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Release Year: 1945
Genre: Film-Noir, Mystery, Romance
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Writer: Angus MacPhail and Ben Hecht
What do you come to Shmoop for?
Three words: analysis, analysis, analysis. (Or is that one word, three times? We'll have to analyze that.)
We get you so close to the screen that you're afraid the giant scissors in Spellbound's creepy dream sequence might snip you on the nose. We dive into the brain of Hitchcock so you see the gears grinding and the Hitchcock-ian memes Hitchcock-ing. In fact, we at Shmoop like to think of ourselves as being like those eerie curtains in Spellbound: we're composed of giant eyes that stare and gaze at art all day long.
And that makes Spellbound and Shmoop perfect bedfellows—we want to help you see it all. And so does Spellbound. Because this film is all about analysis.
On the surface level, it deals with a bunch of psychoanalysts trying to solve a very psychoanalytic mystery. All the main characters analyze each other: why is Constance so repressed? Why is Edwardes not really Edwardes? What's up with Dr. Murchison, anyway?
"Good night and sweet dreams—which we'll analyze in the morning," jokes Dr. Alex Brulov when he says good night to the film's hero and heroine. It's a cheesy little psychoanalysis joke, but it also says something about the movie as a whole.
Because this ain't just a movie about analysts. It's a movie that basically forces you to analyze it as you go along—no waiting until morning for you.
But it's not boring: it turns out that analyzing is a bit like detecting in a murder mystery. The film starts out with the arrival of Dr. Anthony Edwardes at the Green Manors psychiatric institute, where he's set to replace Dr. Murchison. But Dr. Constance Peterson—and you—start to notice something's fishy. Dr. Edwardes behaves strangely. His reactions are wrong; even his handwriting is wrong. The analyst needs analyzing—and Constance is just the analyzing analyst to do it.
As the film continues, there are more and more mysterious mysteries to ferret out. Edwardes, it turns out, isn't Edwardes at all. He has amnesia, which means he (like you) doesn't know where he came from or what he's even doing in the film. Constance has to help him find himself—and find the real Dr. Edwardes, wherever he is. The two spend the film running from the law and trying to piece together the nameless man's past.
And as you watch the action unfold, you start to realize that you're supposed to do a bunch of analyzing yourself. When Constance gets flustered about "Dr. Edwardes," one of her co-doctors makes sure you're paying attention. "Did you notice her blush every time we mentioned his name?" he asks. When Constance kisses Edwardes, you literally see inside her brain—and you're forced to analyze what her swoony daydreams are saying.
Essentially, when you watch Spellbound, you're analyzing analysts that are analyzing analysts.
Never fear, though: the Master of Suspense doesn't have a boring bone in his body. Hitchcock makes this analysis wormhole so eerie, so unsettling, and so full of twists and turns that we're guessing you'll start Googling "how to become a psychoanalyst" before the film's finished.
Invite Spellbound into your office. Put it on your couch. Tell it to put its feet up. Get it to describe its dreams and talk about its father. Write down some notes in your very serious analyst notebook.
What would those notes say? Probably something like this: "This Spellbound is an immensely silly film. Or… is it?"
Hitchcock himself admitted that this film was "just another manhunt story wrapped up in pseudo-psychoanalysis" (source).
And yes, this movie is Hollywood silliness at its Hollywood silliest—it has love at first sight, convenient amnesia, an improbable murder plot, and a "the butler did it"-type ending. So why on earth are you being asked to study this silliness? Why aren't you being asked to giggle a bit and maybe gaze at Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck's collective prettiness and be done with it?
Gaze away, we say. But while you're gazing, you might notice that underneath the froth and the big, romantic, swooping, ridiculous music, there's something a bit disturbing going on.
Most of that disturbing-ness involves our hero, John Ballantyne. For all that he's supposed to be the big-screen swashbuckling hero, he does very little swashing or buckling. Yeah, he looks pretty, but he doesn't engage in daring feats of heroism.
