Many of Hollywood’s most renowned filmmakers are so often remembered for a handful or more of their classic films, while many filmgoers are rarely aware of some of these great artists’ lesser-known works. These lesser films may have been poorly advertised, or released during a period when other more popular or exceptional films were being promoted by the studios. Or maybe this particular director may have made the film during an inexplicable creative slump or decline in public popularity. In the next few weeks, I’ll be looking at several of the less popular films of some of Hollywood’s finest directors.
The first of these hidden gems is Alfred Hitchcock’s 1945 “Spellbound,” a film which was made by the famed independent producer David O. Selznick and starred Ingrid Bergman, as a very bookish psychiatrist, Dr. Constance Petersen. A young Gregory Peck (in only his fourth film) is John Ballantyne, a man who pretends to be Dr. Anthony Edwardes, the new head of a Vermont mental health hospital called Green Manors. In actuality, he may also be a murderer on the run.
This story was adapted by famed playwright Ben Hecht with Angus MacPhail from the novel “The House of Dr. Edwardes” written by Hilary Saint George Saunders and John Palmer in 1925. Because Selznick had a keen interest in psychiatric issues, Hitchcock also sought the technical opinion of May E. Romm, M.D., the film’s psychiatric advisor.
Within weeks, Petersen lets her hair down and begins spending lots of her spare time with the new doctor, but she begins noticing several of his odd behaviors. He seems to have a strange phobia of parallel lines, especially on white backgrounds. She also notes that his signature is different from her autographed copy of his book “Labyrinth of the Guilt Complex” and the doctor’s other correspondences.
Later she offers her professional analysis of Edwardes’ conditions and she discovers he is suffering from amnesia and an elaborate guilt complex related to some horrifying event. In the meantime, Constance realizes she’s feeling deep emotions for the troubled John Ballantyne. A colleague, Dr. Murchison, concludes that Ballantyne probably met and knew Edwardes, killed him and took on his identity.
Viewers are left to wonder, will Constance’s love for Ballantyne survive? And will she cure his fears and phobia before the police arrest him?
The film features a wildly imaginative nearly five-minute dream sequence designed by Spanish surrealist painter Salvador Dali, where Ballantyne reveals the strange events that led to his supposed involvement in the alleged murder. In the 1967 interview book, “Hitchcock/Truffaut,” French director Francois Truffaut asked Hitchcock his reasons for choosing Dali.
Hitchcock explains, “I was determined to break with the traditional way of handling a dream sequence through a blurred and hazy screen.” But Selznick thought the choice of Dali was mostly for his celebrated name. Hitchcock elaborates, “The real reason was that I wanted to convey the dreams with great visual sharpness and clarity, sharper than the film itself. I wanted Dali because of the architectural sharpness of his work.”
The dream sequence contains several typical Dali images that contain symbolic psychological meanings: pairs of large eyes, a menacing pair of scissors, a man without facial features, ants crawling across a landscape, long draping curtains and a man hiding behind a chimney holding a wheel. This incredible sequence and the rest of the film is wonderfully enhanced by George Barnes’ film noir, black and white cinematography and Miklós Rózsa enchanting musical score, which utilized the theremin, a recently invented electronic instrument later made popular in many science fiction films of the 1950s.
Besides the exceptional performances of Bergman and Peck, the film contains an interesting collection of supporting players, including Michael Chekhov’s Oscar-nominated role as Dr. Alexander Brulov, Petersen’s mentor. Chekhov was not only the nephew of the famed Russian playwright Anton Chekhov but also a student of acting teacher Konstantin Stanislavski. Leo G. Carroll is Dr. Murchison, the outgoing former head of Green Manors and Rhonda Fleming appears as troubled patient Mary Carmichael, a flirtatious young woman who actually despised men.
Despite that “Spellbound” was a box office success and received six Oscar nominations, including ones for best picture, director, supporting actor, original musical score (which it won), cinematography and visual effects, it seems nearly a forgotten film in Hitchcock’s credits today.
For an even more unlikely pairing of collaborations, see the Oscar-nominated Disney short film “Destino.” This project began in 1945 with Walt Disney and Dali, but it finally completed with other Disney artists’ input in 2003.