Narrative and Visual Connections in Hitchcock’s ‘Spellbound’

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Friday, I cam back from a one-month trip to England (where I even got the chance to meet the amazing Carol from The Old Hollywood Garden!). While I loved it very much, I must admit I did miss blogging a little. But I’m back! I had a nice surprise as I arrived home: my essay on Spellbound written for the Hitchcock and Orson Welles seminar had been mailed back to me with my grade and comments from the teacher. And well, I was very happy to see that the last essay I ever wrote for my Bachelor degree got an A-! So, because I’m quite happy with this grade, I decided I could allow myself to share this essay on my blog.

This is an analysis of Spellbound, not a review. So, if you haven’t seen the film, I highly encourage you to before reading the following text, otherwise, you might not “get” everything. 😉

Anyway, hope you’ll enjoy!

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      In 1945, the first film about psychoanalysis was released: Spellbound by Alfred Hitchcock. For the occasion, the Master of Suspense did not only dive in a Freudian subject but also signed an iconic collaboration with artist Salvador Dalí who designed the dream sequence of the film. Spellbound is, yes, a very psychological film, but like many Hitchcock’s films, it also gives an important place to the work of the camera and the visual aesthetic. Those two seem to be in justified relation all along the story as if they were dependent on each other. Spellbound is this type of film where the shots, the camera movements, and the cinematography are used to help the spectator understand the course of the story and the psychology of its characters.

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     The following essay will explore how the work of the image depends on the characters. Not only in connection with their movements in space but also with their psychology. Spellbound is a film of discussion, where the dialogues generally dominate the action, except for some crucial scenes such as the climax.

     Apart from the connection between the aesthetic and narrative aspects of the film, Miklós Rozsa’s score composed for Spellbound is another element of considerable importance that will eventually be discussed. The music in Spellbound is justified by certain narrative points, but also seems to depend on the camera work (or vice versa) as if Hitchcock was presenting a cinematic choreography to us. This and what was previously introduced will be analysed in the following essay with significant examples.

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     Spellbound‘s opening scene (after the opening credits) is a good example of how the camera focuses on the characters. First of all, the story is introduced with an establishing shot of Green Manors, the mental institution where Dr. Constance Peterson (Ingrid Bergman) works. Without any camera movements, but simply with another shot, the camera then shows us the door of the mansion and this one takes most of the place of the screen from bottom to top. The spectator doesn’t need anymore clue to know what will come next and, indeed, the interiors of Green Manors are presented to the viewers, but, not only the physical space but also the characters of the story, the patients of the hospital who are the heart of its reason to be. Miss Carmichael (Rhonda Fleming), a patient, is the first character to be set in the story. When this one is called to meet Dr. Peterson in her office, she has to cross a long corridor. Here, Hitchcock presents an interesting shot that, once again, will put the emphasis on the characters, in this case, Miss Carmichael. She and Harry (Donald Curtis), one of the men who work at the hospital, are walking down the corridor and the camera shows a medium shot of them. As they are walking toward the camera, they are getting closer and closer to it. Finally, a close-up of Mary Carmichael’s face finally concludes this “long” walk. This allows us to see the type of person she is, a seductress, but the shot to follow, a close up of Mary’s hand scratching Harry’s hand, breaks our initial idea of the character. Indeed, not long after, one discovers that she actually hates men and is a patient in Green Manors so the doctors can understand better the reason for this hate. So, this example shows that, in Spellbound, the shots are sometimes settled in a chain reaction and always in a way to give importance to the characters and their mentality. After all, as we previously learned in class, Hitchcock was a montage director and Spellbound supports this perfectly.

