is itself in fact the MacGuffin, as the film presents a romantic situation with dreadful obstacles which we believe will be overcome." According to Hitchcock, the MacGuffin is nothing more than a "gimmick," a device to keep the plot going. In The Thirty-Nine Steps (1935), it is the plans for an airplane engine; in The Lady Vanishes (1938), the MacGuffin is the little tune; in North by Northwest (1959), it's a piece of microfilm. The identity of the MacGuffin is unimportant. As Hitchcock told Truffaut, "the main thing I've learned over the years is that the MacGuffin is nothing. I'm convinced of this, but I find it very difficult to prove to others." According to Hitchcock, Spellbound is "just another manhunt story wrapped up in pseudo-psychoanalysis." (Such "pseudo-psychoanalysis" would continue to fascinate Hitchcock, however, and he used it to great effect in Vertigo [1958], Psycho [1960] and Marnie [1964].)

In addition to the great dream sequence, the film is filled with other wonderful visual effects. Two scenes in particular deserve mention: When Bergman and Peck are hiding out in Michael Chekhov's cottage, Peck comes down the stairs in a stupor, a straight razor in his hand. Chekhov gives him a glass of drugged milk and we see the scene distort as the glass is brought up to the camera and the milk poured (seemingly) into the lens. The shot was made by placing a giant glass pail in front of the camera and then pouring a large amount of milk into a trough below. (This was Hitchcock's second special effects glass of milk; in Suspicion [1941], he put a light inside the glass of milk that Cary Grant brings to Joan Fontaine.)

Special effects were also used in the film's climax. Leo G. Carroll aims the pistol at Ingrid Bergman and we see the scene from Carroll's point-of-view, down the barrel of the gun. Because of technical limitations at the time, there was no way to get both the gun and Bergman in focus simultaneously. The solution was to build a large-scale model hand and gun which could be placed a few feet from the camera. It took an entire week to prepare the scene and nineteen takes to get it right. Carroll was a Hitchcock favorite; he had already appeared in Rebecca (1940) and Suspicion, and would later work on The Paradine Case (1947), Strangers on a Train (1951) and North by Northwest. For the moment when Carroll turns the gun on himself, Hitchcock thought of the idea of hand coloring two frames of the film bright red, to give the audience an almost unconscious sense of blood.

The final suicide drew sharp criticism from the Production Code Administration, whose explicit standards held that suicide was "to be discouraged as morally questionable and as bad theater - unless absolutely necessary for the development of the plot." Selznick personally intervened and managed to convince Joseph Breen and Geoffrey Sherlock that the suicide was essential.

Miklos Rozsa won an Oscar® for his score, and though Hitchcock later disparaged Rozsa's work for the film, the music is an essential element of the film. It is also one of the first uses of the electronic theremin, and Rozsa, who used the theremin a year later in The Lost Weekend (1945), was instrumental in linking the eerie sound of the theremin with fear and psychological disorder. In addition to Rozsa's Oscar®, Spellbound also received Academy Award® nominations for Best Supporting Actor (Michael Chekhov), Best Cinematography, Best Special Effects, Best Director and Best Picture.

Though no one involved would claim that Spellbound was the highlight of their career, the film was a great crowd-pleaser and an important stepping stone for all, and the following year, Selznick brought Hitchcock, Hecht and Bergman together again for the classic Notorious (1946). Oh, and for those of you paying attention, Hitchcock's cameo comes about 40 minutes into the film. He emerges from an elevator at the Empire Hotel carrying a violin case.

Producer: David O. Selznick
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Screenplay: Ben Hecht, Angus MacPhail, based on a novel by Francis Beeding
Art Direction: John Ewing, James Basevi
Cinematography: George Barnes, James Wimpy, Rex Wimpy
Editing: Hal Kern, William H. Ziegler
Music: Miklos Rozsa
Cast: Ingrid Bergman (Dr. Constance Peterson), Gregory Peck (John Ballantine), Leo G. Carroll (Dr. Murchison), Michael Chekhov (Dr. Brulov), John Emery (Dr. Fleurot), Steven Geray (Dr. Graff), Rhonda Fleming (Mary Carmichael), Donald Curtis (Harry), Norman Lloyd (Garmes), Regis Toomey (Sgt. Gillespie), Wallace Ford (Hotel Masher).
BW-118m. Closed captioning.

By Mark Frankel VIEW TCMDb ENTRY

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