Judge Daryl Loomis is a psycho on the ski slopes.
Will he kiss me or kill me?
I've seen most of the films of Alfred Hitchcock (Vertigo), but I'd never seen Spellbound for some reason. While not one of his biggest films, it comes very early in his American career, around which I've seen every other film of his, so it seems like it would have crossed my path at one point or another. It's not that I was unfamiliar with it, but whether it's the fact of Gregory Peck (The Guns of Navaronne, and in general, not one my favorite actors) or just having other things to watch, I never sat down with it. Now that has changed, and what a way to see it for the first time, on this gorgeous new Blu-ray from MGM.
Facts of the Case
Dr. Constance Petersen (Ingrid Bergman, Autumn Sonata), a young psychiatrist at the Green Manors mental hospital, awaits the arrival of a new head doctor, Dr. Edwardes (Peck). She deeply respects his work and, when he arrives looking much younger and more dashing than she expected, she starts to fall for him. He acts very strangely, though, and she quickly figures out that Edwardes is not who he claims. He is an imposter with amnesia, who assumed the identity of the doctor after murdering him, or so he believes though he doesn't remember. He leaves the hospital to escape the law and protect her. Constance can't help but love him, however, so risking her career and freedom, she tracks him down to try to cure his condition and figure out what happened to the real doctor, if he doesn't kill her first.
I'm no psychiatrist, so have no real insight into the veracity of the science presented in Spellbound, but whether it's completely false, true, or somewhere in between, it works just fine for what the story needs. Hitchcock and screenwriter Ben Hecht (His Girl Friday) do a good job of using the idea of the "guilt complex" to both build the characters and resolve the plot. While the notion that all of this can be so easily resolved by pure psychology and dream analysis is fairly preposterous, they make it work with tight plotting that doesn't let the reality of it all get in the way of the story. Though it's true that the psychobabble gets a little heavy in the second act when the couple arrives at the home of Dr. Brulov (Michael Chekov, In Our Time), Hitchcock plays this almost entirely for comedy that really shouldn't be taken seriously on any level. Those overly concerned that every point of a movie has to be absolutely correct, however, may well find intractable problems, but even then, there's plenty to like, especially the ending, which if you've never seen the film before, comes out of nowhere but makes a surprising amount of sense.
The most famous and most interesting part of that section of Spellbound is the dream sequence designed by Salvador Dali. What actually appears in the film was not exactly what the artist intended (producer David O. Selznick did not approve of his designs and assigned noted art director William Menzies to shorten and redesign it, still using Dali's conceptions), but it still carries plenty of the surrealist tones and imagery that made the artist famous. It's just one of many intriguing technical aspects of the film, which includes some really great POV shots, recurring images that point to the psyches of the characters, and a two-frame use of Technicolor that is fantastically jarring, especially given the circumstances. Additionally, Miklos Rosza's score, the first film score ever to use the Theremin, is one of the best he ever did and, overpowering as it is sometimes, it works very well with the film.
The best reason to watch Spellbound, though, is the acting, or at least most of the acting. Ingrid Bergman delivers some of the best work of her career as the female psychiatrist, often diminished by her peers, who must save her man, turning the typical line of a romantic plot on its head. She's strong and comes full circle as a character, from cold scientist to complete person, and she's a joy to watch. Hitchcock regular Leo G. Carroll (Suspicion), one of the great character actors of his time, is great as Dr. Murchison, the old head of the hospital, and Chekov is hilarious in what is basically a straight Freud parody. The only real down note is Peck, who acts like there's a thick board in his back. Selznick forced him on Hitchcock, though, and the director does what he can with it. Fairly, it isn't the worst I've ever seen him and he doesn't ruin the movie, which remains a fun romantic thriller all these years later.
The Blu-ray of Spellbound from MGM is a lovely release that does justice to such a solid film. Having not seen previous editions, I can't specifically judge them next to this, but reading about them, this seems like a strong improvement. The 1.37:1/1080p high definition transfer isn't perfect; there are some instances of damage and dirt throughout the film, but the grain structure is nearly perfect and the black and white contrast is simply beautiful. The 1.0 DTS-HD Master Audio, likewise, is fantastic. There is no real background noise and, while the music volume goes over the top of the dialog at times, that's more the fault of Selznick than it is of the disc. It's all nice and clean with more strength than is normally found in a mono track.
Extras are almost completely new to this disc. The audio commentary with film professors Thomas Schatz and Charles Ramirez Berg is excellent. It looks at the film in multiple ways, from the psychological to the historical to the technical. All of it is valuable, interesting, and well worth a listen. Three featurettes supplement their discussion. "Dreaming with Scissors: Hitchcock, Surrealism, and Salvador Dali" details the dream sequence and the reality of how much Dali actually did and how much was put together later by other people. "Guilt by Association: Psychoanalyzing Spellbound" deals specifically with the science discussed in the film as well as the general feelings on the science of both Hitchcock and Selznick. "A Cinderella Story: Rhonda Fleming" is the least essential piece, with the actress describing how she came to be cast in the film. Her role is very small, but effective, and she wound up being featured in a number of great films, but it doesn't have the same weight or relevance of the other two featurettes. The 1948 radio play with Joseph Cotten and Alida Valli is the one supplement that is carried over from the 2002 Criterion release and it's very good, showing how much better in the role Cotten is over Peck, though the same can't be said for Valli. An interview with Hitchcock, conducted by Peter Bogdanovich, is interesting but not great, and a trailer rounds out the disc.
Spellbound may not be the most essential piece of Alfred Hitchcock's career, but it's an excellent film. The gorgeous visuals and technical wizardry on display make it worth viewing on its own and Ingrid Bergman's fantastic performance takes it over the top. It's a great movie, one of the very top of the director's second-tier work. For Hitchcock fans, MGM's Blu-ray is essential viewing and well worth picking up.
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