Dreams and Pistol Shots
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From Leslie Halliwell to David Thomson, capsule reviews of Hitchcock’s Spellbound have made sure we know that the psychiatry on offer is pure Hollywood. Thomson adds that David O. Selznick was breaking up with Jennifer Jones at the time and “in therapy” himself. But the film certainly offers more than the usual “vanity project” and doesn’t merely glamorize the producer’s agonies via on-screen avatars.
Not that the young Gregory Peck (Dr. Anthony Edwardes) and Ingrid Bergman (Dr. Constance Petersen) would be spurned by many of us if we wanted all our lover’s pains played to world audiences in our own time and beyond. And I do know that it’s not just oldies for whom Spellbound – however dark and sometimes daft – is Hitchcock’s most romantic film.
Made just after WW2, it studiously avoids allusions to the impact of war on people’s lives. Yet the on-screen presence of a nicely-spoken, tall dark handsome young man, who nonetheless suffers from total memory loss, would have sparked no instant disbelief in post-war audiences. Perhaps because of war trauma in our own era, it seems that modern audiences, too, have little trouble accepting the emotional reality of invisible scars. In fact, helping to make this such a timeless story, there’s an ever-present subtext here about looking beyond surface beauty to inner turmoil – quite a contrast to more common Beauty-and-the-Beast scenarios.
In Keys of the Kingdom (1944), Peck had added something special to Hollywood’s list of Decent God-Fearing Guys. In that movie his character comes to see that non-Christians can be decent and god-fearing too. In terms of moral education, this was a serious attempt by thinking Americans to adjust to a changing world order. But in Spellbound Peck plays someone not only less capable of rational adaptation but much more deeply disturbed.
While not reinventing everything about Men in the Movies, suddenly he does make it easier for them to be more emotionally sensitive. For me, this ends an era – despite its wide range of male acting styles – in which male emotional sensitivity was, as often as not, played for laughs or, more typically, remained an unspoken taboo. (Of course, one could cite memorable exceptions – Charlie Chaplin’s character at the end of City Lights breaks up very movingly, when the once-blind heroine finally recognises him from the touch of his hand on hers; and I challenge anyone not to cry with this sensitive male.)
Meanwhile, as Dr. Constance Petersen, Ingrid Bergman gets her first chance at something other than passive loyalty to her man – even when he’s out to kill her, as in her previous film, Gaslight (1944). As opposed to Ilse in Casablanca, this time Constance actually knows who she loves. Most of all, she’s allowed actively to support her object of desire, rather than offering, however beautifully, an unquestioned and unquestioning devotion!
So I’m saying right away that in Spellbound, despite the studio’s best attempts at “Hollywoodization” there’s an only half-hidden paradigm shift regarding “normal” values and beliefs, both as they affect individuals and as they reflect social change, not least in the area of gender roles.
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Of course, it’s still only a movie, and that’s surely the spirit in which we must take most of the proceedings, including the famous Dali-inspired dream sequence. Dali, certainly, was not a complete stranger to film, and here he repeats the eye-slicing trick that first appeared in Un Chien Andalou (1929). Hitchcock himself was a collector of modernist painters; and I would’ve loved to see one of his favourite surrealists, de Chirico – possessed of a shady urban muse not unlike his own – lured onto the project. Dali – the eccentric exhibitionist who could make Picasso look like a wallflower – required little luring. So we have what we have, and critics often point to a less than totally satisfying result. The sequence is vertiginous enough, but – largely, it seems, because of the producer’s last-minute nerves – it feels too literally enslaved to a far-from-convincing plot. Hitchcock, though, took all this in his stride: the deletion of one creepy-crawly sequence being put down to the ants having run out of contract!
For me, the silliest of the dream symbols, later explained with up-to-the-minute “Freudianism,” compares a melting Dali driving wheel to a “revolver.” For film lovers who happen to be serious students of psychology, I’d offer more convincing – and dramatically effective – references by Hitchcock, not to Freud but Pavlov. For example, in Blackmail (1929), the film that launched his international career, the heroine kills a would-be rapist with a knife from outside the curtained space in which the attack is happening. All we see is her arm; and the scene is a model for any director looking for non-graphic but extremely effective depictions of violence. Meanwhile, back at the family dining table she can’t slice bread without unleashing a Pavlovian storm of associations – “knife, knife, KNIFE.” These are the early days of sound, and Blackmail – far from smoothing out all the inherent problems of change – positively revels in mixing the new technology with titles from the silent era.
The point I want to emphasize, though, is that Pavlovian theory isn’t just easier to dramatize filmically than Viennese School psychoanalysis, it’s frankly more evocative of real-life situations. To expand briefly: smartphone video footage has recently come out of Syria showing a four-year-old girl, proudly dressed in her prayer gown, blown across the room by a bomb blast. She survived uninjured, but – supposing she’s still alive – more footage shows her refusing to wear that gown ever again.