Instead, he keeps passing out. Sometimes, for variation, he makes snappish, nasty comments at the heroine. "If there's anything I hate, it's a smug woman!" he snarls during an analysis. He's weird, weak, and sporadically aggressive and creepy. At one point, he gets all gaunt and sweaty and wanders around with a straight razor looking like he's going to puke and/or kill someone.
That's not very heroic.
Ballantyne, in short, is a mess—and the fact that he's a mess disturbingly suggests that this frilly, frothy, Hollywood chase film is just a front. Beneath it there's something wrong. Anxieties and guilt slip through the cracks.
Ballantyne, for example, reveals that he was a soldier in World War II, which ended the year the film was released. "I probably deserted. I hated it. I hated killing. I remember that much," he declares. Rather than being a manly action star who courageously slaughters the enemy, Ballantyne's consumed with guilt for having done violence.
If you look closely at Spellbound on the couch there, the Hollywood hero narrative cracks open like it's been cut up with Spellbound's own giant dream-sequence scissors.
And that's the reason to study Spellbound. Hitchcock's goofy film about analysis and love and good triumphing over evil is also, more quietly, a film about panic and guilt and madness and heroes who don't know what to do… or even who they are.
"The silly movie is so silly because it doesn't want to admit that maybe it's not so silly after all," you might write in your notebook, stroking your seriously silly analyst beard.
Originally, the Dali dream sequence was going to be twenty minutes long and feature a shot of Constance covered in ants. Eek. (Source)
The snow falling on John and Constance during the skiing scene isn't snow. It's cornflakes. No wonder John got amnesia; who wants to remember being covered in cornflakes? (Source)
Producer David O. Selznik was a fan of psychoanalysis and had his own therapist consult on the film. (Source)
Hitchcock on the Brain
This is a big old Hitchcock site, with articles, blogs, links, a complete filmography, and so much Hitchcock Hitchcock-iness that you'll almost forget your own name.
Ingrid Bergman on the Brain
The official Ingrid Bergman site, with a biography, facts, and a photo gallery. (Please note: Ingrid Bergman is not Ingmar Bergman. Not even a little bit.)
Spellbound on the Brain
Here's Turner Classic Movies' section on Spellbound, including an extensive overview, cast details, and links to reviews, trivia, quotes, and more.
"If All Psychiatrists are as Charming as She …"
The New York Times reviews the movie upon its release; the reviewer really, really likes Ingrid Bergman.
"Just Another Manhunt Story Wrapped Up in Pseudo-Psychoanalysis"
Critic David Boyd discusses the silliness, and/or seriousness, of Hitchcock's psychoanalysis.
"Too Much Psychiatry"
An essay on the relationship between producer David O. Selznik and Hitchcock during the creation of Spellbound.
"Together…to Hold You Irresistibly"
The original trailer for Spellbound makes sure to tell you not just the names of the two stars, but also of the producer and director. Notably missing: a reference to Salvador Dali and his dream sequence. Do better, trailer people.
"I Kept Thinking While I Was Dreaming that All this Meant Something…"
This is the Salvador Dali dream sequence, complete with eye curtains and the spooky theremin making mysterious electronic noises.
Portrait of a Star
This is a video biography of Ingrid Bergman. Find out if the star dreams about giant scissors (spoiler: she doesn't).
Dr. Edwardes is Still Dead
This is a 2008 BBC radio adaptation of the novel The House of Dr. Edwardes, on which Spellbound was based.
This is a still from the Salvador Dali-designed dream sequence. Check out those creepy eyes.
"Will He Kiss Me or Kill Me?"
An original poster for Spellbound shows a pensive Ingrid Bergman. Spoiler: he won't kill you, Ingrid. You're the star.
"The Maddest Love That Ever Possessed a Woman"
This is a weirdly deceptive poster; it looks like Bergman is the crazed killer and Peck is the dude she's set on killing. Not actually the plot of Spellbound at all, but it does look spooky.