Introducing Green Manors

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The truth about Miss Carmichael

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     The editing in Spellbound reveals to us a lot about the characters’ emotions, and how they connect each other. The camera generally doesn’t go for any extravagance but has for objective to capture every glimpse of the characters’ reactions and movements. So, when two characters’ have a discussion, it generally alternates from one of them to the other with the help of different shots instead of using horizontal camera movements like a pan. This scene where Mary Carmichael has her appointment with Dr. Peterson has some interesting visual connections. There are a lot of shot alternations between the patient and the psychoanalyst. After all, the doctor is here to analyse her patient. Hitchcock sort of makes the spectator participates to the scene because, if one were only seeing shots of Dr. Peterson listening to Mary, and no shots of Mary’s facial expressions while she’s talking about her hate for men, one wouldn’t totally be able to totally feel the patient’s problem. Shots of Dr. Peterson, on their side, help the viewer to understand Mary’s behaviour, which results in her throwing a book at Constance. When the camera moves, it is generally to follow a character. Rare are the scenes where nobody occupies a certain proportion of the space. Hitchcock chose to direct a film about psychoanalysis but, in a way, it’s also a film about mankind.

Miss Charmichael and Dr. Peterson

     The lunch scene where Dr. Anthony Edwardes/JB and Dr. Peterson meet for the first time is quite an interesting one for its visual variety. An establishing shot of the dining room first sites the action in space. Then, the camera moves across the table giving the viewer an idea of which types of characters participate in the scene, all doctors of course. In the next shot, the camera remains static and Edwardes/JB is introduced by entering the room. He moves toward the camera until the shot (always the same one) becomes a medium close-up of Gregory Peck. This is similar to the previously discussed scene of Mary and Harry walking in the corridor. The camera then alternates with a medium close-up of Constance Peterson who has obviously been struck by lightning and fell for the newcomer. At one point during the dinner scene, Peterson explains to her new colleague their project to build a lido at the institution. Peterson discusses how it will look like. The camera makes a close up of her fork engraving the shape of the pool on the white tablecloth. At this moment, Edwards is strangely feeling upset by the fact that she should be “damaging” that piece of fabric. The camera makes sure to seize every character’s (and extra) reactions to Edward’s panic, as none of them really understand the problem. As Constance tries to calm the atmosphere by telling a funny anecdote, the camera stays focused on Edwardes. He’s trying to calm down but is obviously still quite upset by the situation he’s in. Hitchcock’s then uses a close up of his knife trying to “erase” the lines of the tablecloth and ends the scene with a shot of Ingrid Bergman’s suspicious look.

The dining room
Dr. Edwardes meets Dr. Peterson

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Dr. Edwardes’s strange behaviour
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     If one continues to discuss the connection between the visual aspects of the film and the character’s psychology, the cinematography, as well as the use of white light would be a revealing element to look at. Dr. Edwardes is, in fact, a guy with the initials of JB suffering from amnesia and a guilt complex. He has taken the place of the real Edwardes and thinks he has murdered him. Dr. Peterson believes he is innocent and only ill. She will use her role as a doctor to discover what’s the origin of that amnesia and guilt complex. Oddly, JB is scared of white and more particularly of dark lines on a white surface. That explains why he was upset by Peterson engraving lines on the tablecloth during the dinner scene. But let’s come back to the cinematography itself. Interestingly, we look at a traditional horror movie for example; the moments where the characters, as well as the spectator, feel a certain sense of fear and imprisonment are those where the cinematographer uses a very dark lightning. Spellbound isn’t a horror movie but uses the same elements of twisted psychology and discomfort. However, the cinematographer chose a bright lightning in these scenes. This could make us think of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. Despite being a horror movie, most of the lighting used in the film is very clear and takes place in a building with a lot of luminosity, except during the labyrinth scene.

The Shining

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     The way the cinematography is used helps understand how the story evolves and the development of Gregory Peck’s character. At one point in the film, the doctors are operating a patient who has tried to kill himself. Peterson and Edwardes, who have been alerted, soon join them. In the operating room, everything is white and strongly luminous, almost blinding, particularly for the spectators. Here, this particular lightning seems, once again, to be associated with a feeling of fear, insecurity, discomfort. This can make us think of some scene of Lawrence of Arabia (David Lean, 1962). The bright light seems to suffocate the new doctor (Edwardes), who finally passes out. Once again, with the help of the editing, the camera focuses on the other character’s reaction, especially on doctor Murchison (Leo G. Carroll)’s one, who’s obviously not sure about Edwardes’s honesty.

