While constructing the movie Spellbound Alfred Hitchcock was absolutely bursting with ideas. In this piece I would like to take a look at one sequence that is full of ideas, and also incorporates many of Hitchcock’s favorite visual motifs in one sequence: montage, the long take, and the subjective point of view.
This sequence takes place at the house of Dr. Brulov. It lasts around 5 minutes and 3 seconds, with 22 pieces of film.
We begin with a fade-in from black. Gregory Peck’s character wakes up at the foot of the bed, gets up, walks to the bathroom and turns on the light. This runs around 55 seconds with no cuts.
The first cut is a very nice reverse as Peck flicks on the light; from being outside the bathroom, in shadows, we are now inside the bathroom in bright light. Peck walks to the sink, in a dreamlike state, drinks water, looks and touches his face, sees shaving apparatus and begins to lather up to shave. This all takes about 53 seconds with no cut.
At this point, after two long takes that run about 108 seconds combined, the cutting increases dramatically. There will be 12 editorial cuts in the next 30 seconds. As the cutting shifts into high gear, the point of view changes as well. Hitchcock now employs his subjective POV. Our first subjective shot is a close-up of the white shaving cup.
Hitchcock then cuts to Peck hastily putting the cup down. Then we get a quick series of images and reaction shots, as Peak swivels his head around the room, overwhelmed by the bright white surfaces everywhere.
First he looks at the white sink.
Then he looks at the white chair to the left of the sink.
Next he whirls around and notices the white counter top, upon which even the jars are white.
And finally he turns to the white bathtub.
He walks out the bathroom door, and we cut again on a reverse. Peck is back in shadows, only now he is holding the razor blade in his hand.
At this point the cutting slows down, heightening the tension. Hitchcock returns to the subjective POV as Peck looks at the white bedspread, following it up to the sleeping face of Ingrid Bergman.
Peck slowly walks into the room, moving close to Ingrid Bergman, the threat of the knife still visible in his hand. Hitchcock cuts to a close-up of Bergman, highlighting her vulnerability. Will the sleepwalking Peck kill her?
Instead Peck walks out the door to the landing. Then Hitchcock employs a fantastic shot, in which Peck walks downstairs, razor in hand, and walks into a closeup on the razor. This lasts around 35 seconds without a cut.
Then begins the longest shot of the sequence, running around 75 seconds without an editorial cut. We start with a subjective POV shot of actor Michael Chevhok, as Dr. Brulov, at his desk. Chekhov walks up to Peck, the visible threat of the knife gleaming.
The camera turns to follow Chekhov as he walks into the kitchen and out of frame, although we can still hear him talking. He then walks back into frame. This entire time, the razor is prominently displayed.
The camera then turns to follow Chekhov back to the desk, returning to a subjective point of view without cutting. Chekhov has his back to the camera as he pours the milk (to disguise the fact that he is drugging it, as we will learn later). He then walks back and hands the glass to Peck. All of this happens with no editorial cutting.
Finally we cut to a reverse of Peck as he prepares to drink the milk.
The sequence ends with this very clever shot, a POV shot seen through the glass of milk! As the glass tips up, the frame turns to white. And as the sequence began on a fade-in from black, it ends on a fade-out to white. A fitting end, since white is the color that triggers Peck’s episodes.
In a span of only five minutes, Hitchcock heightens the tension of the scene by employing several techniques. First of all in the cutting, which begins with long takes, then moves to a short montage of quick cutting as Peck reacts to all the white objects in the bathroom, and finally stretching out again to longer takes at the end. He also creates tension through the prominent placement of the razor in the frame. It is never used (or even held) in a threatening manner, but it feels menacing because of how it is shot, and lit. And finally tension is heightened through the use of clever subjective POV shots.
I will close with some comments Hitchcock made about this sequence in an article he penned in 1946:
Here is one way of making drama out of camera angles. In Spellbound you’ll remember the scene where Gregory Peck comes down a curving flight of stairs with an open razor in his hand…Now, in that scene I hardly move the camera at all. It is placed facing the stairs and Gregory walks right into the camera — right into the audience. As he gets closer his face and shoulders fade from the lens until all you can see is the razor in his hand. Then the camera moves.
