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Dr. Constance Petersen is a psychiatrist with a firm understanding of human nature. When the mysterious Dr. Anthony Edwardes becomes the new chief of staff at her institution, it is soon discovered that he has difficulty with remembering things as he is a troubled amnesiac--who could also be a killer. The bookish and detached psychiatrist plummets into a whirlwind of romance, tangled identities and psychological fever with a captivating dream sequence by Surrealist icon Salvador Dalí.
For more about Spellbound and the Spellbound Blu-ray release, see Spellbound Blu-ray Review published by Jeffrey Kauffman on January 13, 2012 where this Blu-ray release scored 3.5 out of 5.
Starring: Gregory Peck, Ingrid Bergman, Leo G. Carroll, Michael Chekhov, Rhonda Fleming, John Emery
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
» See full cast & crew
Spellbound Blu-ray Review
Sometimes parallel lines are just parallel lines.
Reviewed by Jeffrey Kauffman, January 13, 2012
In the forced collaborative world of Hollywood, bedfellows are strange more often than not, but have there ever been two stranger bedfellows than Alfred Hitchcock and Salvador Dali? Dali was an exuberant poseur who delighted in peeling back the layers of Ego and Id in his art, revealing a morphing, melting world of supercharged imagery that has perhaps unfairly been slathered with the surrealist epithet. Hitch, on the other hand, was a buttoned down, some would say repressed, individual who seemed ill at ease with overt depictions of sexuality and who usually even dealt with images of violence fairly discursively. How did these two ever find common ground to craft several sequences in Hitchock's paean to psychoanalysis, Spellbound? It's a long and convoluted story, one which is tangentially if not very explicitly dealt with in both the commentary and one featurette on this new Blu-ray, but the bottom line is both Hitch and Dali did share one salient personality trait with each other: they were both self-promoters non pareil. Hitchcock was one of the very first "star" directors, and he reveled in that rather distinctive role. Dali was of course something of an aging enfant terrible by the late 1940's, but he had something that David O. Selznick relished in any individual: marquee value. The Selznick team evidently did a market study to find out exactly how much moolah might be brought into Spellbound with the addition of Dali's name as part of the production team, and the results were somewhat staggering. While Selznick himself may have been less impressed with the actual filmic results than he was with the promise of untold riches being attached to Dali's name, and there are those to this day who find Spellbound one of the cornier films of Hitch's Selznick period, there's no denying that the film has a weird hallucinatory power, one that can't be separated from Dali's inimitable touch. Hitch and Dali may indeed have been strange bedfellows, but Spellbound, bastard child that it may well be, is still unique in Hitchcock's oeuvre, though it plies many of the same trades that Hitchcock works in many, if not most, of his other films, including an "innocent" bystander swept up in events beyond his (or her) control, a subtext of paranoia, and, of course, that simmering sexuality that Hitchcock seemed genetically incapable of letting burst free.
The mid to late 1940's saw any number of films which either had an outright psychiatric or psychoanalytical tack (Spellbound, The Snake Pit) or at least tangentially alluded to emotional problems (The Best Years of Our Lives). (It may merely be a coincidence, but this onslaught of psychiatrically focused films followed rather quickly on the headlines surrounding the breakdown and institutionalization of Frances Farmer). Spellbound is (rightly or wrongly) seen as the first mainstream film to feature psychoanalysis as a major plot point, and the fact is, what might have seemed groundbreaking and innovative in 1945 may strike modern day audiences as incredibly contrived and over simplified. Ingrid Bergman plays tamped down Dr. Constance Petersen, who works at the sort of tony private institution that only exists in movies, in this case a Vermont refuge known as Green Manors. The institution's director (Leo G. Carroll) is on his way out the door and new director, one Anthony Edwardes (Gregory Peck) is due to arrive soon to take over. When Edwardes does show up, it's pretty much love at first sight between him and Constance (one of the film's most talked about sequences—and one which drew catcalls of derisive laughter when I saw Spellbound at a revival house years ago—has the two kissing over which a superimposed series of doorways opens, an obvious sexual metaphor for Constance letting down her guard). The plot soon thickens (you expected anything less from a Hitchcock film?) when Constance soon realizes that the man who is claiming to be Anthony Edwardes is in fact not Edwardes, and, even worse, he may be a dangerous killer.
Peck's character, who is suffering from amnesia but who soon remembers his first name is John and his initials are J.B., is haunted by a series of phobias and nervous reactions which seem to stem from seeing parallel lines. That of course piques Constance's interest, but J.B. decides he is dangerous and takes off in the middle of the night for New York in an attempt to figure out who he really is. In the meantime, the hospital becomes aware that he wasn't Dr. Edwardes, and there is some suspicion he may actually be involved in the disappearance of the real Dr. Edwardes. Need it be said that Constance chases after John, ultimately secreting him away to the home of her psychoanalyst mentor, who hopefully can help to unravel the demons haunting John's mind, which are keeping him from bringing up some dreaded memory from his subconscious.
