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Spellbound: In the world of psychoanalyses



Alfred Hitchcock, the ‘Master of Suspense’ was in full form by mid-1940s and handling offbeat subjects for his directorial ventures. His 1945 film ‘Spellbound’ was based on the novel, ‘The House of Dr Edwardes’ (1928) by John Palmer and Hilary A Saunders, under the pseudonym Francis Beeding, which tackled the issue of psychoanalysis, till then almost unknown to Hollywood. In fact, Hitchcock persuaded producer, David O Selznick to buy the rights to the novel for $40,000.

“Well, the original novel was about a madman taking over an insane asylum. It was melodramatic and quite weird. In the book even the orderlies were lunatics and they did some very queer things. But I wanted to do something more sensible, to turn out the first picture on psychoanalysis. So I worked with Ben Hecht, who was in constant touch with prominent psychoanalysts,” Hitchcock said during an in-depth interview with the French filmmaker, François Truffaut, conducted in 1962.

In fact, ‘Spellbound’ caused major contention between Hitchcock and Selznick. Hitchcock’s contract with Selznick began in March 1939, but resulted in only three films, ‘Rebecca’ (1940) and ‘The Paradine Case’ (1947) being the other two. Selznick wanted Hitchcock to make a movie based upon Selznick’s own positive experience with psychoanalysis. Selznick even brought in his psychotherapist, May E Romm, who was credited in the film as a psychiatric advisor. Dr Romm and Hitchcock clashed frequently.

Further contention was caused by the hiring of prominent Spanish surrealist artist, Salvador Dalí to conceive certain scenes in the film’s key dream sequence. However, the sequence jointly conceived as well as designed by Dalí and Hitchcock, once translated to film, proved to be too lengthy and too complicated, so the vast majority of what was filmed was cut from the film during editing. About two minutes of the dream sequence appears in the final film. Ingrid Bergman said that the sequence had been almost 20 minutes long before it was cut by Selznick.

The cut footage apparently no longer exists, although some production stills have survived in the Selznick archives. Eventually Selznick hired William Cameron Menzies, who had worked on ‘Gone With the Wind’ (1939), to oversee the set designs and to direct the sequence. Hitchcock himself had very little to do with its actual filming.

“I was determined to break with the traditional way of handling dream sequences through a blurred and hazy screen. I asked Selznick if he could get Dalí to work with us and he agreed, though I think he didn’t really understand my reasons for wanting Dalí. He probably thought I wanted Dalí’s collaboration for publicity purposes. The real reason was that I wanted to convey the dreams with great visual sharpness and clarity, sharper than the film itself. I wanted Dalí because of the architectural sharpness of his work. Chirico has the same quality you know, the long shadows, the infinity of distance, and the converging lines of perspective,” Hitchcock had observed.

“But Dalí had some strange ideas; he wanted a statue to crack like a shell falling apart, with ants crawling all over it, and underneath, there would be Ingrid Bergman, covered by the ants! It just wasn’t possible,” Hitchcock added, “My idea was to shoot the Dalí dream scenes in the open air so that the whole thing, photographed in real sunshine, would be terribly sharp. I was very keen on that idea, but the producers were concerned about the expense. So we shot the dream in the studios.”

When the casting began Selznick wanted actors Joseph Cotten, Dorothy McGuire and Paul Lukas to play the roles eventually portrayed by Gregory Peck, Ingrid Bergman and Michael Chekhov, respectively. Greta Garbo was also considered for the role of Dr Constance Petersen. However, Hitchcock’s first choice for the role of John Ballantyne was Cary Grant as his second choice was Joseph Cotten.

‘Spellbound’ went into production on July 7, 1944 and the principal photography was completed on October 13, 1944. Although most of the film was shot on Hollywood sound stages, the ski resort parts of the film were shot in Alta, Utah, in the US.

‘Spellbound’ features an orchestral score by Miklós Rózsa notable for its pioneering use of the theremin, performed by Dr Samuel Hoffmann. Selznick originally wanted Bernard Herrmann, but when Herrmann became unavailable, Rózsa was hired; he eventually won the Academy Award for his score. Although Rózsa considered ‘Spellbound’ to contain some of his best work, he said, “Alfred Hitchcock didn’t like the music and said it got in the way of his direction. I never saw him since.” Intrada Records released a re-recording by the Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra of the films complete score. The album also featured music not heard in the finished film.

After Hitchcock had suggested ‘Hidden Impulse’ as a title of the film, studio secretary Ruth Rickman came up with the title ‘Spellbound’, which tested well in a pre-release survey.

Bergman and Peck were both married to others at the time of production – Bergman to Petter Aron Lindström and Peck to Greta Kukkonen – but they had a brief affair during filming. Their secret relationship became public knowledge when Peck confessed to Brad Darrach of ‘People’ in an interview in 1987, five years after Bergman’s death.

