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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Amy March: Elizabeth Taylor vs. Joan Bennett

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Yesterday, February 27, marked the birthday of two excellent classic actresses: the glamorous Elizabeth Taylor and the enigmatic Joan Bennett. But this is not the only common point these two ladies share. Indeed, they starred together in today’s birthday boy, Vincente Minnelli’s classics Father of the Bride and its sequel, Father’s Little Dividend as mother and daughter. They also both played the role of Amy March in two different adaptations of Little Women: the 1933’s George Cukor one for Joan Bennett and the 1949’s Mervyn Leroy one for Elizabeth Taylor.

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My friend Crystal from In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood is hosting, for the first time, the Elizabeth Taylor Blogathon. I’ll be precisely comparing Liz and Joan’s portrayals of Amy March for the occasion. This, I believe, would be a brilliant way to celebrate both actresses. And, to tell you the truth, when I subscribed with this subject, I actually didn’t remember they were born on the same day! Well, coincidences like that are always fun.

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Little Women is an adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s 19th century literary classic of the same name. The story takes place in Concord, Massachusetts during the American Civil War. Dr. March is at the front while his wife and four daughters Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy are staying home and live their everyday life, dealing with the difficulties brought by the war. The sister all have very different personalities, but they complete each other perfectly and share a beautiful friendship.

Amy March is the youngest sibling. She is very coquette and has a strong personality, just like her sister Jo, but in a very different way. Amy’s passion is art and she loves to draw and paint. She is the artist of the family. Amy March is always dressed pretty and has curly golden hair.

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I must admit, to me, Joan Bennett was the perfect Amy March. Her delicate figure and porcelain doll face embodied the ideal look for the role. She also gives her character the right personality, the one we should imagine while reading the books. But Liz turned out to be an agreeable surprise! I don’t think blonde hair suits her as well as it does to Joan, but that’s just a detail. Her facial features and bone structure, however, seemed right. It might seem irrelevant to judge an casting choice base on the physical appearance, but the March sisters are characters that we want to picture perfectly in our head and that sees more credible if they are faithful to Louisa May Alcott’s description.

I think both Joan and Elizabeth shows different strenghts in their interpretations of Amy March. The postitive aspect of this is that they aren’t simple pale copies of each other. Amy March is young and well-mannered. Joan Bennett emodies the youthfullness of Amy to perfection and his credibe. Elizabeth Taylor, has a way of speaking that gives Amy this almost charicatural elegance. Indeed, her voice is clear and her words are perfectly calculated.

Despite her flaws and selfishness, Amy March is able of compassion, especially in times of crisis. By watching the two films, I feel like Joan Bennett embodied this emotion in a better way than Elizabeth Taylor. Or maybe not in a better way, but in a more obvious way. But, when I think about it, this maybe isn’t really the actress fault. It’s due to the way the book adaptation was made, despite the two movies being very similar. On another side, I felt her flaws were better embodied by Elizabeth Taylor. I read the book once when I was 11 or 12. So, that was 10 years ago and I obviously don’t remember everything about it. But, on the internet, Amy March is always described as “the sister that we love to hate.” Honestly, Joan Bennett didn’t really make me feel that. I don’t hate Amy March’s Liz Taylor either, far from it, but, in connection to what we previously said, her portrayal of Amy March is maybe more accurate.

So yes, both actresses bring out different traits of Amy March’s personality.

Amy March is the sister that makes me laugh the most after Jo. In the 1933’s version, I always have to watch, at least twice, the scene where Amy and Jo practice Jo’s play. Joan Bennett makes me laugh SO MUCH in this scene. I think Liz Taylor’s Amy March finds her funny side in her mannerisms and the way she pronounces those complicated made-up words. The sight of her sleeping with a clothespin on her nose in pretty comical too! Amy March has a complex with her nose and this is obviously better illustrated by Liz’s March.

Lastly, in this scene where Amy March comes back from Europe and is now married to Laurie Laurence, both Liz and Joan gives the right elegance to their character. Indeed, in both films, we know perfectly that Amy March is now a new person and, most of all, a better one. Both actresses are at the top of their elegance!

