Master of Suspense Alfred Hitchcock’s movie, Spellbound (1945) is almost 76 years old today. The movie’s producer, David O. Selznick is known for the movies like Gone with the Wind (1939) and Rebecca (1940), apart from Spellbound of course. Starring Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck, the movie points out a love story that is framed by a psychoanalytical perspective. Bergman, who played in three movies of Hitchcock (the other two being Notorious and Under Capricorn, respectively from 1946 and 1949), is portraying a doctor in an asylum. She is the only female doctor there, which is worth noting. Gregory Peck accompanies Bergman as her lover and her “patient”. First, let’s turn to the plot of the movie, then I’ll be explaining the details and some specific events in a more precise manner. We see an asylum in which Constance Petersen (Ingrid Bergman) works and tries to treat her patients via psychoanalysis. She is a spinster figure, who wears eyeglasses and reads lots of books. She has no interest in love, although she is beautiful and she has many admirers, including Dr. Fleurot (John Emery). Patients make fun of the notion of “psychoanalysis” and Dr. Petersen never gives up because she believes in science more than anything in the world.
Then, one day the head of the asylum is changed with another psychiatry professor, Dr. Edwardes. The old director is Dr. Murchison (Leo G. Carroll) and he states that the old should make room for the new. “Dr. Edwardes” arrives, and Constance immediately falls in love with him. Her love is reciprocated of course (after all, it’s a movie of love, isn’t it?). However, Dr. Edwardes has some delusions which cause him great pain. He is ultimately disturbed when he sees specific patterns on clothes, covers, etc. Constance immediately transforms into a mother-like figure and she tries to find a cure with her love of life, Dr. Edwardes. However, she finds out that Dr. Edwardes is not the person he claims to be. Other doctors and authorities find this out and “Dr. Edwardes” must escape from the asylum.
Returning to the “Primal Scene”
Now, let’s explain some of the important points. First, it’s not a coincidence that Constance is represented with eyeglasses (later on she only wears them when she doesn’t want to be recognized) and that she is the only female doctor in the asylum. She is the target of attention. However, she is so realistic and rational that she couldn’t care less for love. But when Dr. Edwardes comes, all the doors to her heart become wide open and this notion is represented very symbolically in the movie. When Dr. Edwardes and Constance kiss, we see doors that are obviously out of the movie’s diegetic universe and this of course represents Constance’s opening to love, sexuality, and to Dr. Edwardes. She becoming the mother-like figure has to do with the well-known psychological concept of the “Oedipal Complex”. However, the “father figure” notion in this movie is not very clear and that’s something that we’ll try to explain a little further.
Constance joins Dr. Edwardes (he then remembers that his real name was J.B.) at the hotel he stays, and she tries to enquire about his childhood to understand what’s happening to him and most importantly what happened to real Dr. Edwardes. Since they are being chased by the police, Constance finds a solution for earning some time to solve this riddle. She goes to the professor whom she worked with in the past, Dr. Brulov (Michael Chekhov), and seeks his advice. Dr. Brulov claims that J.B. is dangerous, and that he needs to be in the asylum under surveillance. However, Constance manages to persuade him to let them stay. We can clearly say that Dr. Brulov is one of the father figures that we see in the movie. His close relationship with Constance is remarkable. Apart from that, when J.B. has a mental breakdown and goes downstairs with a razor in his hand, this becomes a clear representation of the instinct of “to kill the father in order to have the mother”. Fortunately, Dr. Brulov is prepared for such an incident and he gives sleeping pills to J.B. without him knowing that. The conversation between Constance and Dr. Brulov when J.B. is asleep seems like a couple conversing with worry when their child is sick.
Then, here comes the famous dream sequence. This sequence is designed by famous surrealist painter Salvador Dali, which you can detect immediately when you see the huge eyes in the so-called dream. As you can remember, Dali also worked with Spanish director Luis Buñuel in one of their first works Andalusian Dog (1929), and in the 16-minute surreal work, the emphasis on eyes is very prominent, to say the least. The overall Dali effect in Spellbound brings a mysterious and dream-like aura which adds up to the movie’s bewildering nature.
Triangle of the Fathers
After J.B. explains his dream, Constance and Dr. Brulov “translate” the dream into reality. Of course, it’s almost impossible to gather such meaning out of a dream when it’s considered that dreams are nothing but our brains’ products that are left out from digestive process. This creates an unfortunate banality. However, when we think of the time in which the movie was shot, we see that many things were unknown in terms of psychology. It might be normal that many scientists put a huge emphasis on the meaning of our dreams and their relation to our subconscious. According to J.B.’s dream, Constance realizes that the very incident which caused J.B. to lose his memory has taken place in an area filled with snow.
They decipher the dream and then find the ski-center to animate the incident with the hope of getting J.B.’s memory back. Police are after this couple in the meantime and when there is a danger of Constance being dead by falling, J.B. immediately rescues her and gets back his memory because he recalls what has happened before. He is guilt-ridden by his childhood memories because he accidentally caused the death of his brother. Additionally, we learn that when he was with real Mr. Edwardes, Mr. Edwardes has gotten killed and fallen from the cliff. This is such a trauma for J.B. that his brain completely erases the memories to keep itself “sane”. However, there is still a missing murderer and the police blame J.B. for killing Edwardes since there is a bullet mark on Edwardes’ body.
Suddenly, we are left alone with Constance because J.B. is now in jail. This ultimate shift from J.B. to Constance is very apparent that our identification shifts as well. Constance then finds out that the former head of the asylum is guilty of killing Edwardes because he couldn’t stand getting replaced by another man. J.B. was always doubting himself and thinking that he was the one who is guilty, and Dr. Murchison took advantage of it. So, we can say that there is a male rivalry and the old one takes advantage of the young one (like father and son), which adds another layer to the abovementioned oedipal situation. The other fatherly figure is obviously Edwardes, but we never see him since he was already dead when the movie was started. J.B. trusts Edwardes, but he thinks that he killed him, and he loses his mind just because of his guilt. This deep traumatic relationship forms the third pillar of father and son conflict. At the end of the movie, Constance faces Dr. Murchison, but he becomes almost passive that he can’t do anything to Constance. Instead, he directs the pistol to himself (this is a very striking POV shot that the pistol is now directed at the audience itself!) and pulls the trigger. With this act, the rivalry diminishes but it’s not clear whether his suicide creates further guilt or eliminates all the guilt-related problems.
In conclusion, we can say that Spellbound proposes an interesting story with the usual Hitchcockian thrill. However, the movie loses its strength because it puts so much energy to tell the audience what psychoanalysis is and there is too much emphasis on childhood, memories, and guilt. The notion of psychoanalysis in the movie is very absurd, especially when we look at it from today’s perspective. However, all of these are acceptable because as I stated, the movie is almost 76 years old, and in those times many directors had to explain what was happening in their movies. Hitchcock was always interested in psychology and I believe he is much more successful in his later movies (for example Psycho which was made in 1960) in terms of merging psychology with crime and thriller. Still, Spellbound is a striking picture with its beautifully designed frames, its music and of course its scenario.