29 July 2009 | Steffi_P
"Rather like embracing a text book"
Cinema works best as even-handed, non-egotistical collaboration. Total control by one individual can be hit-or-miss, depending on their proficiency. But what is almost always disastrous is the collision between two dominating personalities. Of the four features produced by David O. Selznick and directed by Alfred Hitchcock, Spellbound is probably the one in which suffers most from them treading on each other's toes.
Selznick was a rare kind of producer, who rather than simply trying to come up with the most successful money-making formulas, also used his pictures as showcases for his own favourite themes. Spellbound was the result of a passing interest in psychoanalysis, and while Hitch was apparently not against the idea of doing a shrink flick, Selznick's influence places too much emphasis on it. It's also ridiculously laudatory, the foreword and opening scenes giving you the impression that psychoanalysis is as straightforward and effective as prescribing a dose of antibiotics.
The structure of Spellbound is also not ideally suited to the Hitchcockian mode of suspense, which was based upon revealing the identity of the villain to the audience and then creating tension from making us wonder when and how they will strike again. Sometimes, as in Shadow of a Doubt or Rear Window, the killer would not be identified with certainty, but Hitch would immerse us in the suspicions of the central character, and this worked just as well. In some respects it looks as if Spellbound is an example of the latter. There appear to have been some attempts to create suspense out of the possibility that Gregory Peck's character is a murderer, and there are some typical Hitchcock moments like the business with the razor that play upon this. The trouble is, all those point-of-view shots placing us inside Peck's innocent confusion make it impossible for us to accept him as a killer, not even one who has forgotten his crimes. As such these tense moments, while nicely constructed in themselves, have no impact. The final "twist", when it arrives in the last five minutes seems tacked on, and does not shock or satisfy in any way.
Spellbound is also an example of why we don't see many outstanding acting performances in Hitchcock movies. It's not just because Hitch didn't give any coaching to his cast members (neither did William Wyler, and his pictures are always superbly acted), it's just that his films are too technical to show off the actors to the best of their abilities. Ingrid Bergman was an exceptional actress, but because of the way Hitch works, the key moments in her performance are cut up into fleeting reaction shots, close-ups of hands and so forth. The best impression we get of her acting is in a fairly mundane scene, when she is fending off the unwanted attentions of Wallace Ford, a moment Hitchcock allows to play out in a mid-shot unbroken take. Spellbound does contain one of the few Oscar-nominated performances in a Hitchcock picture – Michael Chekhov as Dr Brulov. He is not bad, although due to the nature of his part he gets the benefit of more conventional shots which capture his best – hence why he got a nod while Ms Bergman didn't.
The one Oscar that Spellbound did win was for the Miklos Rozsa score, although it's inferior to his work on The Lost Weekend, which was also nominated. His music for Spellbound is a little overbearing, and is incredibly heavy in the romantic scenes. It's also very sweepingly sentimental, which jars somewhat with Hitch's rather aggressive styling of these moments. Still, there is some intelligent orchestration, and it is rather effective the way it suddenly breaks into a minor key version of the love theme on the theremin when something triggers Peck's memories.
In spite of all its flaws, Spellbound is still a very watchable picture. The screenplay is by the reliable Ben Hecht, and it moves forward at a solid pace. Hitchcock's to-the-point style of direction may not have been flattering to the cast, but at least it makes the story clear and easy to digest. However, this process of unravelling a mystery does not provide him with opportunities for suspense, or at least not his kind of suspense. Selznick got his "psycho", but this is a mediocre entry for the master.