Spellbound – Alfred Hitchcock
The joining of the crime (or at least its essential clue) to a psychological neurosis is the essence of Hitchcock’s vision. Ballantine’s legal dislocation is bound up in his mental loss of identity, and the solution to both is primarily love and secondarily analysis. The dream interpretation of Ballantine’s symptoms (aversion to parallel lines) are too simplistic, but the essential unity of all forms of isolation is as clear here as it was to be in Hitchcock’s later, greatest films.
John Ballantine is not the only dislocated character in the film. Hitchcock’s films are insistent that the seemingly “normal” characters are implicated as well, and Dr. Peterson is characterized as a psychiatrist who is unfeminine, cold, and emotionally crippled, and who is perhaps unable to give her patients the understanding they require because she is so shut off from the world and the range of human emotion. In the first scene she is accused by a fellow doctor (who would like to initiate her into the world of romance) and then by a woman patient (who appears to be a nymphomanic, making the contrast clear) of having only a textbook knowledge of life. Her pulled-back hair and glasses further lock her into a stereotyped image of a frigid woman.
This aspect of the film is rather grating; it is never implied that the male doctors are hiding from their real selves in their work. Constance’s professor (Michael Chekhov) is the perfect father and the perfect psychiatrist, complete with Austrian accent. Constance’s oppressively narrow character development is a flaw of the kind which does not occur in Hitchcock’s later. films (such as Marnie and The Birds), where women’s sexual neuroses are fully as complex as men’s and proceed from more than their choice of a traditionally male profession.
In Spellbound, it is John who will awaken Constance from her frigidity. Their meeting, in a scene that is rather irritating because of its conventional romance cues, is accompanied by an upsurge of music. The climactic opening of doors, while questionable as a cinematic device, certainly makes clear Hitchcock’s feelings of what is wrong with Constance: she has been isolated from the world of feeling, and in a graphic depiction of her reaction to Ballantine, superimposed doors actually open in her psyche. The job of the film is for both characters to rediscover themselves, to break through their own isolated situations into emotional commitment, and they do this through each other’s love. This is not easily accomplished, and the fact that surrealism is used in the film is perhaps a key to understanding a cinematic device of Hitchcock’s which is widely misunderstood. The effect of his artificial backgrounds and rear-screen projection is to cut his characters off from their physical surroundings and thus to put them into closer contact with their inner environment.
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