Certain Hitchcock films stand tall, rightfully regarded by critics and audiences alike as undeniable classics. Others tend to grow on us, gaining gradual appreciation over the course of repeat viewings, as we discover subtle shadings and bits of inspired style. 'Spellbound' is one of those movies, a psychological thriller that seems cold and aloof on the surface, but upon deeper examination, layers of substance and the gears of its meticulous construction become illuminated. And like its central character - a tortured war vet with a fractured mind - its disparate pieces ultimately morph together, creating a satisfying and cohesive whole. 'Spellbound' is far from a perfect film, but it's an often fascinating chronicle of the early days of psychoanalysis wrapped up in a suspenseful tale of amnesia, trauma, and murder.
By the mid-1940s, psychotherapy began to gain mainstream acceptance as a viable form of treatment for disturbed minds, and Alfred Hitchcock was the first director to build an entire film around the discipline, systematically depicting its practice and potential benefits. Of course, a 111-minute movie must simplify the process somewhat and romanticize both the procedure and its ability to completely cure mentally ill patients, but 'Spellbound' manages to be true to its subject within the confines of its complex story. Elements such as dreams, guilt, repressed memories, paranoia, and post-traumatic stress (they called it "shell shock" back then) all come into play, and though one might think this kitchen sink of psychological issues might cloud the film's waters, the screenplay - by psychology devotee Ben Hecht - manages them well. And so does Hitchcock. In addition to his keen eye and superb technique, the Master of Suspense was also a master storyteller, and he juggles the film's myriad ingredients with aplomb.
At the palatial Green Manors, a fancy mental hospital, the facility's board of directors has asked chief physician Dr. Murchison (Leo G. Carroll) to retire due to nervous exhaustion. His replacement, the far younger Dr. Edwardes (Gregory Peck), soon arrives, but also appears to be battling mental demons. An attraction develops between Edwardes and the dedicated psychiatrist and "human glacier," Dr. Constance Peterson (Ingrid Bergman), whose all-work-and-no-play attitude has kept her at arm's length from a wealth of emotional and romantic experiences. Constance, for once, surrenders to her feelings, but when it becomes apparent Dr. Edwardes is not only an imposter, but also a victim of amnesia and possibly guilty of murdering the real Dr. Edwardes, the two lovers go on the run in an effort to evade the police and repair the broken pieces of his mind. As their odyssey progresses, Constance helps her mysterious companion make significant strides, but the closer they get to the root of his problems, the more unstable and dangerous he becomes.
"Will he kiss me or kill me?" was the famous catchline for 'Spellbound,' and Hitchcock does a fine job keeping us guessing as to whether Peck's character is simply a deeply troubled young man or a psychotic murderer. The leisurely opening act dulls the senses somewhat as it lays the psychological groundwork and develops relationships, but once Constance and her beloved amnesia victim hit the road, the pace picks up and allows Hitchcock to do what he does best - create suspenseful situations out of small moments, such as purchasing train tickets or gazing at an embroidered coverlet. Surprisingly, the film's climactic ski slope sequence pales in comparison to other taut scenes, because it's less identifiable for the viewer and relies on rear projection work, which lends the drama a corniness that takes us out of the movie.
'Spellbound' is filled with psychological imagery, and was noteworthy at the time for a lengthy abstract dream sequence conceived by surrealist artist Salvador Dali. Though outlandishly stylized, the barrage of bizarre images contained therein is strangely hypnotic and adds an avant-garde quality to 'Spellbound' that almost every other Hitchcock film lacks. Hitchcock purists, however, need not fret. Such inimitable Hitchcock touches as subjective camera angles, extreme close-ups, and innovative shots fill this movie and stimulate our senses even when the plot stalls. An extended close-up on a straight razor, the subjective perspective when Peck's character drinks a glass of milk, and a tight shot on a hand holding a gun as it tracks a potential victim are just a few dazzling examples of this director's virtuosity.
Bergman makes a superior Hitchcock heroine - beautiful yet sensitive and accessible, intelligent but never arrogant, strong but not brazen. She also makes a believable, confident psychiatrist, with Constance's repression adding a relatable vulnerability that brings her down to our level and forces the character to color outside her carefully constructed lines. Peck, in only his fourth feature film, exhibits a strong magnetism and plays the tortured hero with a minimum of histrionics. He tosses in a few too many catatonic stares for my taste, but creates believable chemistry with Bergman, and his character's weakness never compromises the actor's masculinity.
