Shrinking the Spotless Mind

Gregory Peck in Alfred Hitchcock's SPELLBOUNDIt’s characteristic of how the unconscious works–by sideways association, by metaphor–that it’s only by not thinking of madness, murder, or repressed memory that I can recall the title of Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound. Whenever I recommend the film, I have to run through Hitch’s other movies first: the little seen Under Capricorn; the anomalous Notorious, in which, it seems to me, Ingrid Bergman plays against type.

The cause of this amnesia? Perhaps it’s the subject, psychoanalysis, of which my father is a practitioner. Maybe it’s the qualifier, spellbound, which imputes a kind of shamanism to the talking cure, a skepticism about the idea that discussing memories will neutralize their venom. Or maybe it’s the stated goal of an analysis: the transformation of hysterical misery into common unhappiness. Who hungers for that kind of alchemy?

It’s a treatment that works over time, through dialogue. There are many modalities, but traditionally, a chief element is listening—which is not an easy practice to bring to the screen. The shrink lends himself well enough to certain genres: the fish out of water (Analyze This); the melodrama (Another Woman); quite commonly, and often quite poorly, the thriller (Don’t Say A Word). Spellbound falls into this last category, and though its director was dismissive (“it’s just another manhunt story wrapped in pseudo-psychology”), the film fits neatly within his cinematic project. As an auteur, Hitchcock exposes the vice beneath virtue, the menace that threatens the veneer of civility; so, too, does psychoanalysis—particularly as portrayed in Spellbound.

The film begins at an asylum, that zone where misery makes itself comfortable, a place for intractable cases and the chronically imbalanced. It’s an unsettling setting, with doctors residing alongside patients. Metaphorically, one might conflate the sane and the sick (see also: Suddenly, Last Summer).  It’s been said that there are only two reasons a person becomes an analyst: to heal himself or a family member. Spellbound suggests it’s only a matter of time before a doctor’s pathologies are revealed.

The movie proceeds through a potboiler’s reversals: a new director arrives at Green Manors, but this mystery man (Gregory Peck) is not who he seems to be. The man he’s impersonating has died or been murdered; is this surrogate the killer? When Peck arrives, two events transpire, nearly simultaneously: the heroine Dr. Petersen (Ingrid Bergman) falls in love with her colleague, even as she recognizes that he is not who he claims to be. Peck’s character is a cipher, appealingly handsome, but all the same, a blank slate. It is with this abrupt and immutable attachment (which an analyst might call countertransference—a reaction determined by the psychoanalyst’s own life history and unconscious content) that the real trouble begins.

Previously, Dr. Petersen had shown herself to be stern and knowing, undeceived by the wiles of hysterical patients. She’s much more interested in abstractions about human nature than in the practical application of that knowledge. Bergman is the only female doctor at the asylum, reproved for her iciness (holding her would be like “embracing a textbook” says a fellow analyst) and told that her chilly reserve limits her effectiveness as a healer.

Gregory Peck and Ingrid Bergman in SPELLBOUNDIngrid Bergman’s virtue as an actress is virtue itself—she conveys nobility even when compromised. Her best-known role is in Casablanca, in which her character’s choice to remain with her husband and give up her lover has global implications. It’s almost as if Bergman’s sacrifice of personal happiness wins the war against fascism. Ingrid Bergman is the essence of surrender, in the best sense.

Thunderstruck by love, then, Dr. Petersen becomes, suddenly, quite unlike Hitchcock’s other blondes—she is reckless, unreasonable, and hopelessly attached. Indeed, Peck seems to play the feminine role in the film, the unknown quantity who leads the protagonist into danger. Is it possible?, Bergman’s character asks more than once, expressing disbelief and desire at her sudden happiness. There is a wildness in her transformation, as unsettling and believable as that of Faye Dunaway in Three Days of the Condor or Diane Keaton in Mrs. Soffel.  A colleague remarks: “Women make the best psychoanalysts.  Until they fall in love. Then they make the best patients.”  (It’s impossible to discuss Hitchcock without giving a nod to his ambivalence and sexist behavior towards women.)

Bergman is warned: Peck tells her, “I love you but I’m not worth loving.”

But once smitten, Bergman submits utterly to the torrent of her feelings:

“The heart can see deeper this time.”

“A man cannot do anything in amnesia that his real character could not do.”

“I could not feel this way toward a man who was evil.”

Her mentor in the film (Bergman’s real life acting coach) reproaches her: “You are 20 times crazier than him.”  He is absolutely correct: knowingly, she throws away home and career, the things that comprise her identity, to be with a man about whom she knows almost nothing. She deceives her colleagues and the police; they go on the lam so that she can elicit the story of the events that led to his amnesia and prove his innocence once and for all. “I can save him!” she promises. Only Ingrid Bergman can make this illogic understandable. (Perhaps her character remains unpunished because Hitchcock had fallen hopelessly in love with his leading lady).

The solution to Peck’s illness and the couple’s predicament is an analytic one: the interpretation of dreams. David O. Selznick hired Salvador Dali to conceive of the film’s dream sequences (Hitchcock did not himself direct those scenes). Filmmakers have traditionally used dreams to spice up movies with visual and auditory dissonance—according to someone like David Lynch, the unconscious narrative is a vivid, disorderly, and disturbing experience. In the original cut of Spellbound, these surrealist fantasies threatened to swallow the narrative, running as long as twenty minutes. The pared down version is still good fun, though Dali’s images may have lost some of their freshness.

One of the striking qualities of Freud’s case studies is the authoritative ease with which the master analyst—still a scientist formulating his ideas—interprets the meanings of his patients’ dreams. Dreams might be a route to the unconscious, but there is certainly not a one-to-one correspondence between a dream’s subject and its meaning.  Freud himself said that the nature of the unconscious mind is over-determined—a place where plurality, contradiction, and multiple metaphorical significances can exist simultaneously. And so, the unlocking of a patient’s mind seems an unlikely and imprecise solution to a murder mystery. (Indeed, mistaken interpretation allows for a final twist at the end of the thriller.)

Like many of Hitchcock’s films, Spellbound is a work that is elegant, uncanny, uneasy, compelling; its visual vocabulary elevates its genre conventions. When the murderer turns the gun on himself, he directs it towards the camera and, by extension, the audience. It’s a sight gag worthy of Hitchcock’s sinister humor. Like the analyst, Hitchcock seems to say, the audience is corrupt: voyeurs who like to experience safe thrills.