After its release, ‘Spellbound’ garnered public as well as critical appreciation, especially for extraordinary manner and quality of Hitchcock’s storytelling. It broke every record in London, in both famous theatres – Pavilion and Tivoli Strand – for a single day, week, month, holiday and Sundays. Produced at a budget of US$1.5 million, it earned rentals of $4,975,000 in North America, and went on to earn US$6,387,000 by 1947. Interestingly, Hitchcock’s salary for the film was $150,000.

The film attracted six Academy Award nominations, including for Best Picture and Best Director, but won the Oscar for its music score.

On two occasions, ‘Spellbound’ was adapted for the radio program Lux Radio Theater, each time starring Joseph Cotten: the first on March 8, 1948, and the second on January 25, 1951.



‘Spellbound’ opens with the quote: “The Fault… is Not in Our Stars, But in Ourselves…” from the play ‘Julius Caesar’ by William Shakespeare and further announces that it wishes to highlight the virtues of psychoanalysis in banishing mental illness and restoring reason.

Alfred Hitchcock, making his customary cameo appearance, can be seen in ‘Spellbound’ coming out of an elevator at the Empire State Hotel, carrying a violin case and smoking a cigarette, about three fourths of an hour into the film.

‘Spellbound’ was filmed in black and white, except for two frames tinted bright red at the conclusion, when a gun is fired into the camera. This red detail was deleted in most 16 mm and video formats, but was restored for the film’s DVD release and airings on Turner Classic Movies.

The shot where the audience sees the killer’s view down a gun barrel pointing at Peterson was filmed using a giant hand holding a giant gun to get the perspective correct.

‘Spellbound’ was one of the first movies to make use of the ‘Theremin’, an electronic instrument played by moving the hands near its two antennae, often used for high tremolo effects. It became a popular instrument in science fiction movies. It was named after Leo Theremin, a Russian engineer and inventor.



Dr Constance Petersen (Ingrid Bergman), a psychoanalyst at Green Manors, a mental hospital in Vermont, is perceived as detached and emotionless. The hospital director, Dr Murchison (Leo G Carroll) is being forced into retirement, shortly after returning from an absence due to nervous exhaustion. His replacement is Dr Anthony Edwardes (Gregory Peck), who turns out to be surprisingly young.

Dr Petersen notices that Dr Edwardes has a peculiar phobia about sets of parallel lines against a white background. She also realises, by comparing handwriting, that he is an impostor. He soon confides to her that he has killed the real Dr Edwardes and taken his place. He suffers from massive amnesia and does not know who he is. Dr Petersen believes he is innocent and suffering from a guilt complex. He disappears overnight, leaving a note for her as his bluff becomes public knowledge.

Dr Petersen however manages to track him down, and starts to use her psychoanalytic training to break his amnesia and find out what really happened. Pursued by the police, Dr Petersen and the impostor – now calling him ‘John Brown’ – travel by train to Rochester, New York, where they stay with Dr Alexander ‘Alex’ Brulov (Michael Chekhov), Dr Petersen’s former mentor.

The two doctors analyse a dream that ‘John Brown’ had. It is full of psychoanalytic symbols – eyes, curtains, scissors, playing cards some of which are blank, a man with no face, a man falling off a building, a man hiding behind a chimney and dropping a wheel, and being pursued by large wings. They deduce that Brown and Dr Edwardes had been on a ski trip together – the parallel lines in white being ski tracks – and that Edwardes had somehow died there. Dr Petersen and Brown go to the Gabriel Valley ski resort to re-enact the event.

Brown’s memory suddenly returns at the ski resort and he recalls that Dr Edwardes had fallen to his death over a precipice. He also remembers a traumatic event from his childhood: He slid down a hand rail with his brother at the bottom, accidentally knocking him onto sharp-pointed railings and killing him. This incident had developed a guilt complex in him. He also remembers his real name as John Ballantyne. All things clarified and Ballantyne about to be exonerated, when a bullet is discovered in Dr Edwardes’ body. Ballantyne is convicted of murder and sent to prison.

A heartbroken Dr Petersen returns to hospital, where Dr Murchison is back as the director. Murchison lets slip that he had known Edwardes and did not like him, contradicting his earlier statement that they had never met. Suspicious Dr Petersen reconsiders the ‘dream notes’, realising that the ‘wheel’ was a revolver, and the man hiding behind the chimney and dropping the wheel was Dr Murchison who shot Edwardes, and then dropped the gun. She then confronts Dr Murchison. He confesses, but threatens to shoot her. She walks away, the gun still pointed at her, explaining that while the first murder was committed under the extenuating circumstances of Dr Murchison’s fragile mental state; her murder would certainly lead him to the electric chair. He lets her leave, then turns the gun on himself.

Dr Petersen is reunited with Ballantyne. They depart for honeymoon from the same Grand Central Station where they first tried to pursue the mystery of his psychosis.

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