My favourite Amy March is still Joan Bennett’s one, but both she and Liz Taylor give beautiful justice to Louisa May Alcott’s character!

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Many thanks to Crystal for hosting this blogathon!

Don’t forget to read the other entries:

The Elizabeth Taylor Blogathon

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Happy heavenly birthday again Liz and Joan!

PS: If you wish to read a more complete review of 1933’s Little Women, please click here!

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Dreaming in Hitchcock Movies

“Dream dream, filling up an idle hour
Fade away, radiate”
– Debbie Harry, Dreaming


I’m one of those persons who are quite fascinated by dreams. From the most ordinary ones to the most extraordinary ones,  I saw them in all their colours. When I can remember my dreams, I write them in a little notebook to make sure I don’t forget them later. Actually, this is also a way to stimulate my subconscious and the more I work on them, the more I can remember them. I sometimes read my dream notebook and I have some fun reading stuff I didn’t remember.

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Dreams inspire art; paintings, songs, and, of course, cinema. So I thought, why not discussing the dreaming world in movies. I cannot talk about ALL the movies with dreams. So, why not focusing on the dreaming world in Hitchcock’s films?!

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Spellbound (1945)

“Good night and sweet dreams… which we’ll analyze at breakfast.” – Dr. Alex Brulov (Michael Chekhov), Spellbound

When one thinks of dreams in classic films, I’m pretty sure the first scene that comes to his or her mind is the one created by Salvador Dalí for Spellbound. Well, when Dali, the master of surrealism, accepts to direct a dream scene, you know it’s going to be a winning result. Dali’s painting themselves seem to be inspired by dreams or, at least by something that mysteriously poped-up of his mind for whatever reasons. I must admit, I didn’t do any dreams where the objects were weird and misshapen like in Dalí’s paintings, but the importance here is the symbolism of this dream.

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In the 40s, psychoanalyse was a subject that was very “en vogue”. With Spellbound, Hitchcock had for desired to direct the first movie on the subject. Like he explained to François Truffaut, he consulted famous psychoanalyst during the making of his film. The Master of Suspense also explained that he had for break the tradition of blurry and confused dreams that we usually see in movies. That’s why he wanted to work with Dalí. This one would create a visually very clear dream with clear and acute traits.

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So, in a movie about psychoanalyze, dreams are of a high importance. If I’m not mistaken, Dali’s sequence originally laste around 20 minutes, but it was cut to only a few. Not to mention that some of Dalí’s ideas were a bit difficult to shot as Hitchcock explained to Truffaut.  In a way, there’s something interesting about that. Have you ever heard that, even if your dreams sometimes seem to last forever, they only last a minute or a few seconds? In Spellbound, JB (Gregory Peck)’s dream is of a central importance since it helps Constance Peterson (Ingrid Bergman) and Professor Brulov (Michael Chekhov) to understand him and to help him regain his memory. It is said that dreams all have a meaning. Well, Spellbound‘s dream sequence is the perfect example of that.

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I feel that, in classic films, you had some of the most weirdly illustrated dreams. Of course, we all remember Spellbound’s dream for these curtains with painted eyes that are cut by a man with a giant pair of scissors. This is maybe the most iconic part of the sequence. Objects also have weird forms and proportions. For example, one can think of this crooked wheel or this giant table where a game of card is being interrupted by a man without a face. My personal favourite part of the dream is when Gregory Peck is running down a slope and followed by a pair of big wings (we only see their shadows). There’s something very beautiful in this shot that fits perfectly the dreaming world. Of course, we learn later in the film what is the meaning of all this.

 

Vertigo (1958)

“Only one is a wanderer; two together are always going somewhere. ” – Madeleine (Kim Novak), Vertigo

The scene designed by Dalí isn’t the only memorable dream sequence from an Hitchcock’s film. In 1958, Scottie Ferguson (James Stewart)’s nightmare had something truly terrifying. The mix between Bernard Herrmann’s score and the flashy colours create a haunting moment. Interestingly, Vertigo was the first film to use computer graphics, these being designed by Saul Bass. Those weren’t only used in the opening titles but also in the nightmare scene. The script doesn’t try to reveal the “meaning” of this dream like it is the case with Spellbound. However, the symbols are clear enough to understand that it reflects a part of Scottie’s life that begins to haunt him more and more.

