Thursday, January 19, 2012

SPELLBOUND: Blu-ray (Selznick 1945) MGM/Fox Home Video

From a purely psychological perspective Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945) is a red herring; its simplification of Freud's theory of the guilt complex pitched and played down to the audience as a standard chase/caper. This, however, does not discount Spellbound from being a superior thriller. It merely suggests that the psychological aspects of the piece are neither its high points nor its strengths. By 1945 producer David O. Selznick was involved on several productions that diverted his absolute involvement on Spellbound until filming was well underway. In fact, Selznick had initially 'packaged' Spellbound as a property to be marketed to RKO lock, stock and Hitchcock, before deciding to produce the film himself. Hitchcock detested being traded as though he were a prize thoroughbred under his ironclad contract. But he owed Selznick two more pictures in that deal and Spellbound eventually became one of them.
After initial apprehensions Hitchcock persuaded Selznick to purchase the rights to Hilary Saint George Saunder's novel ‘The House of Dr. Edwardes’ for $40,000. Selznick had wanted Hitchcock to make a film about his own life-affirming experiences in psychoanalysis after the death of his brother Myron and divorce from first wife, Irene Mayer. In fact, Selznick's therapist, May Romm is credited as being a technical adviser on Spellbound. But Hitchcock shared no such interests on the project as proposed. Instead, the director scored a minor coup by having Selznick hire renown painter Salvador Dali to stage an elaborate dream sequence. Hitchcock saw the hiring of Dali - with his bizarre and dreamlike visualizations - as an artistic collaborator. But as far as Selznick was concerned having Dali (an artist of immense repute) on the marquee translated into considerable cache at the box office – period!
Spellbound begins in earnest with Constance Petersen (Ingrid Bergman); a somewhat sexually repressed psychotherapist tending to patients at Green Manors; a country sanitarium. Although Constance's own sexual frigidity is the brunt of Dr. Fleurot’s (Jon Emery) cynical humor and flirtations, her own romantic aspirations kick into high gear with the arrival of a new chief of staff, Dr. Anthony Edwardes (Gregory Peck) who has come to replace outgoing head, Dr. Murchison (Leon G. Glenn) after Murchison has previously suffered a minor nervous breakdown. Indeed, Constance is immediately smitten with the charismatic Edwardes, despite the fact that he reveals certain phobias almost from the moment of his arrival to Green Manors. Patterned lines drawn across a table cloth or viewed as part of a design in fabrics inexplicably frighten and agitate him; the glaring purity of white stirring Edwardes into a panicked frenzy.
True to Freud’s concept of woman as nurturer, Constance is drawn closer to Edwardes by these outbursts, sacrificing her professional ethics and eventually even blunting her physician’s instincts to fall in love with her man of mystery. Her first instinct is therefore not to cure Edwardes of his psychoses but to spirit him away from a police investigation into the disappearance of the real Anthony Edwardes. The authorities suspect this imposter (rechristened John Brown) of murder. Fleeing the city limits, Constance takes John to her old academic mentor, Dr. Alex Brulov (Michael Chekov) who suggests to John that women make the best psychiatrists until they fall in love. "After that," he confides, "They make the best patients." Determined to probe John's repressed psyche and unlock his memories to free his mind of its internalized suspicions and fears Alex and Constance attempt regression hypnotherapy. John recalls being inside a gambling house with Edwardes, but the resulting jumble of images (including a curtain full of eyes and a giant wheel tumbling down a snowy incline) only embellish – rather than resolve - the mystery at hand.
Constance decides that John needs to be taken back to the last place he recalls being with Edwardes before his blackout and forced amnesia. Alex warns Constance that she is taking a terrible risk. But she believes in John, furthermore in his innocence of the crime of murdering Edwardes. But what if he is guilty? Unlocking yet another repressed memory – this one from John’s childhood - John remembers sliding down a banister, unable to stop from knocking into his brother who was thrown and impaled on the spires of a nearby wrought iron fence. Recognizing that this death was an accident, John’s conscience is set free and Constance is convinced that they have now reached an end to John’s emotional trial.
But when the body of the real Anthony Edwardes is discovered not far from the spot where John had his breakthrough the authorities have no choice but to arrest him for the crime of murder. Through a rapid montage we hear the case as presented by the prosecution, endure John’s doleful glances and Constance’s frantic pleas for his innocence. These, regrettably, fall on deaf ears. John is convicted and sent to prison. Weary and heart sore, Constance returns to Green Manors where, unable to find a suitable replacement, the board has decided that Dr. Murchison shall remain on and in charge. But Constance is unsettled by the dream John shared with her and Alex under hypno-regression therapy.