But there’s no dialogue and really very little movement. The whole scene depends on suspense and the use of camera. We pan to the doctor and hold him while he talks to Gregory…The doctor moves off to give him a glass of milk –which, incidentally, he dopes — and the camera stays with Gregory. Back comes the doctor and hands him the glass of milk.
The camera moves to a back shot, so that the audience is behind his eyes as he drinks. You get the impression of the white liquid obscuring his sight as he tilts the glass. This is doubly effective because in the film white is the color which affects his mind.
The secret of good directing is to remember that you are telling a story visually. Your medium is that of sound and sight. The screen should tell this story as much as possible — not the dialogue.
SPELLBOUND – 1945 – Selznick International Pictures – ★★★1/2
B&W – 111 minutes – 1.33:1 aspect ratio
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Principal cast: Ingrid Bergman (Dr. Constance Petersen), Gregory Peck (Dr. Anthony Edwardes/John Ballantyne), Michael Chekov (Dr. Alexander Brulov), Leo G. Carroll (Dr. Murchison), Rhonda Fleming (Mary Carmichael), Normal Lloyd (Mr. Garmes).
Screenplay by Ben Hecht, Adaptation by Angus MacPhail from the novel The House of Dr. Edwardes by Francis Beeding.
Cinematography by George Barnes
Edited by Hal C. Kern
Music by Miklos Rozsa
Dream sequence designed by Salvador Dali
A film full of ideas: When Alfred Hitchcock began production on Spellbound, he was in the fifth year of his contract with David O. Selznick, and yet they had only made one movie together (Rebecca). Selznick had loaned Hitchcock out to other studios on film after film, to the benefit of both; Selznick made a tidy profit, while Hitchcock enjoyed a level of autonomy he would not otherwise have. Now Hitchcock was coming home to roost, and while he might not have been perfectly happy being under Selznick’s thumb again, he brought a multitude of strong ideas to this film.
The plot is an interesting variation on Hitchcock’s “wrong man” theme. In this case, a man shows up at a mental hospital calling himself Dr. Edwardes, the new head of the facility. Edwardes (Gregory Peck) has some peculiar personality traits. Seeing the color white (particular with a linear pattern) makes him turn away in revulsion. He also falls instantly in love with Dr. Constance Peterson (Ingrid Bergman). Eventually we learn that Peck is not Edwardes. So who is he, then? And where is the real Dr. Edwardes?
Peck goes on the run, chased by the police while unaware of his identity. He is helped in his quest by Ingrid Bergman, who tries to be Peck’s therapist despite the fact that she is deeply in love with him. Over the course of the movie Peck discovers the truth of who he is, and the nature of his phobia. The real Dr. Edwardes is found dead (after all, it wouldn’t be Hitchcock without at least one murder, would it?) and the culprit discovered. What makes this film so different from Hitchcock’s other “man on the run” films is that the character’s journey is as much psychological as physical. Let’s take a look at some of Hitchcock’s methods of visual narrative in this film.
Constance Petersen is presented as cold, sterile, virginal in her early scenes. She is clearly the intellectual superior of her male colleagues, who view her as just a pretty woman. It is no accident that in her first session, her patient (Rhonda Fleming) is a nymphomaniac, a polar opposite of Constance.
Constance begins to fall for “Dr. Edwardes” the moment she meets him, and after they spend an afternoon together she finds herself even more drawn to him. She comes back to the manor in a state of physical and emotional dishevelment. Hitchcock here employs one of his typical subjective POV shots, as Constance joins her (all male) colleagues for dinner.
Later the same evening, Constance and “Edwardes” kiss, and Hitchcock uses a clever visual motif of a series of opening doors.
Later “Edwardes” flees Green Manor when he is found to be an impostor, and Constance tracks him to a New York hotel. There is a funny scene here, where Constance first rebuffs a drunken man in the hotel lobby, then uses the hotel detective to help her find Edwardes. He calls himself an amateur psychologist, thinking he is impressing this pretty young woman with his acumen, not realizing that he is being played.
