Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945)

Spoiler alert

Ingrid Bergman in Spellbound

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock and produced by David O. Selznick

In Spellbound Ingrid Bergman plays Dr Constance Peterson, a brilliant psychiatrist, and the only female member of staff at the psychiatric hospital where she works.  The film begins with the Director, Dr Murchison, being forced to retire following a mental breakdown.  Constance immediately falls in love with his replacement, Dr Edwardes, but within a few days discovers that her lover is not Dr Edwardes at all, but a paranoid amnesiac who has stolen his identity and may actually be guilty of Edwardes’s murder.

Believing in her lover’s innocence, Constance decides to go on the run with him in the hope of using her psychoanalytic skills to treat his amnesia and prove his innocence.  Risky behaviour, you might think, because he could turn out to be a murderer after all.  And the plot doesn’t sound very promising from a feminist perspective either does it? – silly irrational woman, throwing away her career for her love of a dodgy man and all that, but what I liked about Spellbound is precisely the way it plays around with gendered assumptions and the projections, not only of its characters, but also its audience, drawing us into a narrative in which the audience, like Constance, must try and read the signs to get at the truth.

Unsurprisingly, Constance makes her male colleagues anxious and they project their hostility onto her in ways that are still recognisable, namely, sexual harassment and accusations of coldness, frigidity etc., when she doesn’t respond to the harassment.  In Constance’s use of polite humour to deflect her main harasser, Dr Feurot, we recognise the strategy of a woman trying to manage a difficult situation.  I’ve noticed that responses to the film have accepted Constance’s male colleagues assessment of her as “cold” without pausing to wonder if this is just a sexist projection that has nothing to do with Constance and everything to do with anxieties about professional women which were very pertinent in 1945 – can Constance really be considered cold for rejecting the sexual advances of a dried up old psychiatrist?  The fact that she falls immediately and passionately in love with the Gregory Peck character (later revealed as John Ballentyne) suggests to me that she was just waiting for a man she actually liked to come along.  When Constance seeks the help of her old friend and mentor Dr Alexander Brulov, she finds that he too can’t get beyond the sexism that underlies his feeling that she is being a typically irrational woman and putting herself in danger for love.  Constance ignores these threats and carries on regardless, convinced of both her own brilliance as an analyst and her love of the man who can’t remember his own name.

Through its sexist male characters, the film invites the audience to project their own hostility towards professional women onto Constance and, in so doing, distracts the audience from what’s really going on.  The men in the film use a threat that we still see being used against women today – that being excellent at what you do will result in an impossible conflict between your professional and your personal life.  This is the plot of The Red Shoes a few years later in 1948 in which a woman goes “mad” and dies because she can’t reconcile marriage with her professional and artistic life as a ballet dancer.

You could argue that Spellbound is a sexist film, and I would agree that it’s not exactly a feminist revolution in filmmaking, but I would suggest that it’s more of a film about sexism that also uses sexism to try and trick its audience into seeing things a certain way.   Most of the narrative is spent suggesting that Constance is being a silly, perhaps even a “mad” woman, who’s putting herself in danger.

The tagline on this poster reads “The maddest love that ever possessed a woman”.  But this poster also seems to be expressing some anxieties about women. I think it’s intriguing that it represents Constance’s looming face in the background as a threat to a vulnerable, frightened figure of John in the foreground, rather than the other way around, as if it’s Constance who is the “mad” and dangerous one.

But ultimately the film undermines the narrative it has set up by proving both Constance’s professional and personal judgement to have been correct all along – she turns out to be perfectly right to believe that John is innocent of murder and presents no danger to her.  She is after all, (within the terms of the film anyway) an excellent analyst and she not only cures John but solves the larger mystery and faces down the real villain who’s had everyone “spellbound”.

In Spellbound it isn’t actually women who are “mad” or irrational, though they are accused of it, it’s the men. Constance’s lover John is an amnesiac and a classic hysteric who collapses every time he sees lines on a white surface. The film is full of mental health fail as you might expect from 1945, but in the representation of John it’s probably referencing the real issue of symptoms experienced by veterans returning from World War II because it turns out that John is suffering mainly from what we’d now call post traumatic stress disorder, a condition that has been manipulated by the true villain of the piece.  There’s also an interesting role reversal in the representation of the man as helpless, vulnerable and victimised and the woman as the rescuer with the agency.  And it’s not just John, the true villain also turns out to be deeply unstable, prepared to commit murder and have an innocent man locked up for the rest of his life just in order to achieve a rather petty end.

The (mis)representation of psychoanalysis in the film is silly, though not as bad the more disturbing mangling of psychoanalytic ideas that appear in later Hitchcock films like Psycho and Marnie.  Constance takes a cod-Freudian approach in which John must simply relive his repressed trauma in order to recover from his symptoms.  There are Salvador Dali designed dream sequences too – it’s rather disappointing that in reality dreams never seem to look like Salvador Dali paintings, well, mine don’t anyway.  While that’s all entertaining to people (like me) who are interested in the representation of psychoanalysis in popular culture, I don’t think it’s what’s interesting about this film.

At the end of Spellbound all the projections are revealed as simply that, projections.  Constance and John get married and it’s implied that she will carry on with her professional life as a psychiatrist as well.  The conflict between the professional and the personal is an illusion and not something that apparently concerns Constance or John.

The spell is broken.  But who was spellbound?  Was it Constance by her love for John? Everyone by the villain who managed to pull the wool over all their eyes? Us, the audience, by our own projections about women?

Siouxsie and The Banshees, Spellbound

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