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Vertigo‘s dream sequence is also the proof that this film used Technicolor to its full potential. I must admit, the first time I saw this scene, I felt slightly uncomfortable, but I think it is meant to be. What particularly frightened me is this moment when Scottie advances toward’s Carolotta’s tomb where a hole has been dug to put a coffin. I was only expecting to see Carolotta’s rotten corpse lying there, but, luckily, there wasn’t anything of the sort. I remember my sister coming in the living room right during this dream sequence and saying “Ah, that’s scary!” before leaving. But once you are more “used to it” you find it somehow fascinating. I love the short moment were Galvin Elster, Carlotta Valdes and Scottie are next to a window and the first two just stare at Scottie with a very cold look. The nightmare scene is also in perfect harmony with the music and, therefore, there’s something very choreographical about it.

 

Rebecca (1940)

“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again” – Mrs. DeWinter (Joan Fontaine), Rebecca

It’s with this iconic sentence that Daphné DuMaurier introduced her most acclaimed novel, Rebecca. Of course, Hitchcock had to use it in his Oscar-winning film. “I” De Winter (Joan Fontaine)’s dream evokes the memory she has of Manderley, the place where she used to live with her husband Max DeWinter (Laurence Olivier). In her dream, Manderley is burnt and now a desolate place. This is also a vision of reality and the rest of the film is a long flashback that will help us understand the mystery and the fatal faith of this rich domain.

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This dream scene at the beginning that introduces the film is filmed in a subjective point of view. It is seen through the narrator’s eyes, the second Mrs. DeWinter. Joan Fontaine’s enchanting and smooth voice adds a certain tranquility to the sad vision of the abandoned place. It’s interesting how this dream that is so calm is abruptly interrupted by a crash of waves in the following scene. This sequence wasn’t directed by Dalí, but we still can admire its beautiful black and white cinematography that gives it a vision of poetry.

 

Marnie (1964)

“You Freud, me Jane? “ – Marnie Edgar (Tippi Hedren), Marnie

Just like Spellbound, Marnie has psychoanalysis as a central subject. The main character, Marnie, is a cleptomaniac and also has a phobia of the colour red. Interestingly, in opposition to the previous movies, we actually never see Marnie’s dreams. We only see her dreaming. It is obvious that those are nightmares. To highlight her fear of red, these scenes are filmed with a red flashy lightning which makes the dream even more threatening than it already is. But what is the symbolism or this red that Marnie is so afraid of? The Devil? Violence? Blood? Marnie’s dreams always start with something knocking and the furious first notes of Bernard Herrmann’s score. Marnie constantly evokes her mother in her dreams and it seems that she is associated with some bad memories. Just like Spellbound, these dreams will help us to discover the truth about the title character. However, here the subject of psychoanalyse wasn’t as developed as it was with Spellbound.

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These are, I would say, the essential Hitchcock’s dream scenes. However, one can observe that some of his scenes, although they portrait reality and not a dream, are almost filmed like a dream because of the light, the colours, the blurry image, the way it is shot, etc. A few examples would be the weird trial scene in Dial M for Murder (Margot Wendice is living a real nightmare); the flashback scene in I Confess (which has a very clear and white image); when Margaret Lockwood’s faint in The Lady Vanishes; in Vertigo when Judy comes out of the bathroom metamorphosed into Madeleine, etc. François Truffaut even said to Hitchcock that, for him, many of his films, such as Vertigo and Notorious, looked like filmed dreams.

Dream scenes in movies give the occasion to the film crew to explore a different way to illustrate something. Of course, all dreams are different so, according to each movie director, a dream scene can be very different. We observe that Hitchcock’s dream scenes are mostly nightmare or, in Rebecca‘s case, the vision of something sad. Most of the time, these reflect the past of a character, a trouble hidden in his or her subconscious or a difficult situation.

Which Hitchcock’s dream scene fascinates you the most?

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Source:

– Truffaut, François. Hitchcock/Truffaut. Gallimard. 1993.