Spellbound, Composition of the Story
Spellbound (1945) is not what I would consider a typical suspense, thriller like the other two films, Rear Window (1954) and Psycho (1960), in this exhibit. While still having its own thrilling exposition, Spellbound holds much more of a melodramatic essence than anything else. In the most innate sense of the word, Hitchcock is a man of mystery. His films a tribute to his fascinations of the unknown and their pathways to becoming the known. While this story remains in Hitchcock’s wheelhouse in that it contains death, romance, and at certain points a level of ignorant suspense, this film is quite unique and stands alone from the rest of his collection.
Spellbound is a story of love, loss, and deceit. The young, attractive and intelligent Dr. Constance Petersen (Ingrid Bergman) is a psychoanalyst at Green Manors mental asylum where Dr. Murchison (Leo g. Carroll) is being forced to retire. Dr. Murchison’s replacement, one Dr. Anthony Edwardes, is welcomed with much excitement and anticipation to his arrival. Through multiple “episodes” with Dr. Edwardes, Constance realizes that he is not who he has claimed to be. Further along we find that Dr. Edwardes has been murdered and the imposter is John Ballantyne (Gregory Peck), one of his patients dealing with a guilt complex and most recently, amnesia. This is Hitchcock’s bread and butter in that he gives out information that the audience quickly and without hesitation devours but is to be rudely ripped from them moments later. This compositional construction is Hitchcock’s masterpiece and primarily why his influence and imitations live on today.
The film in an edited sense is rather straightforward with some Hitchcockian exceptions. The most significant scene being the Dali styled dream sequence. Dr. Petersen and her mentor Dr. Alexander Brulov (Micheal Chekhov) have Mr. Ballantyne on the couch recounting a dream from the night before. As he begins to give detail to the dream the sequence dissolves until we are no longer in a living room but in Ballantyne’s dream. This is one of the first established dream sequences, an effect that has its deepest roots in the early twentieth century but was not truly coined and perfected into what is recognizable today until the early to mid 1940s.
As Ballantyne’s reality dissolves back into his dream the camera swings closer to his head as if the dreaming location is within his person. We are then struck with a construction of bright, distorted lights shining through a matte of all blackened eyeballs. Finally we land in a gambling parlor backed with draped curtains of eyes. Ballantyne divulges the elements of his dream as Constance and Brulov try to psychoanalyze and decipher its meaning. He goes into detail of playing cards with a bearded man, whom the proprietor of the establishment confronts and accuses of cheating. This same bearded man is then seen falling off the roof of a house wearing skis while the proprietor crouches behind a chimneystack holding a small wheel. Throughout the sequence the screen dissolves between the dream and reality, each time fading and pushing either into or out of Ballantyne’s head. The most significant part of the dream is the small wheel that the proprietor is holding, at the end of the sequence he drops it and it slides down the slope of the roof on which he stands. The wheel comes to a stop and the camera zooms into it and rests on the center of the wheel then dissolves into the clouds. The dream sequence tells the story of what happened in reality.
As the analysis concludes there is still much left unresolved. Petersen and Brulov have deduced that the bearded man is the original Edwardes (Edward Fielding) and that the two of them went skiing at a resort called Gabriel Valley, but this is all that the fragile Ballantyne can handle and they have to stop the interrogation.
The story continues on with Ballantyne being charged with killing Dr. Edwardes and going on trial and eventually to prison. The sequence of his trial is represented through repetitive shots of Constance defending him. With each shot in this sequence Hitchcock places either a shadow or dissolved shot of prison bars either in the foreground, falling on Constance’s face, or behind her in the background. These bars represent not only Ballantyne’s obvious imprisonment but also how this turn of events has affected Constance. She has finally opened up to another person and now just as she believes he is free and clear from all the confusion of his past, he is arrested and torn from her.
It is only after Dr. Petersen has been separated from her love that she can finally gain an analytic perspective of Ballantyne’s dream to see what it truly meant. The truth is revealed in classic Hitchcockian form. As if Hitchcock is ripping the audience’s blindfolds all at once, the ending comes with quite a shock. The proprietor who threatened Dr. Edwardes in the dream is Dr. Murchison and the small wheel that he dropped on the rooftop was a revolver. With this insight, the shot of the wheel in the dream makes it seem like a sort of smoking gun, if you will. Dr. Petersen realizes that it was Murchison that murdered Edwardes to protect his job at the hospital. As she goes to tell the authorities we get an iconic Hitchcock long shot. The camera holds on a point of view shot of Murchison and pans following Petersen as she crosses and exits the room while walking within the crosshairs of Murchison’s revolver at the bottom of the shot. After she closes the door the hand holding the gun turns and points the gun directly at the camera/Murchison and pulls the trigger.
Spellbound is a twisting and turning journey into the mind of Hitchcock. With the accompaniment of Miklos Rozsa, the score for the film won Best Score of a Dramatic or Comedy and had another five nominations including Best Picture and Cinematography. This film ushered in the Hitchcock era that spans into the present.