The next sequence of the film takes place at the home of Constance’s mentor Dr. Brulov, a sort of stand-in for Freud, with a Germanic accent and European look. During the night Edwardes has a fugue episode ( look for a deconstruction of this scene as my next post). The following day, Brulov and Constance interpret Edwardes’ dreams.
Hitchcock and Dali: Alfred Hitchcock wanted Salvador Dali to assist in designing the dream sequence for Spellbound and Selznick acquiesced. After some negotiations, a deal was struck. Dali initially created several paintings which he shared with Hitchcock and his creative team.
There is a persistent rumor that the sequence was originally planned to run twenty minutes in length. There is no evidence that it was ever intended to be that long, but it was initially going to be at least a couple minutes longer. One sequence that was filmed was cut entirely.
Scenes from the gambling house sequence:
The rooftop sequence, and conclusion:
Below are some scenes from the deleted sequence, which would have played between the gambling house and rooftop sequences.
This sequence features an orchestra suspended from above, as well as several pianos. The pianos are smaller than normal, so little people were used as background dancers to aid with the perspective. Neither Hitchcock or Dali was happy with the result. Next, the scene would show Bergman turning into a statue. They filmed Ingrid Bergman breaking out of a statue-like shell, then planned to run the sequence in reverse to get the desired effect.
Ultimately, David Selznick was unhappy with the dream sequence, so not only was a sequence cut from it, but the resulting sequences were chopped into smaller segments, with Gregory Peck’s narration bridging the gaps. It would be interesting to see the sequence play out as Dali originally intended it. Unfortunately the excised footage is believed to be gone.
Psychological resolution, story resolution: Gregory Peck’s character has the breakthrough he has been seeking, with the help of Brulov and Constance. He remembers who he is (John Ballantyne) and he also remembers that he accidentally killed his brother when they were children, a guilt he has been suppressing for years.
Finally Ballantyne gets to the bottom of his revulsion of parallel lines on a white surface. (It has to do with skiing). Unfortunately, just as the film looks like it will end happily, Ballantyne is convicted of the murder of the real Dr. Edwardes. Just as Constance helped Ballantyne cure his psychological problems, she will now save the day again, playing detective and finding the real killer.
When Dr. Murchison is discovered as the killer, he trains his gun on Constance. Hitchcock wanted a subjective POV shot, but he wanted the gun and Ingrid Bergman to remain in focus. The only way to pull that off was to construct a giant hand holding a giant gun.
Hitchcock was not quite out of tricks yet. At the sound of the gun flash, Hitchcock insisted on two frames of red colored film. Each negative had to be individually hand painted when they went out for distribution. The timing is such that Hitchcock felt most people would not even consciously register it, but he felt it would have an emotional impact.
Performance: Alfred Hitchcock expressed some displeasure with Gregory Peck’s performance in the movie. I think Peck was just right for this part. There are elements to his character that could not have been pulled off by Cary Grant, for instance. Peck is solid and always believable. Ingrid Bergman was already a big star by this time, and she looks and plays the part. Exquisitely beautiful, but full of inner strength, she owns this role completely. Constance Petersen is one of the strongest female leads in all of Hitchcock’s films, and nobody could have surpassed what Bergman does with the part. Michael Chekov, who is doing a variation on Freud as Dr. Brulov, very much deserved his Oscar nomination. Even the smaller roles are memorable, as Hitchcock favorites Norman Lloyd and Wallace Ford make the most of small roles. And Rhonda Fleming is unforgettable. Leo G. Carroll is another in the long line of suave, sophisticated Hitchcock villains.
