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Spellbound (1945)

A review by Damian Cannon.
Copyright © Movie Reviews UK 1997

Hitchcock pumps life into the unlikely dramatic alliance of psychoanalysis and murder mystery, creating another fine genre-spanning movie. Opening in the pastoral confines of a mental institution (Green Fields), patients struggle with ,or sometimes against, theirs doctors in the battle with ever-present demons. One of the professions rising stars is Dr. Constance Peterson (Ingrid Bergman), an excellent if over-analytical physician. She is deeply distrustful of intuition and feelings (symbolised by her spotless white lab-coat), in contrast to their presently retiring chief. His replacement, Dr. Edwardes (Gregory Peck), arrives and introduces himself, appearing quite charismatic (if a little young). However, Constance immediately falls for him (an about-face on her earlier frigidity) and vice-versa.

Unsettling aspects quickly reveal themselves in Dr. Edwardes though, putting the staff on edge. During a particularly trying episode the new man collapses, before being put to bed by Constance. Unfortunately she then discovers that he is really an imposter, an outsider trying to fake himself as Edwardes (perhaps because he's murdered him). The not so subtle clues point towards a deeper psychosis, arousing Constance's professional interest (her romantic ardour is already awakened). When J.B. (being amnesiac all he remembers are his initials) slips away to elude further trouble, Constance does a strange and rather far-fetched thing. Instead of turning J.B. over to the police she elects to follow him, certain that she can cure him with love and devotion (despite her factual knowledge of the dangers).

Tracking J.B. to a Manhattan hotel, the doctor and patient have an emotional reunion. Scarily this is cut short by a wave of panic flashing across J.B., like a flashback to his former persona. For all he knows he could be married and have three kids (though such adultery, even unknowing, wouldn't be appropriate in this sort of film). Anyhow, the path back to sanity is sure to be a treacherous one, with Constance trying to provoke memories without pushing him over the edge. With an eager pair of detectives on their heels the task is made doubly difficult. Constance, with assistance from her teacher Dr. Brulov (Michael Chekhov), must be up to the challenge (thus proving the ascendancy of heart over mind).

One of Hitchcock's more heavy-handed productions, Spellbound improves in its second half with a succession of surprises. The pity is that the central premise (that anyone can instantly negate their past with a single glance) is flawed. Constance is initially diamond-hard, thoroughly scientific and objective, before she flips into an emotional adolescent, subjective and silly. If the transition had been less abrupt, more of a sliding of principals, then perhaps the impact of J.B. would seem reasonable. Still, this all fits into the way in which Spellbound dismisses women. The arrogance which states that Constance can't function whilst in love is phenomenal!

On a positive note, Spellbound twists its plot around quite splendidly, mixing truth and falsehood in equal measure. While the psychiatry aspects are a touch dominant, the Salvador Dali designed dream sequence is a marvel. These scenes are the key to a deranged mind, although it's amusing to reflect on how well they hang together (unlike normal imagination). Spellbound is in no way a classic but stick through the lengthy plot-setting and you probably won't be disappointed by the extended (physical and mental) chase.


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