Selznick International’s Spellbound

In 1940 and 1941, David O. Selznick won back-to-back Academy Awards for Best Picture. In 1942, unsurprisingly, he was depressed. His wife, Irene, persuaded him to seek help, and, less than one year later, hale and hardy, he was eager to share with others the wonders of analysis. Thus the producer of those two Best Pictures, Gone With the Wind and Rebecca, became the producer of Spellbound.

The director of Spellbound had never been “on the couch.” (He even napped sitting up, sometimes at the dinner table.) True, Alfred Hitchcock’s pictures were dream-works that illustrated and dramatized a host of bête noirs, from intimacy to incarceration, but he claimed little interest in human psychology. “What is my motivation?” an actor would occasionally ask. Hitchcock’s reply was easy: “Your salary.” His own salary and onerous long-term contract with Selznick International were two reasons he agreed to direct the studio’s “psychiatric picture.”

The most famous producer-director partnership in American movie history was not the most genial. Throughout the early years of World War II, after Rebecca, which was their first picture together, Selznick International paid Hitchcock his salary, then loaned him out at considerable profit. The deals bred Hitchcock’s resentment, and his independence. During loan-out periods at RKO and Universal (less so at Twentieth-Century Fox), he acted almost as his own producer; when Selznick called him back for Spellbound, the picture that best represents what each brought to the production process, the director was uneasy about once more becoming second-in-command.

Hitchcock’s taste in material was uneven, as his last British picture, Jamaica Inn, attested. Nonetheless, in 1943, when Selznick was looking for material for his next picture, Hitchcock mentioned that he controlled the screen rights to the Gothic novel The House of Dr. Edwardes; it could, he thought, make a good psychological thriller. The 1927 saga focused on a homicidal maniac who locks away the director of a mental institution and assumes his post. Dr. Constance Sedgwick unmasks the impostor and, with order restored, marries his victim, Dr. Murchison. Hitchcock envisioned Joseph Cotten (the smooth killer in Shadow of a Doubt) as the maniac, and convinced Selznick to purchase the property for $40,000; he then left for England to develop the script with an old friend, the erratic Angus MacPhail.

In early 1944, Hitchcock and MacPhail made Murchison the aggrieved outgoing head of the institution, Edwardes his successor. Less melodramatic than Francis Beeding’s original novel, the story invented both the love affair between Constance and Edwardes and the downhill climax that shakes loose the memory that Edwardes, now an amnesiac, has suppressed. Elsewhere The Interloper (as the writers called their adaptation) was rough and ready. Its scenes of an all-inmates’ production of Congreve were ham-handed, and its flashback construction lessened the danger to Constance. Selznick, a capable story editor, could have offered useful assistance. Instead he offered up Ben Hecht.

Hecht met Hitchcock in New York in March 1944 where, in between story conferences in hotel rooms or restaurants, they visited nearby mental hospitals and sanatoriums. In Culver City, the per-diem clock was ticking. Loudly. “Don’t you think,” Selznick asked his business manager, who was in Manhattan, “you ought to give Hecht and Hitchcock a check-up every couple of days to see how they’re coming, since they’re working without supervision?”

The fruits of the writers’ labor were soon apparent. Their narrative opened on a tour of the asylum. Hitchcock was attracted to documentary, which he used to good effect in the beginning of Blackmail and, later, throughout the starkly photographed The Wrong Man. The Interloper paid attention to the romance and, along the way, showed flashes of the collaborators’ wit. “The mating of two psychoanalysts would be an event worth going miles to see,” one of the lovers’ associates notes. “And study.” The potshots at therapists—and patients—notwithstanding, the core of the picture was becoming more serious, and Hitchcock more engaged.

