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Spellbound

Year: 1945
Production Co: Selznick International Pictures
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Producer: David O Selznick
Writer: Ben Hecht
Cast: Ingrid Bergman, Gregory Peck

One of the questions I'd most like to ask Hitchcock if he was still alive (and have him answer honestly) is how interested he was in themes. One of his classics, Rear Window, has had such allegory and subtext about reality TV, the distancing effect of social media and urban malaise heaped upon it in the years since it came out it always makes me wonder if he'd be bemused and bewildered by all the chatter about how allegorical it all was.

I suspect that (as many directors working in Hollywood back in those days did) all he wanted to do was tell a rattling good tale that pushed your emotional buttons and used tension to great effect.

And my suspicions seem to be confirmed by this as well as many other movies of the period that emulate Hitchcock – they're all plot. Not only that, they're all similar plots in that something has already occurred, and the hero has to delve into something or someone to figure out what they've missed and piece the truth together, detective style.

In this case the hero is stoic female psychiatrist Constance (Ingrid Bergman, emanating the same golden era star quality I last saw in The Maltese Falcon courtesy of Lauren Bacall). The head of the psychiatric hospital where she works is being forced out of his post after a leave of absence for overwork, and as soon as his handsome young replacement, Dr Edwardes (Gregory Peck) arrives, Constance is quietly smitten.

Aside from a bizarre phobia he has of parallel lines on bed sheets, her clothes and elsewhere, everything comes up roses for the couple as they cavort in the countryside and embrace as passionately as the moral codes of the war years allowed on film.

It all comes to a head when she realises her lover may not be the real Edwardes – when she confronts him about it he admits he has amnesia, has no idea who he is and might have murdered the real Edwardes, taken his place and forgotten all about it. Constance wants to treat him and figure out what's giving him such psychic stress, but before they get deep enough into the process for any insight he flees in the middle of the night.

Staying one step ahead of the cops now on his case, Constance tracks him down to New York and finds him living in a hostel. She's determined to get to the bottom of his mania and help him, and the pair narrowly avoid the police and make their way to the home of her former mentor in order to analyse a dream he's told her about (the same figure as Professor Lilolman in Mel Brooks' classic Hitchcock spoof High Anxiety).

The famous dream sequence, designed by Salvador Dali, is full of talismans that Constance and her old teacher are convinced will help them solve the mystery, and the clues lead to a nearby ski lodge where her lover and the real Edwardes had their meeting with fate. Just when it all seems like he's nothing more than the victim of childhood trauma and not a killer at all, the cops finally catch up to the pair and announce that Edwardes' body has been found – complete with a bullet wound.

Constance goes back to work at the hospital and try to forget her beau, knowing he'll most likely face the electric chair, but as we've seen in a million twist thrillers since then (everything from John McTiernan's Basic to the booklet of notes Walter White leaves on his toilet in Breaking Bad that sinks everything), the final shocking twist is revealed by a single errant word by a character we never suspected.

The shrieking soundtrack, the soundscape and even Hitch's cameo are all there, making it unmistakably a Hitchcock jam. The only difference is its name isn't breathed in the same reverent tones as later films like Psycho or Vertigo so I don't think there's as much commentary around about how profound the themes are.

If you want to look for them you can probably ascribe nods towards Freud and dreams representing repressed fears and desires, but they're not really themes, just plot devices on which Hitchcock and writer Ben Hecht build a good if slightly front-heavy thriller. After an interesting set-up, it kind of gives the game away a bit early, devolving slightly into a chase movie when we've barely got used to who everyone is.

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