Amnesiacs Make the Best Lovers: “Spellbound”

First of all, my apologies for the (very, very) long hiatus! I was in Boston, and not inclined at all to do any work. But, I mean, it’s Boston; can you blame me?

In any case, let’s get to the point: Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound.

Despite being from 1945, this beautiful black-and-white film still retains a freshness that the ravages of time usually take away from ordinary movies. Of course, it completely stereotypes psychoanalysis and mental illness—and especially overdramatizes the latter. But I took that with a grain of salt. After all, the film was made during a time in which mental illness was extremely stigmatized; and, as such, those individuals who did suffer from mental illness were largely kept out of sight by their families. So the world, Hollywood and all its directors were left to wonder. And films like Spellbound are what resulted.

Spellbound opens with a group of young women playing cards. It is clear that they are in some sort of waiting room, but the kind of waiting room is unclear—until one of the young women is escorted to a room in which the young psychiatrist Dr. Constance Peterson is waiting.

Constance Peterson, played by Ingrid Bergman, is a very quiet, logical woman. She does not open her heart to anyone or anything, and approaches everything in a rational, scientific manner. In other words, she is the—grain of salt, grain of salt!—“perfect” psychiatrist. That is, until the handsome, but mysterious, Dr. Anthony Edwardes, played by a young, dashing Gregory Peck, arrives to take the place of Leo G. Carroll’s Dr. Murchison, who, after taking time off due to a nervous breakdown, has been asked to leave.

Excepting a strange incident involving lines drawn on a white tablecloth with a fork, Dr. Edwardes seems to be a healthy, functioning young man. And things go swimmingly between him and Constance—until Dr. Edwardes collapses in surgery, and, after a quick comparison of handwriting, Constance realizes that “Dr. Edwardes” is not really Dr. Edwardes.

When the now-anonymous man awakens, Constance asks him who he is, and where the real Dr. Edwardes is. Of course, he does not know the answer to either question. The only thing he (thinks he) knows, thanks to a cigarette case, is that his initials are “J.B.” And, given the sense of fear he feels when he looks at the case, J.B. believes he killed the real Dr. Anthony Edwardes—he just doesn’t know how, when or where. After battling with herself—her old self, the one that refused to feel—Constance surrenders to her emotional side and decides to help J.B., no matter what it costs her.

But J.B. won’t have it. He loves Constance too much. So, in an effort to protect Constance from himself and repercussions the may come from helping him, J.B. departs in the night, leaving Constance only a note telling her that he is going to a hotel in New York City.

Constance awakens to a group of police officers and several other psychiatrists at her door. As it turns out, the other psychiatrists believe J.B. to have killed the missing Dr. Edwardes, and have set the police on his trail. Fortunately, they do not see the (rather obtrusive) white envelope on the floor containing J.B.’s note. As soon as they leave, Constance snatches the note from the floor, reads its contents; and, after what is perhaps the longest, most distracting day of her life, disappears quietly for New York City.

After she arrives at the hotel indicated in J.B.’s note, Constance, with the aid of the self-proclaimed hotel “detective,” locates J.B. Constance races to his room, telling J.B. that, as his doctor, she will not leave until he is cured of his amnesia. When J.B. protests, Constance says, “I’m here as your doctor only. It has nothing to do with love.”

And, because it would be totally silly if she were serious, they then kiss and embrace and all that mushy stuff.

Unfortunately, their romancing is cut short by the discovery of Constance’s photograph in the daily paper. She and J.B. make a quick getaway, and travel to the home of Constance’s old mentor, the quintessentially Freudian Dr. Alex Brulov, played by Michael Chekov. Even though Constance tells Brulov she and J.B. are newlyweds on their honeymoon, Brulov is no fool, and quickly realizes that J.B. is an amnesiac. But, fortunately, he is also a very good man, and decides to aid Constance in helping J.B. discover who he truly is, and what happened to Dr. Edwardes.

The trio goes on a quest into J.B.’s psyche to uncover the truth. And while it’s a lot of fun to watch, most of this quest is just a lot of Hollywood pseudo-psychiatry. Most of their “analysis” revolves around a dream and the fact that J.B. seems to be afraid of lines in white. What’s more, the entire thing devolves into the stereotypical trope that something traumatic happened to J.B. in his childhood; and his repression of this event is also causing him to repress his entire identity.

Right.

Regardless, as I said, it’s still a very good film. The balance between talking and action is entirely appropriate for the kind of film it is—a who-(really)-done-it, driven by the mental and physical journey of two characters—and there is truly never a boring moment. I found myself either very intrigued, and trying to work out just what was going on—I even talked aloud to myself!—or on the edge of my seat, holding my breath, nervous for the characters’ welfare.

Of course, such an emotional investment would not have been possible without both the unfailing genius of Alfred Hitchcock—I like to pretend films like Under Capricorn don’t exist—and the big acting names of the day. There’s a reason Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck have been remembered.

You know, apart from their astounding good looks.

But in all seriousness:
Aside from the melodrama that sometimes creeps into Peck’s performance—he does, in my opinion, occasionally ham it up, reacting too strongly to some event or another, or making an extravagant production out of having amnesia—both he and Bergman exemplify what romance used to be on the silver screen—“back when film was film,” some would say. They neither oversexualize nor underplay the romantic tension that exists between their characters. While you can feel the magnetism between them, they aren’t constantly falling into each other’s arms, and actually convey feelings of genuine concern and love for each other. Bergman’s accent sometimes gets in the way of being able to understand what she is saying, but that’s just a small technical detail that doesn’t actually hurt the film or the acting itself. All it means is that you have to listen closely to the dialogue, which is important in a film like this.

And that’s the beauty of the dialogue in the film. All the clues you need are embedded in the characters’ lines. The end of the film is very satisfying. Unlike many mystery flicks, in which you have to notice itsy-bitsy details that may or may not make sense, anyway, Spellbound doesn’t leave you feeling frustrated, because you realize that all the clues were clear, and right under your nose all along. While this film does follow the traditional mystery plot—the timeline is linear, and you are given all the clues—it doesn’t actually matter. The twist at the end is just clever and unexpected enough to keep the story fresh. So if you go into this expecting to watch a 1945 version of Memento…you should probably just watch Memento.

After all, while he’s certainly no Gregory Peck, Guy Pearce is far from hard on the eyes.