Sunday, February 8, 2015


SPOILER ALERT! The plot of the movie will be discussed.

My father loved Alfred Hitchcock and I guess he handed that affection down to me. He didn't delve into the psychology of the characters or the subtext like his nerdy son. He just liked the suspense, which is reason enough to enjoy the director’s works. But, this blog centers on “meaningful movies,” so here I go digging again.

Even though Hitchcock always was interested in the psychological workings of individuals in his films (Psycho, Vertigo, Marnie), Spellbound is his most overt take on the professionals who practice psychoanalysis. Here, Ingrid Bergman’s Dr. Constance Petersen is a psychiatrist at Green Manors, a euphemistic name for a psychiatric asylum. “Green” suggests innocence, but can also mean ignorant – perhaps some of the doctors are not as insightful as they think. “Constance” suggests the word “constant,” and she is, at the beginning, a person of even temper, always reducing everything to unemotional science. She believes the abstract notion of love is really about concrete attributes such as voice tone or coloring. A colleague, Dr. Fleurot (John Emery) comments about how cold and detached she is. He says that hugging her would be like “hugging a textbook.” He goes on to say that this lack of passion makes her less of a doctor, and a woman. But, he is not offering love to Constance, only lust. When she feels true love for Gregory Peck’s character, her passion and female instincts kick in, and she is “constant” in her belief in him and in her persistence in finding him innocent.

Let’s look more at the attitude toward women in this film, where there is more than what appears on the surface (which is what psychology is about). Early in the film we meet patient Mary Carmichael (Rhonda Fleming). On the outside she is sexy and seductive around men. But, she scratches the male attendant who escorts her to Petersen’s office. She then reveals that she hates all men. She says she would pretend to kiss a man, and then bite off his mustache. At this point, she is the opposite of Constance, who appears to be all superego, compared to Mary’s representation of the id.

Gregory Peck is introduced as Dr. Anthony Edwardes, the person who is to take over as head of Green Manors. Dr. Murchison (Leo G. Carroll) is stepping down after returning from a vacation which was needed because the job “crumbled” him (another example of undermining the males in the profession). The chemistry between Edwardes and Constance is immediate. Dr. Fleurot’s assessment of Constance is shown as flawed as we now see she is truly an emotional person. Dr. Fleurot is not very good at his profession, since he could not see what was below the surface of Constance’s outer scientist. Her id and superego are in conflict at times, as she says she is there for Peck as a doctor, but then quickly surrenders to his kisses. But Fleurot is not the only male who lacks insight in the film. The house detective at the hotel where Peck’s character stays assumes Constance is either a teacher or librarian, stereotypical roles for women. (It’s interesting that the female psychiatrist of producer David O. Selznick was an advisor on this movie).

When Constance goes to her mentor, Dr. Alexander Brulov (Michael Chekhov) for help, he says that “women make the best psychoanalysts – until they are married. Then they make the best patients.” He also says that a woman in love operates at the lowest level of intelligence. This medieval attitude comes from the belief that when it comes to love, women are the weaker vessel. The film contradicts this belief by presenting a woman who can be in love and also use her deductive powers to get at the truth behind her lover’s problems and solve the murder at the center of the plot. She tells Brulov basically that her heart can see better than her mind, and that she couldn't feel the love she feels for a murderer. Even Peck’s John Ballantyne (his real name) slanders women. When Constance pushes him to remember traumatic events, he resists, saying that “I hate a smug woman.” He spouts other misogynistic lines as she presses him. But, his response is defensive, trying to stop her from removing the psychological bandage his psyche has applied to his damaged mind.

The plight of an innocent man pursued for being considered guilty of a crime is depicted in several of Hitchcock’s films. Here, the director explores the concept of guilt in depth. Peck appears at Green Manors as a psychiatrist who has written a book entitled The Labyrinth of the Guilty Mind. Indeed, the movie shows how guilt can twist the personality. Early on we encounter a patient, Mr. Garmes (Norman Lloyd) who believes he has killed his father. Constance tells him that his guilt is due to a childhood trauma that makes him feel guilty about events he did not commit.

