Hypnotized by Hollywood: Hitchcock and Selznick Spellbound for Each Other

For seven years, a courtship between arguably the biggest producer and the biggest director in the business had several ups and downs. The deal that brought Alfred Hitchcock to Selznick International Pictures (SIP) was finally closed in 1939; two years after interest originally came about. Though the bitter marriage lasted seven years, only a couple of films were made that featured Hitchcock as director and David O. Selznick as producer working together. These films include: Rebecca (1940), Spellbound (1945), and The Paradine Case (1947). Thomas Schatz book The Genius of the System: Hollywood Filmmaking in the Studio Era reveals that throughout the two men’s collaboration, heads were butting. Hitchcock wanted more independence as a director without the producer breathing down his neck. This was more of the case while making Rebecca together, though. For Spellbound, Selznick was generally more preoccupied with other affairs which gave Hitchcock more room to express himself as an auteur. This is not to say that Rebecca does not fit into the discussion as an auteur film for Hitchcock’s usual standards, however. Without the interference of Selznick for Spellbound, Hitchcock was able to make the film in an efficient manner, yet the film took a long time to be released because of Selznick’s tampering with the film in post-production. This is something Hitchcock did not mind. Hitchcock was so pleased with Selznick’s work in the post-production of Rebecca that he had full confidence in him. After several editing changes and the decision of whether or not to include the famous Salvador Dali inspired dream sequence in the film, Spellbound was released to both positive criticism, receiving five Academy Award nominations including a win for Miklos Rozsa’s score, and high box office numbers.

Spellbound begins with a preface explaining the function of psychoanalysis as a means “to open the locked doors of the mind.” An amnesiac patient, John Ballantyne (Gregory Peck), is controversially attempting to be cured via psychoanalysis by Dr. Constance Petersen (Ingrid Bergman). The controversy lies in the relationship the two develop which may hinder Constance’s ability to think with a straight mind, or in other words, her emotions may influence her decision making. Additionally, a murder mystery is added to the mix. John believes he may have killed Dr. Edwardes, a man whom he originally takes the identity of and a man that was coming to Green Manors Institute, a psychiatric institute, to take over for Dr. Murchison, but John cannot remember. Constance must psychoanalyze John to discover the following questions: Why would John believe he killed Dr. Edwardes? Is there a moment from John’s past suppressing his memory? What caused a severe burn on John’s hand? And what actually happened to Dr. Edwardes? A couple of key moments demonstrate Hitchcock’s approach to portraying psychoanalysis through the camera. His approach relates to the premise of the film, his own outlook on dream sequences, and a visual trick he utilizes similarly to how he did in The Lady Vanishes.

The aforementioned quote from the preface of the film helps Hitchcock to simply sum up the overall goal of psychoanalysis, and Hitchcock visually interprets this quote during the first kiss between John and Constance. In Gene D. Phillips book, Alfred Hitchcock, he is able to summarize the visual interpretation of opening the “locked doors of the mind.” He writes, “Superimposed on their passionate embrace is a shot of a series of doors, which recede down a seemingly endless corridor, opening one by one.

This signifies that the constant Dr. Peterson will give John the courage to open the secret doors beyond which lie the traumatic experiences by which he has been spellbound” (117). By having the doors open one by one, the shot illustrates that the process of opening John’s mind will not come in one large epiphany-like moment. The mind is a labyrinth. To begin to understand the entire picture, pieces of a puzzle must be put together to formulate the whole resolution. Puzzles, mystery, and suspense are leading characteristics for a vast number of Hitchcock films. Spellbound brings these elements together in a film that uses psychoanalysis to ask not only who-dun-it, but also, how-dun-it?

In discussing the reason why Salvador Dali was brought on to help design the dream sequence setting, Hitchcock told Francois Truffaut that it surely was not for publicity reasons as Selznick initially believed. Hitchcock wanted the “Dali architectural sharpness” to juxtapose the soft photography of George Barnes, the director of photography for the film. Phillips points out in his book that Hitchcock “wanted the dream photographed in the vivid way Dali painted it” and that Hitchcock noticed that traditionally “dream scenes in films had always been enveloped in swirling smoke and filmed slightly out of focus to make them look misty and blurred. ‘But dreams are not like that; they are very, very vivid’” (117-118). The dream that Dali helped with designing is the incredibly vivid dream, as Hitchcock would want it, of John. Constance and a friend of hers, Dr. Alexander Brulov (Michael Chekhov) use their knowledge of psychoanalysis to interpret the dream which takes place in a gambling house with giant painted eyes on curtains that hang on the walls. The dream turns out to be almost entirely too helpful from a viewer’s perspective because it helps put together the pieces of the puzzle a little too quickly and easily with each little detail of the dream representative of something important. For example: a man begins to cut the eyes with giant shears which presumes that he is a patient at Green Manors and that the eyes represent the watchful eyes of the guards and doctors. Later in the dream a masked man known as the proprietor drops a Dali-esque wheel on a slanted roof. The man is meant to be Dr. Murchison and the wheel is representative of a revolver.

The revelation of Dr. Murchison (spoiler alert!) as the masked man with the revolver occurs at the conclusion of the film. Constance has figured out that Dr. Murchison is the man who really murdered Dr. Edwardes out of fear of losing his job. Once Constance stands up from discussing her revelation with Dr. Murchison, the camera shifts to a point-of-view shot from Dr. Murchison’s eye. The shot shows Dr. Murchison’s hand with the very same revolver he killed Dr. Edwardes with following Constance in the foreground of the frame with Constance in the background. In order to keep the revolver and Constance in focus, Phillips writes that

Hitchcock placed a giant artificial hand holding a revolver, which was itself
four times the normal size, in the foreground while she stood in the background
facing the gun. Use of a magnified prop here recalls the out-sized drinking glasses
he constructed for a scene in The Lady Vanishes, and it was equally effective here
in making the revolver loom threateningly large on the screen (118).

A similar effect is created in the Spellbound dream sequence with an over-sized seven of clubs playing card in the foreground. These visual trickeries that Hitchcock uses are effective for the circumstances at hand in his films and add to his legend as an auteur.

It is difficult to understand why the possibility of leaving out the dream sequence entered the mind of Selznick in post-production when 1) it was easily the priciest expense to fit within the budget, and 2) it works so well within the context of the film. Luckily, Selznick made the right decision in using it, though. He also made the right decision in choosing to work with Hitchcock because their collaboration equated to multiple Oscar nominations and wins and big box office numbers for Rebecca and Spellbound. Unfortunately, the same could not be said for The Paradine Case which led to an inglorious ending of what began as a promising, yet slightly bitter journey together in the Hollywood studio era.

-Greg Davis

One thought on “Hypnotized by Hollywood: Hitchcock and Selznick Spellbound for Each Other

  1. Pingback: Deliquescent Acuity: Luminosity, ‘Architectural Sharpness’, and the Decayed Hyperrealism of Dreams |

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