Recently, I had the pleasure of watching a Hitchcock film I hadn’t seen before, 1945’s Spellbound. To be honest, I was a little unimpressed. For me, I found it a little too predictable, a little too heavy on psychoanalysis and just at times a little too much. Still as with every Hitchcock film, there are aspects of the film that I can’t help but loving.
I found Spellbound to basically be Hollywood’s attempt to cash in on the publicity and contemporary renown of the psychoanalysis theories of Freud. Selznick and Hitchcock teamed up for this film in the mid ‘40s, for their second collaboration after the massive success of Rebecca.
The plot focuses on an intelligent, but restrained, psychoanalysist Dr. Constance Peterson (played a little heavily by Ingrid Bergman) who attempts to help an amnesiac patient who believes to have killed a man (the young Gregory Peck). The plot basically turns into a manhunt, as Ingrid and Gregory Peck flee from the law whilst trying to find the truth about Peck’s beliefs.
The characteristic Hitchcock suspense comes in moments when Peck’s character loses control of situations, which casts doubts about his assumed innocence. I love Ingrid Bergman in almost everything, but I thought she was too over the top in this film. Her icy demeanor in the beginning of the film was too cold, too academic to be believable and her love scenes were too exuberant for a woman who supposedly never has shown emotion previously. But, whatever.
This film had many Surrealistic elements in it that were supposed to mirror the psychoanalysis in the film. While I’m going to focus on the famous Salvador Dali dream sequence, other moments occur in the film that border on surrealism. For instance, when Bergman and Peck share their first kiss, the camera cuts to a surrealistic scene of the doors (apparently, Constance’s mind) opening in succession. Certain absurdities that occur in the film, also seemed to have the tongue-in-cheek irreverent humor that often characterizes surrealism. But I digress- back to Dali.
Really, what’s probably most famous about this movie nowadays is this dream sequence designed by the Surrealistic master, Salvador Dali. Hitchcock went on record saying that during a scene where Peck’s character describes his dreams (how Freudian), he wanted the dream sequence itself to have incredible clarity and vividness, while remaining absurd. Hitch felt that Dali’s work accomplished this vividness that he wished to portray. And I am inclined to agree with Hitch- Dali’s work is certainly dream-like, with its incredible perspective and bizarre images.
The dream sequence is supposed to accomplish two things in the film. The first is to help explain Peck’s character’s mental state- frazzled to say the least. The second is to provide clues to audience about the actual murderer (a little clumsily at times).
I’ll briefly outline the sequence. It starts with a bunch of eyes (apparently, Peck’s feelings of being watched and hunted), turns into a gambling hall with eye curtains, which are being cut. A girl is going around the table kissing everyone. The dream turns to a game of Blackjack with a bearded man, followed by a confrontation with a masked man in a tuxedo (obviously the murderer). The dream that zooms to the bearded man falling off a building (with some really weird perspective) and then basically a figure running down a pyramid with wings behind it.
I will complement Hitch- the scenes, while incredibly strange (aka surreal) are very characteristically Dali. For me, at least, I felt like I was watching a Dali painting in motion.
Apparently, Hitch and Selznick were very gung-ho about Dali at first. Hitch, always the art fanatic, was excited for the artistic vision. Selznick- who was a little low on funds at the time- was excited for the potential publicity over Dali’s participation in the film. Things soon got complicated, though. Dali designed five scenes, which together would have run around twenty minutes. Each contained highly surrealistic images and themes that fit in with the plot. Hitch and Selznick, though, were soon a little overwhelmed by the eccentricities of the great painter.
Dali envisioned scenes that were basically impossible to film, but snippets of each survive. These include ideas to have a ballroom scene filled with dancers with grand pianos suspended over the heads. Another idea included Ingrid Bergman coming out of a classical Roman statue, with ants and something else. I think Hitch was a little horrified by that one- and neither idea came to fruition.
Dali was involved with the filming, but I would give much artistic credit to the film’s art director, William Menzies, who was given the difficult job of organizing the designs, making them fit into the plot and the film’s time limit. The end result is magnificent, albeit bizarre- but hey, that’s surrealism for you.
I rarely do this, but I’m going to link a video clip of the dream sequence for your perusal. I’m also going to include a link for a MOMA interactive site about Dali's work in film that I found a lot of information from (just click on the link). It’s very interesting and includes some great pictures. Despite my feelings on Surrealism, I have to concede that it is incredibly interesting that a mass culture film, like Spellbound, was able to enlist the cooperation of such a famous artist in general. It’s a rare, but truly interesting and fruitful, mix of the “high art” world and the “low art” world of film. And I have to say, it’s pretty incredible.