In the opening of the second act, for instance, John Ballantyne (né Edwards, then Edwardes) and Constance flee the institution for Manhattan and points north. “We come in on a LONG SHOT looking down on the city of New York,” the script reads. “THE CAMERA approaches the distant buildings. The city comes closer—THE CAMERA moves toward a large hotel. It moves toward one of the windows on the 30th floor. It passes in through the window toward a couch. BALLANTYNE lies on a couch. CONSTANCE is sitting in a chair, near his head.” Though Hitchcock saved that shot for Psycho, Dr. Edwardes had other compelling visual effects. Not least among them was Ballantyne’s standing over the sleeping Constance with an open straight razor. A story, in short, was turning into a movie, maybe a remarkable one. Would the producer agree?

The answer was not encouraging. Selznick was suddenly concerned that his studio had “too much psychiatry” on its production slate. Hitchcock countered that casting Joe Cotten as Edwardes would persuade moviegoers that Edwardes was a moo-vie, not a treatise on mental illness. Perhaps, Selznick acceded, but casting alone would not solve the problem. Suppose, the producer said, audiences assumed that Edwardes had killed his analyst. Constance, fleeing with Edwardes, would be in grave danger, and the suspense would drive out any lingering undertones of film-as-education. Hitchcock resisted the “murder mystery angle.” Gradually, however, Hecht wove it into the script.

Hecht, Hitchcock, and Selznick conferenced about the screenplay in early June 1944. They discussed the opening montage (eventually cut), the dream sequence, and the addition of a flashback that showed Ballantyne’s brother’s violent death on the boys’ front stoop. While Hecht swiftly incorporated the changes and prepared the shooting script, producer and director concentrated on the casting.

For several years Selznick International had wrestled with “the Hitchcock-Bergman problem,” the task of using the producer’s two best contract artists in one picture. Edwardes solved the problem easily. Casting the leading male role was more complicated. Though Joseph Cotten was “the great new romantic rage” (an assessment borne out in George Gallup’s polls), he was on another assignment. Likewise, many other young actors were in military service. Selznick turned at last to one of his contract actors, Gregory Peck, who would add pheromones to Edwardes. Rounding out the cast were the Moscow-trained Michael Chekhov as Brulov (Constance’s mentor) and, against Selznick’s better judgment, Leo G. Carroll as Dr. Murchison.

The most controversial name attached to the production was Salvador Dalí, whom Hitchcock, or Selznick, or both (accounts vary) touted for the picture. Dalí was both an artist and a personality, and would lend Edwardes not only his “genius” but the publicity value of his name. Even so, some found his “high-brow” designs a mixed blessing. “Dalí’s Phallic frescoes” will clash with “our Christmas tree, Miss Bergman,” one staffer told the front office, which was already worried that the artist’s name on the picture might scare away moviegoers in small-town markets. An even greater fear was the cost of executing his designs. Hitchcock promised economies of production, however, and the Spanish Surrealist became a Hollywood draftsman.

The actors were cast, the shooting script was ready. The workable construction of the narrative along with the planned visual flourishes, from the dream sequence to the cascade of opening doors, an image that foreshadowed “the mating of two psychoanalysts,” promised, once more, an above-average picture. Whose picture was another question.


Hitchcock had returned to Selznick International as director and producer. No director “produced,” however, when Selznick was around. When Hitchcock presented his shooting schedule and budget—57 days, one-and-a-quarter million dollars—Selznick balked. Money was tight. More specifically, costs of the studio’s Since You Went Away, then being readied for theaters, had been budgeted at one-and-a-half million dollars but was approaching three. Though the producer’s personal, near-pathological involvement with the picture contributed to the overruns, Hitchcock was in no position to point fingers. He was a contract employee and, more to the point, averse to confrontation. He shaved his figures, and Edwardes entered production.

Principal photography began on July 10. Like his greengrocer father, Hitchcock was punctual and methodical. At 9:00 sharp, a sexually rambunctious patient (Rhonda Fleming) dragged her nails across the hand of her male attendant. The first of the parallel grooved lines that would become the touchstone of Ballantyne’s illness were soon “in the can.” Eight setups later, Hitchcock had completed three minutes of film—impressive for both quantity and quality. As the second week began, the director was two days ahead of schedule; the third week, three days; the fifth, six days. His chassis was built for comfort, not speed, he once told reporters. Not this time.

