Spellbound (Alfred Hitchcock, 1945)

04Jul11

Ingrid Bergman (Dr. Constance Petersen), Gregory Peck (John Ballantyne). Screenplay by Ben Hecht. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Rating: PG. Running time: 111 minutes.

Good Lord, what a surprising fright! I thought Gregory Peck only played gentlemen? Apparently not, for here he arrives on our screen as a maniacal amnesiac with the hunch he murdered a psychiatrist before stealing his identity, petrified by creases or black lines on white linen, and generally looking at times in the saturated dark light like he’s got the devil about him, at least when he’s not busy fainting.

This is to overemphasise it slightly – he is still, ultimately, the charming love interest of Ingrid Bergman, and you don’t need me to tell you that the combination of these two on screen is easy on the eye to say the least. But Peck’s character undoubtedly has a darker side. In a few shots his eyes look as piercingly fierce as Norman Baites’ in the final moments of Psycho.

Anyway, in true Hitchcockian fashion this character’s scenario is soon turned into a mystery mixed in with a race against time, as we wonder what the hell happened to make the man disappear that Peck was later impersonating, and it remains unclear whether Ingrid is right as his new shrink to doubt his own and the police’s suspicion that Peck’s the murdering lunatic he appears to be. They go on the run as she works on his subconscious to uncover the truth, simultaneously falling in love with one another as we knew they always would.

It’s incredibly corny, but unusually for a film of this time period Hitch seems conscious of the humour here. There’s a terribly ironic early scene in which Ingrid, still playing an emotionless psychiatrist at this point, complains about the false romanticism surrounding moments of embrace, the high expectations for which she attributes to the exaggerations of poets. Cue some ridiculously dramatic classical music as she begins to fall for Peck and eat her words, culminating in a crescendo just as they click and the love begins to loom large in the air. There’s no way it’s a coincidence in the filmmaking.

There’s also a quirky little dream sequence towards the end, designed by Dali and ripe for Freudian analysis, and it adds an aesthetic and surrealist quirk to what is otherwise a traditional noir only a little bit darker than usual, both in terms of the extra-menacing lead character and the deeper visuals.

Spellbound is a bit of a guilty pleasure. It’s nowhere near Hitchock’s most original work, and it’s not as comfortable to enjoy as something so clearly magnificent and fresh as his other 40s films, like Shadow of a Doubt and Notorious. Still, guilty pleasures are pleasures all the same, and this is undoubtedly one of them.

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