This part of the plot is a foreshadowing of what happened to Peck’s character. “Edwardes” can’t even remember the book he has written. He has disturbing reactions to black lines on white backgrounds (markings on a table cover, a robe, a bed spread, etc.). When Constance sees that the autograph in his book does not match the writing of his name on a note, she knows he is an impostor. Actually, Peck’s character has amnesia. He is only known as “J. B.” which are the initials on a cigarette case which we later learn stand for John Ballantyne, a doctor. Constance deduces his profession by the fact that he knows answers to medical questions. As the story unfolds, we find that Edwardes died at a ski resort when Balantyne was there. He believes he killed Edwardes, as do the police. Guilt has twisted his mind to see innocent black and white markings as sinister, as do other everyday objects. For Garmes, a letter opener becomes a weapon. For Ballantyne, just the sight of Constance cutting her meat seems ominous, as does his own shaving razor. Even the names “Ballantyne” and “Edwardes” seem distorted versions of their usual spellings.

I was a claims examiner for the Department of Veterans Affairs for many years, and I know a little bit about post-traumatic stress disorder. This film was made in 1945. Back then, psychologically traumatized soldiers were said to have experienced “shell shock.” In this film Ballantyne remembers that the burn scars on his arm came from his medical transport plane being shot down by the Germans. He was seeking psychiatric help from Edwardes at a ski lodge. While they were skiing, Edwardes accidently went over a cliff. Ballantyne, as a child, accidentally killed his brother by pushing him onto a pointed fence when he was sliding down a snowy roof. Since the traumatic situations were so alike, Ballantyne’s mind planted the guilt of the psychiatrist’s death into its own psyche. The amnesia and the taking on of Edwardes’ persona were ways to avoid the realization of the death. Ballantyne has “survivor guilt” as many of today’s soldiers experience after living following the deaths of comrades. The way he becomes upset at the white and dark markings are ways of avoiding the stimuli that represent his trauma, namely the ski tracks in the snow. This avoidance symptom is also seen in PTSD patients. Also, when Ballantyne is seen walking down the steps toward Dr. Brulov, he looks like a marionette, a somnambulist out of The.Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. When sitting on the couch, his head is tilted back and to the side, and he is motionless, like a doll. He is “bound” by the “spell” cast over him by his unfounded guilt. The trauma has numbed him, distancing him from his own feelings, as a way of coping with the traumas he has experienced. This symptom, too, is associated with PTSD.

However, Edwardes was shot. Ballantyne is arrested. But Constance catches Dr. Murchison in a lie about how well he knew Dr. Edwardes. She reinterprets Ballantyne’s dream (whose design in the film was by Salvador Dali). A misshapen wheel in the dream symbolizes a revolver, which was used to kill the victim. (There was a foreboding of this detail when Brulov says that when a psychiatrist travels with a patient, it’s like carrying “a loaded gun”). Constance realizes that Murchison killed Edwardes to prevent him from taking over as head of the asylum. In her confrontation with Murchison, she logically persuades him not to kill her, because it would seem premeditated, while Edwardes’ killing could be seen by the authorities as due to Murchison’s mental breakdown. After she leaves, Murchison’s guilt makes him turn the revolver on himself, and the true guilty one is punished.

Hitchcock uses doors as symbols in this film. When Peck and Bergman first lock eyes on each other, doors are seen opening for her, symbolizing her emotional, sexual freedom. When Ballantyne is in the operating room he has a spell where he talks about opening the doors, which can mean the desire to see the truth about his situation. They both awaken the truth in each other about their emotions. But, we also see the doors of the prison cell closing on Ballantyne when guilt is wrongly assigned.

The last image shown to us is that of the doorman at the hotel. The words on his cap, which is on his head (the house of the brain), read “Gateman.” We are the ones who free or imprison our minds. That is why Hitchcock places the quote from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar at the opening of the film: “The fault in not in our stars … but in ourselves.”

Can you name another film in which Gregory Peck’s character had amnesia? The answer will be in next week’s post.

Next week’s film is Brazil.

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