Bergman loved Hitchcock, and laughed at his advice on playing a professional woman whom love has torn in two. (“Fake it,” he whispered.) Peck was less enamored of the droll Englishman. “I felt I needed a good deal of direction,” he later said, but Hitchcock offered only his so-called “negative acting.” Rather than emote, he told Peck, merely drain your face of expression. Why? the actor insisted. What he called his “soul-searching” and “lack of ready technique” tested Hitchcock’s patience. Since actor and director worked together several years later on the under-appreciated Paradine Case, however, they may have “clicked” more than either reported. That, or Paradine was each man’s intended revenge on the other.

Hitchcock would later dismiss Spellbound (along with The Paradine Case) as one of his minor works. “Well,” he told François Truffaut, “it’s just another manhunt story wrapped up in pseudo-psychoanalysis.” Later in that famous interview, he added that “it brought in seven million [dollars] to the producer.” One may infer that the unnamed producer was responsible not only for the “pseudo” in the picture but also, in part, its hearty box-office return. Selznick chose the accomplished Ben Hecht, who wove themes of redemption and the power of romantic love into the picture; he hired cinematographer George Barnes, who lit both suspense and love scenes with considerable care; and finally, preoccupied with Since You Went Away, he gave Hitchcock a measure of independence. The latter was good business psychology: he wanted Hitchcock to renew his contract. For his part, the director was working with great efficiency in order to demonstrate to Hollywood that he could produce a Cadillac on a Chevrolet budget.

The production slowed only in shooting the dream sequence. Here indeed was film as a collaborative art. Psychiatric advisor Dr. May Romm counseled that a giant, obviously phallic pair of pliers “might prevent whatever possible endorsement we might otherwise get from a psychiatric society.” Meanwhile the censors warned that the costume of the “kissing bug” exposed too much midriff, thigh, and breasts. The pliers were pulled, the wardrobe department recalled to service. Hitchcock then shot the sequence on interior sets, another compromise since Selznick had barred the director from using (as he wished) exterior ones. The sequence was more nightmare than dream—and a reminder that the picture was not Hitchcock’s alone.

In early September 1944, when principal photography ended, the director surrendered even more control over the picture. Hitchcock’s cutting-in-the-camera was never foolproof. Even his long-duration shots (which owed a great deal to Selznick) were not immune to post-production alteration. True to form, the producer found much to fine-tune. He had Peck re-record many lines, and Hitchcock re-shoot several sequences, including a picnic early in the film. Selznick wanted more sentiment, which the retake, via lighting, dialogue, and especially music, provided.

After previews in late September 1944, an enthusiastic Selznick wrote to one associate, “We could not keep the audience quiet from the time [Gregory Peck’s] name first came on the screen until we had shushed the audience through three or four sequences and stopped all the dames from ‘ohing’ and ‘ahing’ and gurgling.” Moviegoers liked much else about the picture—except the documentary sequence that opened it. That sequence, late in post-production, fell to the cutting-room floor.

Selznick continued to tinker. He reassembled the downhill climax. He further shortened the dream sequence, and increased the pace overall by trimming a reported fourteen minutes from the director’s cut. He supervised the recording of Miklos Rozsa’s haunting score, and, moving from macro- to microcosm, not only ordered retakes of the scratched hand with the parallel grooves but also looped key lines of dialogue, including some of Michael Chekhov’s, for clarity. Finally, he okayed the title. Hitchcock preferred The House of Dr. Edwardes or Hidden Impulse, Selznick (and Gallup’s female respondents) preferred Spellbound. Case closed.

Spellbound opened on November 1, 1945, to generally good reviews. It grossed six million dollars worldwide and earned six Academy Award nominations. Though it was, on the surface, an argument for continuing the association of producer and director, Hitchcock resisted. The tension between Selznick and Hitchcock had given rise to notable work, but Selznick was on the decline, and Hitchcock, to some extent thanks to his producer, was on the rise. The pair would make The Paradine Case in 1948, and then part. After 1948, Alfred Hitchcock’s producer would be Alfred Hitchcock.

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