Piecing together the clues, Constance decodes the truth behind these seemingly disjointed and very cryptic symbols; that John met Murchison while being treated by Edwardes at the Twenty-One Club; that Murchison, already having suffered his breakdown – and determined to keep his position at Green Manors – did go to the ski lodge where Edwardes was in the middle of treating John and did, in fact, during the session murder Edwardes himself, knowing that John would succumb to the delusion of believing he had killed the good doctor instead. Backed into a corner by the truth, Murchison takes out the same gun from his desk that he used to murder Edwardes, pointing it at Constance. She defies that he will shoot her. Instead, Murchison takes his own life. Hitchcock punctuated this penultimate suicide by making a giant hand in plaster with a giant gun, keeping them in perfect focus as the gun follows Constance about the room before pointing directly into the camera with a single frame of film hand-tinted bright red at the moment the fatal shot is fired.
Freed of suspicion John and Constance are married and make ready for their honeymoon at Grand Central Station, passionately embracing in front of a bewildered conductor who cannot understand why they would show such a display of obvious affection since neither is seeing the other off at the station platform.  
The heart of Spellbound is more romantic than suspenseful. This is not a ‘who done it’ but a ‘how did they do it’ wrapped in the enigma of some mangled psychological pretext. Most psychotherapist concur that the film does not adhere to either Freud or the precepts of curing the human mind as put forth by the mandates of their profession. Ben Hecht's screenplay deftly exploits Constance’s race against time and makes legitimate attempts to sustain the psychoanalytic thread. But the latter is eventually relegated as backdrop for the gushing romance. Miklos Rozsa's memorable score, complete with its spooky use of the Theremin captures the duality of Constance and John’s erotic attachment. But the dangerousness in that love is not matched by some more subliminal psychologically complexity. If anything the psychology behind Spellbound disturbs, though hardly masks its narrative intent.
Hitchcock’s artistic battles with Selznick on the set of Spellbound were daily and exhausting. At one point the director pleaded to buy out the rest of his studio contract and find someone else to complete the film. Selznick retaliated with the threat of a lengthy lawsuit, forcing Hitchcock to finish the film. Selznick also encountered resistance from Salvador Dali, who had planned an elaborate dream sequence far too costly and much too lengthy for the purpose of the film. Although Hitchcock convinced Dali to reduce his scale – many sequences that were filmed were eventually excised by Selznick in the editing process to tighten Dali’s meandering symbolism. None of these edits pleased Dali’s artistic sensibilities and in viewing Spellbound today the one sequence in it that continues to disappoint is Dali’s dream. The cuts Selznick made blunt and distill the curious amalgam into just a junket of strange and unsettling images, incomprehensible without John’s narration and Constance’s subsequent sleuthing of the crime of murder to tie together all of its loose imagery.
After Spellbound’s premiere, Hitchcock shifted his focus to preproduction on Notorious. Believing that Spellbound’s narrative still lacked in clarity Selznick pulled the general release print and removed a montage illustrating the complexities of treating patients; effectively eliminating an additional fourteen minutes from the runtime but also depriving us of practically the entire explanation behind the fundamental treatment of diseases of the human mind. Even after enthusiastic reviews and favorable box office greeted the premiere Selznick seemed dismissive about his final cut, calling it “just another man-hunt wrapped up in pseudo-psychotherapy.” Thankfully, audiences continue to disagree with Selznick’s snap assessment. Spellbound remains a very stylish thriller. Gregory Peck and Ingrid Bergman have genuine chemistry. Hitchcock maintains a sense of foreboding in their burgeoning romance that is sustained until the final fade out. As publicity of its day indicated, "Will he kiss me or kill me?" In the final analysis, Spellbound kept everyone guessing, even if the flawed science behind the final edit rendered the film's psycho-babble about the human mind utterly moot.
MGM/Fox Home Video Blu-ray shows marked improvements over its SD DVD. The image tightens up as it should in 1080p. Contrast levels greatly improved with richer blacks and cleaner whites. But so too does the overall sharpness, clarity and detail in the image improve. The video noise on the DVD translates to an impressive patina of very naturally reproduced film grain. The audio is DTS mono perfectly reproduces the power in Miklos Rozsa's dramatic score. Extras are all imports from the DVD and include an engrossing audio commentary by Charles Ramirez Berg and Thomas Schatz, an isolated music/effects track, a making of featurette, interview snippets with Hitchcock and Peter Bogdanovich, a featurette on Salvador Dali and galleries dedicated to stills and poster art. Highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)

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