Spellbound Aesthetics

Nominated for six academy awards and winning best original score in 1946, Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound was not only a success in America and London, but continues to have extraordinary influence on contemporary cinema. Spellbound is a psychological mystery thriller that combines realistic settings and nostalgic events to build up to a thrilling climax. Spellbound’s most note noteworthy attribute is its dream sequence, which was brilliantly designed by Salvador Dalí. The importance of the dream in the narrative continues in today’s films, mainly in psychological thrillers or in comedies for humorous effect or parody. By adapting his aesthetics—lighting, cinematography, and set design—to this script, Hitchcock was able to slightly deviate from his normal forte and produce an international hit.

Lighting can play several different key roles, sometimes all of them at once. Specific lighting can illuminate important objects, create intensive situations, or even retain continuity. One way that Hitchcock uses lighting to his advantage in Spellbound is not only with physical lights, but also within the camera. Throughout the film, John Ballantyne (Gregory Peck) is afraid of parallel lines, although he doesn’t know why. We know that it is a psychological disorder; the characters discover that his mind has suppressed a troubling memory he had in the past, and he has since developed a terrible case of amnesia. Whenever John sees a set of parallel lines, the screen flashes white, along with the accompanying score rising in intensity. This flash of white is not produced through the use of external light sources, but through the camera itself. In the middle of recording, the cinematographer increased the exposure to overexpose the footage. This technique allows the spectator to connect with John when he experiences his psychological episodes. These ordinary objects that he is fearful of are, thereby, intensified by the illusion of light. Hitchcock’s authorship “lies in his ability to continually remake or recombine a basic repertory of narrative situations and cinematic techniques thus creating a characteristic world” (Allen and Ishii-Gonzalès). His world that he has created is a psychologically confusing one, one that we must delve deeper into with John and Dr. Constance Petersen (Ingrid Bergman) in order to discover the truth behind all of the madness. Lighting continues to display the characters psychological mindset in modern-day thrillers, and Hitchcock is clearly an icon for the styles conception.

In most of Hitchcock’s films, the spectator plays God. “A substantial part of the suspense in Hitchcock’s films derives more from our anticipation of a character discovering what we already know than from the discourse of the plot information itself” (Smith). However, in Spellbound, most of the time we don’t understand everything entirely. We connect directly with the characters, and the only clues we have to the truth are too abstract to interpret immediately. Many point of view shots and close ups on objects allows us to go into the mind of the characters and experience what they are going through as if we are involved in the narrative. We go into the mind of the characters so often, that we even experience John’s dream. Petersen is convinced that the ensuing sequence of surrealistic ambiguousness is the key to John’s memory loss, and we too are inclined to believe her. Several times throughout the history of film have there been moments in which we delve deep into the minds of our heroes and villains to interpret and discover their dreams, motifs, and desires. Spellbound centralizes this technique and bases the entirety of the plot around it, greatly increasing its importance. The psychological and metaphysical state of John we connect with is heavily relied on Hitchcock’s ability to convey it through a visual style that makes use of both montage and expressionism (Allen and Ishii-Gonzalès). While maintaining the tempo of the film and combining these attributes successfully, the spectator is able to understand the narrative with ease, and Hitchcock is able to produce yet another influential filmmaking strategy.

With Salvador Dalí on board, the set design was guaranteed to be both mind-blowing and confusingly interesting. Hitchcock utilizes Dalí’s abilities as an artist to construct an abstract sequence that follows the scenario of John’s memory and keeps the audience entertained. This sequence elaborates John’s impotence as a memory loss victim—he is unable to uncover the truth, a truth that haunts him and prevents him from living a normal life. Being underlings is the central existential and psychoanalytical problem of Spellbound (Pomerance) and many other Hitchcock films. Several sequences like this have transpired over the decades, including Big Fish (2003), only instead of Ed Senior’s (Albert Finney) dreams being surrealistic, his actual memories are. Ed Senior tries to explain to his son, Will (Billy Crudup), his life through extraordinary detail, but it ends up sounding like an exaggerated farce. We witness his experiences as Ed Junior (Ewan McGregor), and what he says appears to be fantastical but ends up being truthful (probably to a limited extent). The power of dreams and memories drives not only the characters, but also the spectators. They drive not only the story, but also the cinema as a whole. Hitchcock and Dalí were definitely on to something amazing in the creating of Spellbound, and I’m sure they never would have guessed that it would have amounted to such inspiration over many generations of film.

Many of today’s films utilize the aspect of the dream sequence in Spellbound for tremendously popular effect. Christopher Nolan’s Inception (2010) went even further and made multiple characters experience the same dream within their friend’s dream inside of their captive’s dream which is thought of to be another person’s dream but is actually his own dream within another dream that could potentially lead them to a dangerous limbo, and I’m not talking about dancing under a stick. Nolan’s clearly understandable plot allows the viewers to understand the struggle each character must undergo to achieve their real-life victory at the end, and it also allows us to appreciate the clearly-defined happy ending. Even when an effective style is stretched out as far as possible, it can still bring in audiences around the world for millions at the box office. Thanks to Hitchcock, we now clearly understand how to manipulate the camera to help drive the story, entertain the spectators, and influence the future of the cinema.

Post by: Doug Yablun

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