That in turns sets up what is inarguably Spellbound's best remembered sequences, a couple of short snippets where John remembers a dream he's been having. The dream sequences were designed by Dali, and they are filled to the brim with odd imagery, imagery which is in fact incredibly haunting and especially unusual for a mid-forties mainstream film. What counteracts the effect of this alarming imagery (some of which undoubtedly mirrors Dali's iconic work with Bunuel, Un Chien Andalou) is the cut and dried, completely pat "analysis" that is provided for the dream's imagery, an analysis that is so unbearably literal that even those with little or no grounding in Freudian theory will probably be rolling their eyes about.
Spellbound will probably strike a lot of younger viewers as somewhat predictable and just as probably corny, at least at times, but it still bears the unmistakable imprint of Hitchcock's mastery. There are a number of standout moments in the film, including some "little" moments like John sleepwalking with an open razor, moving with apparent menace toward Constance's elderly psychoanalyst mentor. It's in fact in this "is he or isn't he?" subtext with regard to John's character and his perhaps murderous tendencies that the film really provides some chills, probably more so than in the kind of trite (though inarguably compelling) mystery at the heart of the film. But the film is visually quite striking, and not just in the Dali sequences. This is one of the most elegantly lit of all of Hitch's 1940's pieces, one which plays with light and shadow in much the same way that Ben Hecht's screenplay attempts to divine the lights and shadows inside John's tormented soul.
Spellbound Blu-ray, Video Quality
Spellbound is presented on Blu-ray with an AVC encoded 1080p transfer in 1.37:1. David O. Selznick was an infamous memo writer, and he is on record as decrying Spellbound as looking like a Monogram Studios shot feature due to its soft, diffuse quality. With that understanding, a certain degree of slack must be given to this high definition presentation, for it is indeed overly gauzy a lot of the time, with a sort of murkiness in midrange shots that can verge on near blurriness at times. Doing a side by side comparison with the Criterion DVD release, and allowing for the obvious resolution differences between the BD and even an upscaled DVD, the Criterion shows better contrast with much better black levels, though grain is also somewhat more apparent in the Criterion release than on this transfer. The MGM-Fox release has a somewhat milkier appearance, with less delineated gray scale than the Criterion. There really doesn't seem to have been any DNR, or at least any overly aggressive DNR, on this MGM-Fox release, as the screencaps obviously show grain (in fact some overwhelming grain at times which borders on digital noise). There's also some fairly noticeable haloing due to edge enhancement in several sequences (check out the screencap from the dream sequence with the "Proprietor" on the rooftop for a particularly flagrant example). But this BD has a cleaner, sleeker look than the Criterion, with noticeably fewer blemishes, scratches and the like which argues to some sort of digital restoration and cleanup. There's also well above average sharpness and clarity throughout this presentation, especially in close-ups. Consumers are always in a quandary with these catalog titles that have also been licensed by Criterion, and this probably falls into the same category as a lot of the Universal titles from last year as well as a slew of MGM-Fox oldies. If it comes to pass, a Criterion version will no doubt be the go-to release if and when a BD comes down the pike, but for now, this certainly should suffice, with certain caveats.
It should be noted that this is yet another MGM-Fox catalog release with no Main Menu, and which has been released on a BD-J but with no bookmarking capability.
Spellbound Blu-ray, Audio Quality
Spellbound's original mono soundtrack is delivered here via a relatively fulsome DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mix. Acute listeners will hear some copious hiss blanketing the track's high end from the first moments of the Overture (and how unusual is it for a suspense film like this to feature an Overture?). That propensity continues through the rest of the film, though it's considerably toned down after the Overture. Fidelity is fine, if not amazing, throughout the feature, with excellent reproduction of Miklos Rozsa's incredible score, which was one of the first to utilize the theremin. Dialogue is always well prioritized and easy to hear, and the soundtrack really doesn't exhibit any signs of damage or age, other than the omnipresent hiss and the expected thinness of the sound.
Spellbound Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
All of the supplements save for the Still Gallery from the Premiere Collection edition of Spellbound on DVD have been ported over to this release:
Spellbound Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
Spellbound has an intriguing mystery at its core that may receive too pat of an explanation as the films careens towards its climax, but viewers have to remember the film's era and how unusual and groundbreaking this subject matter must have seemed back in those days. Elevated inimitably by George Barnes' incredibly evocative proto-noir cinematography and just as much by one of the most glorious (if slightly over the top) Miklos Rozsa scores ever, Spellbound also provides one of the few chances film lovers have to see Dali's input in a mainstream release. The film may indeed be a bit creaky, but it's still immensely enjoyable. This release is probably not going to be the standard bearer if and when Criterion comes along with its own BD, but this release does offer some okay supplements, and boasts acceptable if not stellar video and audio. Recommended.
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