Movie Night: Spellbound

MoviesAlso in the it’s-about-time category, I finally watched one of the few Hitchcock pictures I hadn’t yet seen: 1945’s Gregory Peck/Ingrid Bergman showcase Spellbound. And I think I’m about to tick off some film purists out there by saying... it was okay.

I love Hitchcock’s work, and from that perspective, the picture was by no means a disappointment. Everything from the story beats to the photography, lighting, pacing is definitively Hitchcock. (Not to mention the almost-requisite Hitchcock cameo, this time stepping out of a hotel elevator.) Gregory Peck manages to maintain an elegant composure while injecting his almost-trademark element of everyman vulnerability. And Ingrid Bergman is simply one of the most staggeringly beautiful leading ladies in history.

But where I had trouble is in how dated the picture is. Sure, it’s overtly sexist, but (at least in terms of the male characters’ behavior) that’s easy enough to get past, if for no other reason than it’s clearly appropriate for the time. It’s in the psychological aspect that it falls short. Not the film’s ability to play to our innermost thoughts, fears, and emotions — in that respect, Hitchcock is still in top form. No, I’m referring to the picture’s use of psychology as a story element. At the time, of course, the practice of psychiatry was substantially more of an enigma than it is today. While I won’t pretend that we laymen truly understand the intricacies of the science, we do — after decades of exposure to movies and other “entertainment” vehicles on the subject — have a great deal more sense of at least the basics of what’s involved. And for a picture populated by psychiatrists, the practicalities of the study come across as woefully simplistic. Today, a critic would scream that the writers needed to go back and research their film’s subject to a much greater degree. But even in the present day, a picture need not be wholly authentic, but just realistic enough to allow an audience to suspend disbelief — and the audiences of 1945 were no doubt perfectly willing to do so.

Then there’s the psychological basis for the lead characer’s actions. As a rule, Hitchcock’s pictures were never particularly complex in terms of human psychology (with the possible exception of Psycho). Sure, the picutres themselves fed us twists and turns, and never failed to maintain suspense, but we rarely emerged with a greater understanding of the motivations of human behavior. But in Spellbound, we have Bergman’s psychiatrist risking her entire career to “cure” the mentally blocked Peck in a matter of days — not as a professional challenge, but because after a single afternoon spent together, she’s fallen in love with him. Which, in turn, seems to have no real motivation other than that it’s what the story demands.

Hitchcock would return to the sudden-and-inexplicable-falling-in-love theme in later pictures (including one of my all-time favorite films, North by Northwest), but here, it truly comes across as forced, undermining our identification with Bergman as protagonist. At the time of the picture’s original release, this may not have been an issue — after all, she may be a doctor, but she’s also a woman, and we all know that women are prone to falling in love at the drop of a hat, right? Today, though, it’s just too big an obstacle to overcome.

The picture doesn’t fail to entertain, and even to experiment — for example, the use of Salvador Dali’s work as inspiration for its “dream sequences,” or the climactic shot of a handheld revolver in extreme close-up (in reality, an oversized prop) while action proceeds in the background beyond. And I’ll confess to being pleasantly surprised by some of the picture’s twists. But on the whole, while worth watching, I don’t think it’s going to make it into my personal “top films” list. Which, one of these days, I’ll actually get around to putting together in more than theoretical form.


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