Spellbound, Blu-ray (1945/2012)

by | Feb 10, 2012 | DVD & Blu-ray Video Reviews

Spellbound, Blu-ray (1945/2012)
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Cast: Ingrid Bergman, Gregory Peck, Leo G. Carroll
Music: Miklos Rozsa
Studio: Selznick/Fox/MGM [1/24/12]
Video: 4:3 B&W 1080p HD
Audio: English DTS-HD Master Audio mono
Subtitles: English SDH
Extras: Commentary track by author and film professor Thomas Schatz & film professor Charles Ramirez Berg, “Dreaming with Scissors” – Hitchcock, Surrealism and Salvador Dali, “A Cinderella Story” – Rhoda Fleming, 1948 radio play with Joseph Cotton subbing for Peck, Audio interview with Hitchcock, Orig. theatrical trailer
Length: 118 minutes
Rating: *****

Not Hitch’s No. 1 film, but a fascinating if now-dated combination of the first film which dealt with Freudian analysis, a great screenplay by writer Ben Hecht, a superb performance by Bergman, and the surrealist symbolic artwork of Salvador Dali. Hitchcock wanted to work with Dali, and the studio felt the famous artist’s connection with the film was worth $50,000 in publicity. Unfortunately for Dali, but perhaps better for the final film, his 20 minutes or so of wild Freudian symbolism was cut down to three very short inserts showing a dream of the Peck character, which the Bergman character finally analyzed and solved in the penultimate scene of the movie.
My youthful connection to Spellbound was its stirring music by Miklos Rozsa – only the second of his film scores to use the Theremin. (He found the performer of the no-hands-on instrument – Dr. Hoffman; a dentist – by going thru the LA musicians’ union listings.) Selznick was smart enough to license the music the minute Rozsa wrote it, and released 78 rpm albums of the score, which sold well.
Peck, for whom this was a first major role in his career, plays the new head of a mental asylum who is not actually what he claims. His first meeting with analyst Petersen (Bergman) is of course love at first sight. She and later her mentor Dr. Brulov analyze this “John Brown” – who has amnesia, and thinks he is an imposter, replacing the new asylum head who he killed. They finally deduce that Brown and the new director went on a ski trip together, and he somehow died there. So Peck and Bergman go on the same trip. Brown recalls that the director fell to his death, but that doesn’t exonerate him because it is found that the body has a bullet in it. Brown is arrested, tried and convicted of murder. (This all happens very quickly with symbolic shots, since the film is already nearing two hours length.)
Up to this point the film makes use of one of Hitch’s favorite situations: the innocent person pursued by the police. The scenes at the home of Dr. Brulov are very well acted and shot, but the elderly analyst is a bit too much of a caricature of Freud himself. Poor Peck has to have frequent fainting spells and inappropriate reactions to things; the strong person who holds things together here is the Bergman character. I used the entire commentary track by the two film professors and found it most interesting. There was a lengthy discussion of Hitch’s “Maguffin” in his movies.
Watching the excellent Blu-ray transfer proves just as high quality as those of The Criterion Collection. The film’s wide grey scale, perfect lighting, and depth of field in many shots is shown to great advantage; I was sometimes reminded of Citizen Kane. I became aware of the difference between this transfer, which clearly showed the grain of the film thruout, and that of To Kill a Mockingbird, which over-used noise reduction and eliminated the grain. The natural film grain was not at all annoying, but the Blu-ray super-clarity points up the failure of two special effects in Spellbound: One is the rear-projection of the skiing shots. They look extremely fake, and probably did in the 40s on the big screen as well. The other effect is in the final moments of the film: The shot  is an objective one from the viewpoint of the evil director (one of several objective shots in the film). It shows him holding a gun in his hand. But the lenses and film of the time couldn’t achieve enough depth of field to have both the hand in focus as well as Bergman in the distance. So a giant wooden hand was constructed, holding a giant pistol that could be several feet away from the lens. The problem is that although the pistol looks realistic, the hand is obviously carved out of wood and completely static. This can clearly be seen in the Blu-ray transfer. (Hitchcock got around the censors’ stricture against showing a suicide on the screen by not showing the director shooting himself. He also cut in two frames of solid red in the black & white film just after the gun goes off.)
—John Sunier

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