Monday, December 28, 2015

Spellbound by Hitchcock and Salvador Dali

"Women make the best psychoanalysts until they fall in love. After that they make the best patients."

Alex (Michael Chekhov)

I know that many movie aficionados regard "Spellbound," an Alfred Hitchcock psychological thriller that premiered on this day in 1945, as a classic, but probably the majority of modern movie watchers wouldn't know anything about it.

And that makes me wonder if, even with its reputation among those in the know, perhaps "Spellbound" is Hitchcock's most underrated movie. It is even underrated with some who are in the know. The American Film Institute, for example, did not include "Spellbound" in its list of the Top 100 movies of all time.

Even in its own time, "Spellbound" was overlooked by its peers. To be fair, it did achieve something that comparatively few Hitchcock movies achieved. It was nominated for several Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director, but it only won one — for its music. The music for "Spellbound" was appropriate, as it almost always was, for a Hitchcock movie, but the only on–screen work that was recognized with a nomination was Michael Chekhov in a supporting role.

That wouldn't have been nearly as egregious if, as was frequently the case with a Hitchcock movie, the stars weren't A–listers of their time — but "Spellbound" starred Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck. Now they weren't the A–Lister's A–listers. There were stars in Hollywood who probably rated a little higher than Bergman and Peck on the A–list scale — but not many.

And both were nominated for Oscars that year — but for performances in other movies.

Bergman played a psychoanalyst at a mental hospital, where the director was being forced to retire after an extended absence for exhaustion. His replacement was played by Peck — who, it was observed by his colleagues, brought little baggage with him. Physical baggage, that is — although that distinction was not made by any of the characters, and only in hindsight could it be correctly interpreted.

That assumes, of course, that the viewer would remember a snippet of dialogue in the first 15 minutes of a two–hour Hitchcock movie. Verbal clues were tossed into Hitchcock movies so casually that such details could be missed even after several viewings, and that was especially true of "Spellbound," which was not only psychological in its nature but was about the study of psychology and evaluation of mental disorders. Listening to psychoanalysts speak in such a movie can reach a point where it's all white noise for the ordinary viewer.

I don't remember how many times I saw "Spellbound" before I made that connection about the baggage. I had probably seen "Spellbound" at least three or four times by then, and I consider myself reasonably intelligent.

Speaking of connections, Bergman and Peck apparently made a connection of their own when the movie was being made. They were both married — to other people — when they made "Spellbound," yet they had a brief affair during that production. Their relationship may have been known to their relatives and/or friends, but the public had only its own suspicions, whatever they may have been, until 1987, five years after Bergman's death, when Peck confessed in an interview.

That answered some questions about the obvious chemistry between the two on screen.

There was obviously something strange about Peck's character — or at least it seemed strange to his colleagues, who embarked on waves of psychobabble about whether Peck's character was really who he claimed to be. In true Hitchcockian fashion, it was suggested that Peck had murdered the doctor he claimed to be and had assumed his identity. That turned out to be correct. Bergman's diagnosis, that Peck was an amnesiac, also turned out to be true.

And there was always the tiniest sliver of doubt that couldn't be easily explained, not matter how many psychoanalysts contributed ideas.

That is what made "Spellbound" such a good movie. It was what succeeded in all of Hitchcock's works — the element of what some would call plausible deniability.

Sure, Peck might well be guilty, but what about ...?

The crowning touch may have been a dream sequence designed by Salvador Dali that was just loaded with psychiatric symbols.

Too bad Hitchcock wasn't making color movies at the time. A Salvador Dali–inspired dream sequence was just meant to be done in color — kind of like the imagery from "Vertigo."

That alone would have been hypnotic, a unique experience for moviegoers in 1945. The mystery, on the other hand, wound up being rather routine, I thought. It wasn't one of Hitchcock's best — but the performances of the actors deserved more recognition.