Spellbound (Alfred Hitchcock, 1945) 🇺🇸

January 15, 2022

“Tell me about your dreams and I’ll tell you who you are.” This is one dream we certainly won’t forget, fresh from the unbridled imagination of the man who lent the film his talents as a surrealist painter – or rather, sold them if his anagrammatic nickname, Avida Dollars, is anything to go by – the one and only Salvador Dalí!

The dream is the film’s key sequence and lets us into the secret of why, on this unsettling poster, a man with his face hidden, collapsing in the arms of his lover-detective-psychoanalyst, is grasping a razor.

Hitchcock weaves an otherworldly, dreamlike flight of fancy into the film’s narrative: a man uses giant scissors to cut out living eyes set in the black curtains decorating a gambling den, recalling the sliced eyeball in Buñuel’s silent short film, An Andalusian Dog. A scantily clad nymphomaniac approaches the tables to kiss the players. A bearded man – the spitting image of Freud! – is caught cheating with blank cards. Then we see him falling off a roof, pursued by the owner of the gambling den holding a wheel that brings to mind Dali’s melting watches.

A dream? More like a nightmare, teeming with symbols which need to be interpreted to solve the film’s conundrum and succeed in finding the murderer, healing a patient and saving a love affair. This is the dream of a man who has lost his mind. The entire film is imbued with a sense of madness, emphasised by Miklós Rózsa’s ghostly music and the bewitching sound of the “theremin”, the strange electronic instrument played without any physical contact.

We are gripped by a feeling of unease as soon as the opening credits begin, when a frenzied wind strips frail branches of their fluttering autumn leaves. Hitchcock represents phobia in the form of obsessive details filmed in close-up which trigger severe anxiety in the patient each time they appear. So-called Dr Edwardes, the newly appointed director of a psychiatric hospital, arouses suspicion about his identity when he faints at the sight of the lines Dr Constance Petersen traces on a white napkin with her fork. While Ingrid Bergman, playing a serious, glasses-wearing psychoanalyst, is a reassuring presence, we are disturbed by Gregory Peck’s worrying fragility. He is sent into the same state of panic at the sight of the stripes on Dr Petersen’s cream dress (which he does eventually manage to get her to take off!). And that’s not all. We see him pass out in front of the bars of a station’s ticket counter and black out on seeing the traces a toboggan leaves in the snow.

So who is this man with the initials J.B on his lighter? Is he really the author of Labyrinth of the Guilt Complex, the book Constance devours when she can’t sleep? Is he guilty of murdering the real Dr Edwardes whose identity he has usurped? He is told he is schizophrenic by an elderly psychiatrist with a goatee, played by Michael Chekhov, the playwright’s nephew, who called on the unconscious in real life, using techniques likes yoga to help his acting. In the film, he is saved by a glass of milk (containing bromide) as the sleepwalking J.B. comes up to him at his desk, gripping the gleaming razor. We then see the scene of the (averted) crime through the glass as the patient drinks, the image turning milky white as our drugged hero falls into a deep, dreamless sleep.

The fact is that the razor hasn’t killed anyone. The truth is buried in the past of the mysterious J.B., whose amnesia has locked the doors to it. A woman under his spell, symbolically named Constance, holds the keys to them. She gradually succeeds in opening them, one by one, using the tools of psychoanalysis. The couch-led investigation focuses on J.B’s dream, however “incoherent, confused or absurd” it might be, to use one of Freud’s definitions. The image of the bearded man falling off a roof prompts the psychoanalyst to take her patient to the scene of the crime, a snowy slope ending in a cliff, which the pair of them descend on skis in a crazy downhill scene featuring conspicuously cheap special effects – it’s hard to believe in the green pines and artificial wind in their hair! The image we’ve all been waiting for finally emerges, superposed over the ski tracks in the snow: the iron railings of a spiked fence where a child is impaled, pushed by his brother. John Ballantyne killed his little brother as they played, covering up his guilt complex with amnesia.

After a final dramatic twist meant to lead us down the garden path, Hitchcock reveals the real culprit. The murderer ends up shooting himself, turning the black and white image blood red.

Following this lesson in psychoanalysis (for dummies), can you interpret Sir Alfred Hitchcock’s cameo appearance in the film, when we see him step out of a hotel lift carrying a violin case? I hope your dreams are as lovely as this marvellous film noir with its entrancing poster!