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Among Hitchcock’s fans, the director’s use of MacGuffins is well known. In lionless Scotland, a MacGuffin is a lion-trap. In a Hitchcock film, it’s the mystery to be solved (or the fugitive’s innocence to be proved) that provides an excuse for the truly important matter—usually a love story between a handsome actor like Cary Grant or Gregory Peck and a beautiful actress like Ingrid Bergman or Grace Kelly.
Spellbound has a pair of MacGuffins that are practically fused with its love story. When John Ballantyne’s (Gregory Peck) amnesia is cured, both he and his lover-physician Constance (Ingrid Bergman) achieve self-discovery and attain a mate. The other MacGuffin, the unmasking of Dr. Edwardes’ real killer, restores the protagonists to each other’s embraces. Ben Hecht’s superb screenplay gives John and Constance an exchange near the end of the movie that sums up the concerns of Spellbound in ascending order of importance:
John: How does it feel to be a great analyst?
Constance: Not so bad.
John: And a great detective?
John: And madly adored?
Constance: Very wonderful!
With its abundance of obvious special effects, painted backdrops, and apparently unsophisticated pseudo-psychoanalysis, Spellbound seems naive and unbelievable to viewers who fancy themselves more savvy than Hitchcock. As usual, however, Hitch is a few steps ahead of his would-be out-smarters. The theatricality of Spellbound makes the point that psychoanalysis is a sister to cinema rather than a rival. From a realistic viewpoint, we need not fret about the director’s stylized condensation of the process of gaining access to the unconscious. Hitchcock once said that movies are life with the dull bits cut out; psychotherapy, like the rest of life, consists mostly of dull bits to be cut out. With slowly unscrolling text and eerie music at the beginning and the insertion of a red flash into its black-and-white at the end, Spellbound announces that it is a parable, a pattern elicited from the chaos of life, not a slice of it.
The dream sets, designed by Salvador Dalí, underline the close relationship between the compression of significance in the unconscious and similar compression in art. The very act of watching a film in the public privacy of a darkened movie theater (and now at home) mimics the activity of psychoanalysis. In a setting at once social and private, we discover ourselves in the shadows on the screen with whom we suffer and exult. The entire activity is at once formalized and fraternal, personal and private. The same statement applies quite precisely to psychotherapy.
Like other Hitchcock films in which poisonous pasts must be detoxified—Under Capricorn, Vertigo, Psycho, and Marnie—Spellbound sends its hero spiraling downward. As Rohmer and Chabrol wrote, Spellbound embodies “a theme dear to Hitchcock… ‘It is necessary to descend twice’” Descents and high camera angles visually force characters down to threats of disaster and to memories of past catastrophes. Posing as Dr. Edwardes, John collapses at Green Manors in a subterranean operating room. The horrific accident that left him with crippling guilt occurs at the end of a slide down a stone banister and his psychological impairment is reactivated when he is forced to bail out of a falling airplane. Only when John manages to stop descending, just short of the precipice toward which he and Constance are hurtling, do his repressed memories come into consciousness and lose their power.
Descents let slip the “demons of unreason”; ascents realize love and disarm the powers of darkness. Constance and John ascend to discover their feelings for each other during a hilltop picnic. That evening Constance goes upstairs to John’s quarters to consummate their love (insofar as 1945 rules allowed) with a kiss that turns into a series of self-consciously clichéd, wonderfully expressive doors opening to admit a flood of divine sexual light. At the end of the film, Constance makes the ascent to the director’s quarters, the site of that apocalyptic embrace. There she confronts Dr. Murchison and extracts the confession that frees John for another consummating kiss, this time at the beginning of a honeymoon.
Although Spellbound presents psychoanalysis sympathetically, it nonetheless makes clear its ultimate inadequacy. Scientific impersonality and dependence on deductive procedures cannot finish the journey they begin. In order to heal our wounds and make us new, science must enlist the miracle of love. Moreover, the love must be true and selfless, not the silly, libidinous egotism of Dr. Fleurot or of the two clowns at the hotel, the house dick and the half-boiled businessman from Pittsburgh. Falling in love must be, as John says, “like lightning striking. It strikes rarely.” The real healing in Spellbound consists of the marriage of John and Constance. If John’s illness resembles the curse put on Sleeping Beauty by an evil sorcerer, the release from that spell is the heroic kiss that awakens not just him, but his rescuer also.
In the end, Spellbound is mostly Constance’s movie, just as Notorious, the film that Hitchcock made with Bergman a year later, is finally Alicia’s. One might better say “in the ends,” for Spellbound has three. Constance engineers the first, a neat solution in which she takes John up to the mountaintop at “Angel Valley” for an epiphany on skis. The lovers, released from the chill of the past, can now live together happily ever after. That outcome proves too good, indeed, to be true. It is quickly reversed by the discovery of a bullet in the back of Dr. Edwardes’ corpse and John’s conviction for murder. It’s a sad ending, but perhaps a more plausible one. Constance’s professional “father,” the lonely Dr. Brulov, addresses his former assistant with stoic wisdom that accepts life’s disappointments and looks for its consolations: “It is very sad to love and lose somebody. But in a while you will forget…and you will work hard. There is lots of happiness in working hard, maybe the most.” But the second ending, too, is reversed when Constance unmasks the true murderer. What seemed too good to be true turns again and turns out, like many of Hitchcock’s happy miracles, to be true after all. The pleasure of the final ending is enriched by the false conclusions that went before; by showing us how fragile joy can be and exposing us to the real possibility of enduring misery, the film intensifies the happiness we feel for the lovers. The last ending is wonderfully satisfying even for Dr. Brulov, who does not lose a daughter but gains, um, something: “I always say, any husband of Constance is a husband of mine.”
Lesley Brill is the author of The Hitchcock Romance (Princeton, 1988) and John Huston's Filmmaking (Cambridge, 1997). He teaches film studies at Wayne State University, Detroit.