Source material: Hitchcock’s film is based on the 1928 novel The House of Dr. Edwardes, written by John Palmer and Hilary A. Saunders under the pseudonym Francis Beeding. The novel is dramatically different from the resulting film adaptation. In the novel, Constance Sedgwick is newly arrived at Chateau Landry, a mental asylum in the French mountains. The man calling himself Dr. Murchison, the man in charge of the asylum, is actually a homicidal maniac who has switched places with the real doctor and imprisoned him in a cell. The murderer, a man named Godstone, begins to exert a strong influence over the other patients, and the staff. Godstone is a devil worshipper, who has crosses tattooed on the soles of his feet. The book is pretty dark (including a couple of deaths), but retains a slightly comic tone at times. The plot is far too ridiculous to take seriously. I wonder if Poe’s story “The Tale of Dr. Tarr and Professor Fether” provided some inspiration, for it shares some general details of both plot and tone. As long as one doesn’t attempt to take it seriously, it is an enjoyable if insubstantial read.
Enter the theremin: Just as Hitchcock was full of visual ideas, he had plenty of thoughts about the music as well. Composer Miklos Rozsa used the theramin as part of the musical score at Hitchcock’s request. The theramin (named after its inventor, Leon Theramin) is unique among musical instruments in that it is played without actually touching it. It emits electromagnetic waves, which are “played” by moving the hands around two metal rods. The theramin creates an ethereal sound that became popular in science fiction movies in the 50’s, but Rozsa pioneered its use in cinema. Rozsa’s score was rewarded with an Oscar win.
Below you can watch theramin virtuoso (and third-generation relative of inventor Leon Theramin) Lydia Kavina play part of Miklos Rozsa’s Spellbound score.
Recurring players: Ingrid Bergman would later star in Notorious and Under Capricorn. Gregory Peck would also star in The Paradine Case. Hitchcock employed the services of Leo G. Carroll more than any other actor. He also appeared in Rebecca, Suspicion, The Paradine Case, Strangers on a Train, and North by Northwest. Norman Lloyd had appeared as Fry, the man who falls from the Statue of Liberty, in Saboteur. Steven Geray (Dr. Graff) would later play a hotel desk clerk in To Catch a Thief. Wallace Ford (man from Pittsburgh in hotel lobby) had played Detective Saunders in Shadow of a Doubt. Irving Bacon (railway gateman) played a similar role in Shadow of a Doubt. Constance Purdy (Dr. Brulov’s housekeeper) had played the landlady to Joseph Cotten’s Uncle Charlie in the opening scenes of Shadow of a Doubt. Clarence Straigh (secretary at police station) would later play a policeman in The Wrong Man.
Academy Awards: Miklos Rozsa won the Oscar for Best Musical Score for Spellbound. The movie was also nominated in five other categories: Best Picture (David O. Selznick), Best Director (Alfred Hitchcock), Best Supporting Actor (Michael Chekhov), Best Black and White Cinematography (George Barnes) and Best Special Effects (Jack Cosgrove).
Where’s Hitch? Hitchcock’s cameo comes at around 43:06. He can be seen exiting an elevator in the lobby of the Empire State Hotel.
What Hitch said: When Hitchcock spoke with Truffaut, he was fairly dismissive of the film. I wonder if this is in part because Truffaut says he finds the film a disappointment. Hitchcock says “Well, it’s just another manhunt story wrapped up in pseudo-psychoanalysis…Since psychoanalysis was involved, there was a reluctance to fantasize; we tried to use a logical approach to the man’s adventure.”
He added “The whole thing’s too complicated, and I found the explanations toward the end very confusing.”
Definitive edition: The 2012 MGM/Fox blu ray is the best edition currently available. Picture and sound quality are good, not great. Included are a commentary track with film scholars Thomas Schatz and Charles Ramirez Berg (probably my least favorite commentary track on any Hitchcock release), a 21-minute documentary on the Dali dream sequence, a 20-minute documentary on psychoanalysis, a ten-minute interview segment with actress Rhonda Fleming, a Lux Radio Theater version starring Joseph Cotten and Alida Valli, a 15-minute audio interview with Peter Bogdanovich and Hitchcock, and the original theatrical trailer.
There is also a (now out of print) DVD version from Criterion, which features a strong, scholarly commentary by Marion Keane, an illustrated essay on the Dali dream sequence, an audio interview of Miklos Rozsa, a public radio piece on the theramin, hundreds of photos, the same Lux Radio Theater version that appears on the MGM/Fox blu ray, and the trailer.