So, for those who struggle to see any merit in the psychological theories of Spellbound, I suggest that Dr. Constance Petersen is engaged in a perfectly plausible – and finally vindicated – Pavlovian view of “Dr. Edwardes” and that terrified aversion of his to dark parallel tracks on white backgrounds.
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If, in the shape of Ivan Pavlov, one famous Russian comes to the aid of Ingrid Bergman, another plays a much more equivocal role. I’m thinking of Mikhail (Michael) Chekhov, nephew of the world-famous playwright, here playing Dr. Alexander Brulov, mentor and close friend of Bergman’s character. In surely one of the finest cameos on film, Chekhov brings enormous depth to “Alex,” who could have emerged as merely a comic if kindly middle-aged professor, complete with Middle European accent. Certainly when he meets Constance and her “husband” Dr. Edwardes, it does feel as though we’ve suddenly strayed from Hitchcock to something more typical of Wilder or Lubitsch. Overlooking the white lie she uses to gain sanctuary in his house, Alex replies with what now seems an oddly futuristic line: “Any husband of yours is a husband of mine, so to speak!”
But the serious stuff soon follows. At one level, it’s a sequence we’ve often seen before: a leading character isn’t believed – not even by close friends or family. And, as far as the unbelievers are concerned, there are good reasons not to go along with what they’re being told. Hitchcock, of course, uses this tension-ratcheting device elsewhere: in North by Northwest, for example, Cary Grant’s Roger Thornhill can’t persuade his own mother that he’s been the victim of a stitch-up.
And it turns out that “Alex,” however urbane and affable, has not for a single moment bought into Constance’s beliefs about her “husband.” On the contrary, when Peck’s character wanders downstairs in the middle of the night armed with an unsheathed straight razor, Alex is ready with the soothing small talk and a slug of bromide in a glass of milk. Peck’s thousand-yard stare is trademarked here for the first time, though in Twelve O Clock High (1949) it gets another convincing outing, in this case an overt reference to combat fatigue.
Hitchcock, too, is already repeating something very literally in Spellbound – the famous glass of milk scene from Suspicion (1941); and this simply shows that, much like musicians/composers, actors and directors often borrow freely from themselves.
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In Elser, 13 Minutes (2015) director Oliver Hirschbiegel makes a fair stab at not simply repeating tricks learned during the making of Downfall (2004). On the other hand, the ability to create something not too obscurely arty or solely for home consumption is, again, realised.
However, we’re doomed to disappointment if we’re expecting the horribly effective unified focus of Downfall. We’re also going to find fault if we suppose that this will be a mesmerising rerun for lead actor Christian Friedel after his contribution to Haneke’s The White Ribbon (2009). For me, then, the link with Spellbound is not about international hits or even the background of a shaky world order. In fact, the association that most strikes me is something I’ll call the Cassandra problem: the problem of seeing the future with great clarity but not being believed, not even by the closest and most sympathetic members of your community.
Mythology students might remember that Cassandra was being punished by the god Apollo for not keeping her side of the bargain: her sexual favours in exchange for his gift to her of being able to foresee exactly how community-affecting decisions would pan out.
Constance Petersen is mocked by Alex Brulov essentially for being a woman in love, one who “knows” her beloved is not a murderer. Based on whatever foundations, her predictive accuracy is something medics, social workers, and criminologists would dearly love to possess. Indeed, society as a whole would scarcely spurn such a gift were it available to help protect itself from likely offenders. Today, though, there’d be a little less willingness to reject such prescience on gender grounds alone.
Outmoded gender politics play their part in 13 Minutes too. Georg Elser, an “ordinary working-class man” with a penchant for the ladies, plants a bomb that explodes thirteen minutes too late to kill Hitler before he and his spellbound followers really get started. On the other hand – almost certainly unknown to Georg Elser – by 1939, in the year of his assassination attempt, seventy thousand people had already been exterminated for the odious crime of being “mentally unfit.”
With painful certainty, Elser already “knows” that Germany is poised to leap into a huge and very black abyss. At the risk of killing innocent people, which, as a churchgoing Christian he deplores, he feels bound to act alone. Though there are indeed other “reds” in the script, one of them a particular friend, he’s rounded up too quickly to be of use.
No one else, then, can see – or admit to seeing – the enormities starting to unfold. Meanwhile the Nazis, who soon track him down and subject him to extreme torture, do so in the belief that he must be part of a wider conspiracy. The film strongly suggests that those in charge of his torture quickly realise that Elser did, in fact, act alone. But they also realise that to try persuading senior officials of this would not only be futile, it would most likely prove fatal for them.
