I See…–Audience Role in Spellbound

Alfred Hitchcock was a director deeply interested in the permutations of a story caused by withholding or throwing shadows over the images he let his audience see. In Spellbound, the tale of someone’s confined and misconstruing fear, the premeditated symptoms and successes of the characters and knowledge that is long in coming suggest a tale that takes the form of a lunatic’s big tell-all of a hidden world. As viewers, though, we are more engrossed by and interested in our invisible involvement in the more immediate issue on the screen: the study of a particular stranger lost inside himself. This makes us amenable to a theme of Hitchcock’s: show only so much at once. To this affect, he invokes a tool he is known for using: point of view or perception, especially switches between the two, and between knowledge and cluelessness. Though in Spellbound we might not see blatantly through the eyes of the characters at a particular time, what we see of the characters shapes what we think about them and what they have to say. Like psychoanalysts, we are constantly evaluating these people, especially in how they measure up to an optimal functioning in mind and action. And while following a few characters outside the walls of Green Manors and lending them more than professional concern, we cross a wavering border between the thoughts of sane and insane. To that end, this film is both an exhibition and a tour of duty we take ourselves. And at some remove, Hitchcock, like his Mrs. Carmichael, adopted a role that also plays the analytical divide while telling this story, leaving us to wonder who really knows anything.

To an uplifting but vaguely cautionary instrumental introduction, words silently slide up over the screen to bring the audience up to date on the adventure at hand: psychoanalysis. It is a process that the “sane” can appreciate, because it is a theory meant, in practice, to regain validity of a person’s outward display of competency and self-confidence, or negate and remove self-destructiveness and incoherence, through enlightened insight and acceptance of self. Basically, psychoanalysts try to make their patients reasonable again. Viewers ofSpellbound, who cannot have influence but are welcome to notice discrepancies and develop their hypotheses on the matter, will be presented for examination with one such story of a man who loses and then regains his memory and self-identity because of a horror buried since childhood, which has created in him a total wipe-out of his self-concept. It is “our” story to share in because we are assumed to be mentally in league with the narrator (who doesn’t speak, but still relates a story by giving us pieces of it to look at). We, too, are sane, and can be assured of our sanity because we progress from outside the gated lawn and across the road from the building of Green Manors, entering at the stately doors rather than emerging first from the card game room or a patient’s quarters into the plot. In this latter situation we would side and empathize with the residents and automatically, as Mrs. Carmichael does, criticize even the blankest expressions of the doctors. Having thus been given a role of sorts in this adventure, our psychoanalytical experience is hosted by Dr. Peterson, whom we join and shadow in her office, sitting across from her and listening in on the scandalous fantasies and memories of her patients. We are also welcomed, or at least no one is bothered when we enter, into the exclusivity of communion with the doctors, the more elite staff, to share in a curiosity based on fellowship more than inquiry on Dr. Edwardes’ first night at the Manors.

Our quiet and observant presence, which is objective because we know very little yet, elevates us to the level of removed confidant. Special relationships are revealed, but as we often lack an avatar or representative and so have little consequence, it is okay to see them. Three doctor-doctor interactions hinge on Dr. Constance Peterson, who is also young in the profession. She has much admiration for Dr. Murchison, who has to leave the institution he created and ran for twenty years to younger leadership, and for Dr. Edwardes with his “unorthodox” mind and his amicableness. She is also being casually pursued by Dr. Fleurot, who teases her about finding her human side and is impressed by Dr. Edwardes’ ability to charm her. We begin to familiarize ourselves with the quirks of Mrs. Carmichael, a non-believer in this science mumbo-jumbo she is being subjected to and a dangerous flirt, and of Mr. Garmes, a quiet man disturbed by his conviction that he killed his father. Because we turn in time to notice Dr. Edwarde’s furrowed brow as he listens to Dr. Peterson explain the guilt complex to Garmes, we get the sense that Mr. Garmes is a foil for this new chief doctor and holds the key to a problem that Edwardes demonstrates rather than discusses. More subtly, Mrs. Carmichael is Dr. Peterson’s foil, emotional where the latter is poised, a person who likes to think things through. Repeated overt quietness or disquiet of behavior unnerve the other analysts about as much as mental instability does, and must be carefully redirected.

Dr. Peterson is stiff with men who aren’t her superiors, while Mrs. Carmichael is cloying yet demanding with any man, and as Dr. Fluerot puts it, she is too much like a textbook, too withdrawn. Mrs. Carmichael has the leg up on her analyst in this area, by virtue of having let in and experienced love. Our impression becomes that she has stifled and deprived herself and has built a personality for herself based on an extreme of incompleteness. Realizing this, we feel that someone should come to her aid. Going on the lam with the Dr. Edwardes-who-isn’t is like a response to an unspoken prescription that Dr. Fluerot would prescribe: open up. (Hitchcock has her do this figuratively in her mind as well, in the sequence of doors opening up to more doors. They suggest a long-anticipated release or submission, temporary but profound as the light she is always trying to clear the way for in other people is allowed to shine in her own self (Pomerance).) She only needed a push, a dazzling colleague that becomes a mystery and then someone who needs her.

As we can see, Dr. Peterson and Dr. Edwardes have been retreating from a problem. The more time we spend with them, the more we are drawn in by their problems, and there are instances of getting very deep inside their psyches. We become about as insane or confused as they are. When the first lines, the fork marks on the tablecloth, make Dr. Edwardes remark strangely, we are ever afterwards anxious of lines, and white, ready to flinch back because he would too. We are waiting alongside them for the next big revelation, even as the process is slow in achieving an answer. We are glad of the relief that comes of knowing that Edwardes – John Ballantine, really – is innocent, and feel the tempered triumph when Dr. Peterson uses John’s dream to corner the real offender, the harmless, “senile” Dr. Murchison. And as Dr. Peterson’s apprentice, at the end of the film we are free to laugh as we remember that, until they fall in love, women are the best at analyzing. Afterwards they are the ones most often analyzed. So when we next meet Dr. Peterson, which side of the spectrum will she be on?

(Tyler Borges)


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