I found 'Spellbound' slow and rambling at first and a bit melodramatic toward the end, but its methodical presentation builds to a satisfying climax and thrilling denouement. By today's standards, its treatment of psychology might seem simplistic, but it paved the way for other such dramas and presents a complicated subject in an entertaining manner. Though it may not rank among Hitchcock's best films, 'Spellbound' contains a number of memorable shots and sequences that make going back to it a pleasure.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Spellbound' comes packaged in a standard Blu-ray case. The 50GB dual-layer disc features a video codec of 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and a DTS-HD Master Audio mono soundtrack. The original overture and exit music have been restored, stretching the film's running time from 111 minutes to 118 minutes, but allowing us to savor the romantic themes of composer Miklos Rosza's score. Interestingly, this disc features no main menu; when the disc is inserted into the player, the overture starts immediately, then segues directly into the film. Once the overture begins, extras, audio options, and chaptering can be accessed via the pop-up menu button on your remote.
Part of the joy of a Hitchcock film is the impeccable cinematography that often complements the compelling camera angles and artistic touches the director employs, so it's a bit of a disappointment that MGM didn't perform a complete restoration on this title. 'Spellbound' certainly doesn't look bad on Blu-ray - on the contrary, there are several striking scenes of marvelous clarity, contrast, and depth - but enough nagging imperfections exist to somewhat hamper the viewing experience.
Grain is pronounced, but that's to be expected for a film of this vintage, and most of the time it's well integrated into the whole. Some sequences possess a more textured look than others, but thankfully grain levels never rise to distracting degrees. Print damage, however, is another story. A bit of minor speckling and faint black and white vertical lines always can be detected if one looks for them, but some shots are virtually shrouded by a flurry of white marks that resemble a vertiable rainstorm. Thankfully, such instances are brief, but their impact lingers.
Contrast also isn't as consistently pronounced as I would have liked. Many scenes adopt a slightly too-bright appearance that lends a harsh edge to the image. Blacks are a mixed bag - Peck's hair and some outfits exhibit a pleasing inkiness, but shadows are anemic - and gray scale variance is limited. Shadow delineation is fine, patterns largely remain stable, and close-ups are crisp enough, especially the extreme ones that dominate the first love scene between Bergman and Peck.
I noticed a slight amount of edge enhancement at times, but nothing major, and no banding or noise disrupt the picture. 'Spellbound' is certainly watchable enough, and likely looks better than it ever has on home video; it's just not the perfect transfer for which fans like myself were hoping.
The DTS-HD Master Audio mono track supplies adequate sound, but again, the lack of much, if any, restorative work is evident. Audible hiss blankets the track, yet never intrudes to annoying degrees, and mild instances of surface noise occasionally crop up. The melodic and dramatic music score by Milkos Rosza sounds rather flat, exuding a slight tinny tone, and is bereft of any depth. The love theme is especially lyrical, yet limited dynamic range stymies its impact.
Dialogue also can be problematic. When speaking in hushed tones, the characters can be difficult to understand, and whenever music joins the mix, conversations can't compete. I found myself rewinding every so often to catch bits of muffled talk I missed, and once or twice I still couldn't decipher what was being said. Effects, however, are generally distinct, and no distortion breaks up the track's continuity.
The audio is fairly standard for a 1940s film; it's just too bad more clean-up couldn't have been performed to increase fidelity and clarity, and erase some of the age-related deficiencies.
All the extras from the 2008 DVD release have been ported over to the Blu-ray edition. It's a substantive package that enhances one's appreciation and understanding of this deceptively complex work.
'Spellbound' isn't a flagship Hitchcock film, but it possesses enough substance, romance, and most importantly, suspense to merit attention. Stylish direction, nuanced performances, and an intriguing story fuel this classy film's engine, and, despite some sluggish moments, make us want to examine it more closely once it's over. MGM's Blu-ray release features fairly good video, adequate audio, and a nice selection of supplements. Hitchcock fans will certainly want to add this solid effort to their collection; just don't expect a pristine presentation. Recommended.