Elser’s complete isolation – his “Cassandra” problem – is, I think, the most convincing element of Hirschbiegel’s film. As a tale of moral courage it must, in itself, have demanded a high degree of moral courage from its makers. In this context, it’s perhaps worth adding that no people have such an unblemished history that they can address past atrocities against perceived enemies with an easy mind.
As to why genocides happen, Hirschbiegel’s film provides no new answers; and it would be very much the first in film history to do so. It does, though, briefly hint at the strangely blind romance – the obsessive love affair – between leaders and led that must be present in order to facilitate state-organised criminality – or totalitarianism, as it’s also known. In Elser’s Bavarian mountain village, the Hitler Youth make fun of his churchgoing group; meanwhile a Nazi propaganda film is screened in a little tent to the great delight of all the villagers crammed in to watch it.
After a period of highly visible and bloody social division, “the lovely Adolf” was giving ordinary Germans a sense of unity and progress. If invisible brutalities continued to occur, they were probably “exaggerated” or just plain lies.
As well as the Cassandra effect, another, more mechanical connecting device in two outwardly very different films is the coincidence of their concluding with a pistol shot. This is the device famously recommended by Anton Chekhov: “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the second act it should be fired; otherwise don’t hang it there.”
How exactly this relates to Hitchcock’s “MacGuffin” would take too long to untangle here; but – in life as in art – we need to feel we’re following some sort of thread that in turn leads to some sense of an ending.
I doubt if these thoughts would have occurred to me without that family connection between the Russian playwright and his aforementioned nephew Michael, who – as I lately discover – was very much at centre stage of acting developments in the mid-20th century: so much so that Gregory Peck, among others, felt compelled to honour his contribution in From Russia to Hollywood: The 100 year Odyssey of Chekhov and Shdanov (Frederick Keeve, 2002).
In my chosen films, pistols certainly help bring proceedings to a close: in Spellbound, a finally-exposed murderer shoots himself in the head; in Elser, 13 Minutes, it’s the least inhumane form of execution available for a traitor. To take the latter first: Elser managed to survive Dachau until the Allies were on the verge of liberating it. Hirschbiegel doesn’t say why he was “spared.” At the end of the film, though, he does compare Elser with those involved in the von Stauffenberg plot of 1944, where all involved are swiftly purged.
The most likely reason for Elser’s comparative longevity is the fact that this Cassandra still wasn’t believed; he must have had accomplices; and if – as the film so graphically demonstrates – torture would not drag out the names, there was reason to hope that the prisoner might eventually just drop his guard and give the game away. This “reason” is indicated in some earlier dialogue in which Elser is seen – while not recanting – deciding that his bomb plot must have been wrong in the eyes of God, or else it would have succeeded. Under no duress, he even expresses the hope that in future he might rejoin the “national struggle.” It’s not very clear whether this is verbatim from prison documents, but the phrase is just possibly loose enough to mean something more communitarian than anything the Nazis had in mind.
Meanwhile, in Spellbound, the impeccable and unflappable boss of the psychiatric institute is finally caught, quite unambiguously, in his own snares when Dr. Murchison (Leo G. Carroll) is shown to have acted entirely out of envy, killing his chief rival for the top job and throwing the blame onto a rather vulnerable young man. The pain of discovery is too much; and though for an instant we fear he might actually kill Constance, he turns the gun on himself. And if we ask how exactly we get that sense of unendurable guilt, the answer surely lies in the giant close-up of pistol and trigger-hand – both surreal rather than realistic – pointing unavoidably, so it seems, at US!
I find here yet another interesting subtext – a moral MacGuffin, so to speak; and not just because nice-but-suspect young guy triumphs over secretly-nasty-but-outwardly-respectable older guy. For me, what fascinates is the latent distinction between desire and envy – never as easy to explain as one might wish – and made as plain as it ever can be in Hitchcock’s film..
The excruciating pangs of desire and envy, as they ebb and flow, are witnessed, of course, in many films and many art forms – from my own recent film viewing I think of El Amor Brujo (1986), a full-scale flamenco ballet from Carlos Saura, based on an early 20th-century piece by Manuel de Falla. It remains probably one of the best filmed ballets of any kind and – whether Hitchcock was familiar with the original or not – isn’t there something of tender/cruel flamenco passion in more than a few of his pictures? The large man from Leytonstone knew, of course, that he didn’t look like any kind of artist; and, on at least one occasion, attributed his lack of Oscars precisely to this fact. But I think it no coincidence that the 1946 film and the de Falla ballet share the same name: El Amor Brujo being best translated into English as Spellbound.
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Unless otherwise noted, all images are screenshots from YouTube trailers and/or the DVD(s).