Spellbound Review

Mike Sutton has reviewed the Region 2 release of Spellbound. A hugely enjoyable thriller from Hitchcock with top class production values. The DVD is better than expected.

Spellbound is one of Hitchcock’s most ridiculously enjoyable films; on any rational level it’s a load of rubbish, but when something is delivered with such skill and luxuriant style its hard not to go along for the ride. The film of his that it most resembles is the equally silly and sumptuous Marnie which also indulged in much Freudian nonsense with a commendably straight face. For some reason, most serious Hitch scholars relegate Spellbound to the second rank of his films, which demonstrates how suspicious straight-faced film fans tend to be of anything which is so entertaining.

The bonkers plot is set in Green Manors Mental Institution where apparently nice young ladies play cards all day before attempting to mutilate the male members of staff with their impeccably manicured fingernails. Ingrid Bergman, more gorgeous than ever, plays Dr Constance Peterson, something of an ice maiden who melts upon setting her eyes upon the hunky new director of the asylum Dr Edwards (Gregory Peck). Dr Edwards is a world famous psychologist whose book about suppressed demons of the mind has been very influential on Dr Peterson. One day in the country later, the two doctors are passionately in love so it comes as something of an inconvenience when Dr Peterson discovers that Dr Edwards is not all that he appears to be.

The sleeve of the DVD reveals more of the film’s plot than it should, but I will not follow that example since much of the fun of Spellbound lies in the convoluted storyline. It’s one of Hitch’s relatively few “whodunnit” films, which is quite appropriate for a story which relies on the psychological deconstruction of the apparently irrational. At the centre of the film is the celebrated dream sequence designed by Salvador Dali which is very typical of his brand of cheerful surrealism. However, entertaining as it is as a set-piece, it’s not a patch on the smaller psychological touches like the constant repetitions of the black lines which cause Peck to have a funny turn. The problem is perhaps that we watch Hitchcock films for Hitch and not for Dali, and the dream scene is so clearly Dali’s work that it seems to have strayed in from another film. The explanation of the scene forms the denoument of the story and is none too convincing, but then Hitchcock was never all that bothered about the scientific stuff anyway and it’s all part of the guiltily enjoyable melodramatic tone of the film.

The script is full of amusing dialogue, thanks to the great Ben Hecht who wrote Hitchcock’s sublime Notorious the following year. This film doesn’t rise to the same heights as the later collaboration, lacking the subtlety of the performances and the cruelty of the plotting, but it’s still hugely entertaining. The tone of self-indulgent romanticism is captured perfectly by Miklos Rosza’s score, one of his most beautiful compositions and well deserving of the Oscar it won. His music actually sounds what we might now call Herrmannesque, although Hitchcock didn’t actually work with Bernard Herrmann for another ten years.

The only weak link in this very entertaining chain is the awesomely dull Gregory Peck. Attempting to emote, he generates as much screen excitement as a wax dummy of John Major. When he tried to appear romantic with Bergman, there is no erotic heat at all; compare their kiss to that of Cary Grant and Bergman in Notorious to see the difference. Peck isn’t a bad actor, he’s just a very boring one. Compared to Ingrid Bergman, he’s got all the charisma of a block of wood. Luckily, few scenes depend on his character for their effect. Bergman’s fellow doctors are all personable chaps, Leo G.Carroll adds his usual authority to the proceedings and there’s a wonderful cameo from Michael Chekhov as a fussy professor. If any of you have seen The Boys From Brazil and wondered where on earth Olivier got that accent from, here is the explanation.

What makes the film so enjoyable, however, is the guiltily enjoyable tone which probably looked ridiculously over-heated back in 1945. Everything about it is slightly over the top and thus hugely entertaining. I place it with Marnie because both films have a crazy romanticism to them which is larger than life and more than a little camp. But, camp is not necessarily a bad thing when it is done with such professionalism and Spellbound is a great example of how much fun a ‘bad movie’ can be.

The Disc

This is part of a collection of Hitch films from the forties released on Region 2 by Pearson TV. My VHS copy of Spellbound had serious sound problems and a grainy picture. This DVD is a considerable improvement and Pearson have made some attempt to make it a more interesting package than I expected. It’s not a great disc but it is certainly quite pleasing.

Picture quality is more than satisfactory. The monochrome image is sharp and clear with a good level of detail and some nice contrast. Seeing this film on VHS was painful, since the print was muddy and the shades had merged to form a dull grey. No such problems here, although there is some artifacting in places and a slightly grainy texture in places. The fullscreen presentation is entirely correct as it was filmed in 4:3 along with virtually all other films of the period. The very brief red tint is included – see if you can spot it.

The sound is the original mono soundtrack and is perfectly acceptable. The music sounds especially good. Again, a vast improvement on the VHS.

There are quite a few extras and although most of these are text based and duplicated on the other discs in the series it is nice to see PTV making an effort for this collection.

Specific to this disc are an extract about the making of Spellbound from Truffaut’s book on Hitchcock, biographies of the stars, quotes, trivia and mistakes and a photo gallery backed by the main theme from the film.

The other extras feature on all the discs. We also get a 15 minute interview with Kim Newman, which is a bit generalised but quite interesting. One classic howler however – he informs us that Hitchcock never made “whodunnits”; er, Kim… what is Spellbound then ? There is a 3 minute interview with Hitch from the BBC’s “Picture Parade” show, filmed in the early sixties, which is notable for containing nothing of great interest and typical of Hitchcock’s charming refusal to reveal much of his own personality. “The Real Me (The Thin One)” is a newspaper article from 1966 which contains some classic quotes (in response to the accusation that he said actors were cattle, Hitch replies, “What I probably said was that they should be treated like cattle). There are also some biographical notes about both Hitch and David O. Selznick – Selznick’s influence on the film seems to have mostly been to increase the amount of psycho-analytical mumbo-jumbo content and to insist on the casting of Ingrid Bergman. Finally, there are some amusing Hitchcock quotes and trivia.

There are 14 chapter stops and the menus are nicely designed. The main menu is backed by a portion of the score.

Although Criterion is planning to release Spellbound later in the year, I would still recommend this disc, especially if you can get hold of it at a bargain price as I did. Pearson have put a reasonable amount of effort into the disc and the picture quality is certainly better than I expected.

Mike Sutton

Updated: Jul 07, 2001

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