The very luminous OR

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Lawrence of Arabia

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     A similar situation occurs quite later when Ingrid and Gregory, who have run away, are staying at Dr. Brulov (Michael Chekhov)’ s place. Brulov was Constance’s teacher. She and JB (Edwardes) make him believe they are married and on their honeymoon but couldn’t find a place to stay. When they arrive in the bedroom, Constance insists on JB to sleep in the bed, and her on the couch, as he is the patient and the one who needs more rest. But when he notices the white blanket with a linear relief on it, he refuses to face his phobia and ends up sleeping on the couch. Later, he wakes up in the middle of the night, unable to sleep, and goes to the bathroom. For a scene that takes place during the night, it is one of the most radiant of the whole movie. The light he turns on has a crude intensity and glows enough for the eyes to be attracted by it. At this point, the image is not totally of a bright white as Gregory Peck’s shadow adds some contrast to the image, but it will progressively be more and more clear. When JB takes the shaving cream and starts mixing in with the shaving brush, it forms his nightmarish image of lines on a white surface. This close up is seen from his objective point of view. He throws it away with a terrified look. Hitchcock then chose to focus on all the elements from the bathroom’s furniture with a fast and dynamic editing where each shot focuses on one of these goods: the chair, the sink, the bath, etc. Of course, these are all seen from Gregory Peck’s point of view and their immaculate whiteness occupies an important part of the shots. These static images alternate with reaction shots of Gregory Peck’s character, who doesn’t feel safe in a place when white dominates black and light accentuates this whiteness. When he gets out of the bathroom, a subjective shot of Ingrid Bergman in her bed is filmed. The camera moves from the white blanket to her sleeping face. Here again, although it looks like an angelic image for the watchers, it’s a nightmarish one for JB because of its whiteness and the focus on the “scary blanket”. The ray of light on Ingrid’s face obviously comes from the bathroom. However, shots of the window in the background reveal an outside light that, however, seems too bright to only come from a street light. This scene was more likely shot during the day.

The nightmarish bed and bathroom

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     Finally, in the introduction, the importance of the music in connection with the action and the characters’ psychology was mentioned. The music, composed by Miklós Rozsa, indeed participates a lot in Hitchcock’s film and, in connection with the image, creates a sort of cinematic choreography. The bewitching soundtrack fits the atmosphere perfectly and is not only here for the sake of putting music in a film. If one looks at the previously mentioned scene, aside from the use of a bright lightning, Rozsa used this score to increase the feeling of danger Gregory Peck is living in this fluorescent bathroom. The music is first tense but stays on a constant note until the viewers see that shot of JB’s shaving brush mixing the shaving cream. From this moment, it intensifies and is punctuated with musical accents as the camera focuses on these various white objects in the bathroom. When JB goes out of the bathroom, stand next to Ingrid’s bed and goes downstairs, the music follows his movement perfectly, which helps the spectator focus on him and shows that choreographic intention mentioned before. It is interesting how Miklos Rósza used a Theremin to express the mesmerizing atmosphere of the film, as well as its surrealistic and very psychological side. One could also mention the importance of the music in the climax scene, which, once again becomes tenser as Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck are going down the hill on their skis. As the stringed instruments play with more and more intensity, we are led to both to the key scene revealing us the reason for JB’s guilt complex and amnesia and to a musical climax.

The climax

     Spellbound is a complex film, so there obviously would be much more to discuss. As a matter of fact, each scene in the film contains elements deserving deep analysis. But what was previously written gives a good preview of the film’s visual essence and how it connects with the characters’ mentality, more precisely Edwardes/JB’s. Readers will notice that the famous dream sequence was not discussed. It could have been in a longer text, but if there’s something that has already been discussed often by various movie analysts, it’s this particular sequence. Spellbound also isn’t only about this scene and isn’t only defined by it. There’s much more to be talked about.

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Filmography

Spellbound (Alfred Hitchcock, 1945)

Other work mentionned

Lawrence of Arabia (David Lean, 1962)

The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980)

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Gregory Peck, Ingrid Bergman and Salvador Dalí on the set of Spellbound

 

 

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