The Mystery of Hitchcock’s SPELLBOUND (1945)


When thinking about Spellbound (1945), it is helpful to place the film in the context of director Alfred Hitchcock’s career. In his filmography, it comes two films after Shadow of a Doubt, with 1944’s Lifeboat the intervening production. Hitch immediately followed up Spellbound with Notorious (1946).

Spellbound marked the temporary end of a period of relative creative freedom for Hitch. After being “loaned out” (after the completion of Rebecca [1940]) to producer Walter Wanger (Foreign Correspondent), RKO (Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Suspicion), producer Jack H. Skirball and Universal (Saboteur, Shadow of a Doubt) and Darryl F. Zanuck and Twentieth Century-Fox (Lifeboat), Hitchcock fell back under spell of David O. Selznick. Hitchcock had acted as his own producer at RKO, Universal, and Twentieth- Century Fox and he returned to Selznick as both producer and director of Spellbound. However, no director ever “produced” a Selznick film. Moreover, Hitchcock was Selznick’s contract employee. Was Hitch “spellbound” by Selznick’s “hands-on” style as a producer?

On the one hand, Selznick had a personal interest that kept him involved in the Spellbound project. The film’s general concept came from Selznick’s recent experience of and gratitude for the psychoanalytic cure of a bout of depression. On the other hand, Hitch owned the screen rights to the Gothic novel (The House of Dr. Edwardes by Francis Beeding) of which Spellbound is an adaptation. In fact, Hitch sold the rights to Selznick for $40K. Returning to England, Hitch worked up a draft script (working title: The Interloper) with old friend Angus MacPhail. Selznick disliked some aspects of the draft and chose the screenwriter Ben Hecht to work with Hitch on a rewrite. Thus, although Selznick had significant impact on the final draft, Hitch had primary control over the overall screenwriting process.

In summary, the narrative involves the discovery and flight of an impostor. The head of the Green Manors psychiatric hospital, Dr. Murchison (Leo G. Carroll), has been forced to retire. His replacement is Dr. Edwardes, a famous psychiatrist. Edwardes arrives and is immediately attracted to the beautiful and by-the-book Dr. Constance Petersen (Ingrid Bergman). However, it soon becomes apparent that Dr. Edwardes is in fact a paranoid amnesiac impostor (Gregory Peck). Able to recall nothing except his initials (J. B.), he goes on the run with Constance, who tries to cure him and thereby solve the mystery of what happened to the real Dr. Edwardes.

Alfred Hitchcock’s films are often complicated. Given the story summary just presented, it is clear that Spellbound (1946) is no exception. While its premise is straightforward (Hitchcock once described it to Truffaut as “just another manhunt”), its combination of melodramatic romance, psychological suspense (based on the not-uncomplicated theory and practice of psychoanalysis), and mystery renders it more intricate than Hitch would have us believe. As a result, I will be focusing in this post on the mystery aspect of the film. Two sequences in its second act are key to understanding the development of the mystery presented by Spellbound.

The central mystery in Spellbound revolves around two questions that are raised in the film’s first act. First, what is the true identity of the man impersonating Dr. Edwardes? Second, what happened to the real Dr. Edwardes? J. B. believes that he must have killed him and then assumed his identity due to a “guilt complex”. Blinded by love, Constance does not believe that J. B. is capable of murder. Nevertheless, Hitchcock complicates the mystery through J. B.’s erratic behavior, which makes him appear mentally unstable — enough at times that it seems that he might well be a murderer.

Still from Hitchcock's SPELLBOUND (1945)

In the milk glass scene (one of two well-known scenes in Hitchcock’s filmography that use this prop), Hitchcock leverages psychological suspense to make the spectator doubt Constance’s conviction that J. B. is innocent. He complicates the film’s two mystery questions by pitting J. B.’s observable behavior against Constance’s faith in J. B. Reinforced by the reaction of Dr. Brulov (Michael Chekhov), Constance’s psychoanalytic mentor (in whose home Constance and J. B. have taken refuge), the spectator begins to suspect that J. B. might be correct in assuming that he is Dr. Edwardes’ killer.

Still from Hitchcock's SPELLBOUND (1945)

The use of the quavering tones of the theremin in the musical soundtrack underlines the “spellbound” nature of J. B.’s behavior in the bedroom portion of this sequence. Likewise, the static shot of his hand holding a razor as Dr. Brulov talks to him off-screen while in the kitchen downstairs (see above) highlights J. B.’s paranoid and threatening presentation. Dr. Brulov’s soothing patter disguises his real concern about J. B.’s risk of dangerous behavior.

As a result, Dr. Brulov decides to take action. Notice that the glass that he brings out of the kitchen is empty. Dr. Brulov pours milk into it at his desk. His back is turned to J. B. (and to the spectator, as the shot is from J. B.’s point-of-view). Both J. B. and the spectator do not see what Dr. Brulov pours into the glass. In a later scene, Dr. Brulov reveals that he drugged J. B.’s milk with a sedative (a “bromide”). J. B.’s behavior in this sequence is so threatening that it prompts Dr. Brulov to act to render him unconscious. This situation also offers Hitchcock the opportunity to frame an ingenious point-of-view shot through the bottom of the glass. The white of the milk dissolves into a white screen, signaling J. B.’s transition to a somnolent state.

Still from Hitchcock's SPELLBOUND (1945)


Hitchcock provides the key to solving the two-part mystery of Spellbound in a dream that J.B. recounts to Dr. Brulov and Constance after J. B. awakens from his drug- induced slumber. Hitch presents this Rosetta Stone in the well-known dream sequence.

Salvador Dali

The vivid surrealism of the dream sequence is due to the consulting work of the artist Salvador Dali, whose art and personality had made him an international celebrity by the time that pre-production planning for Spellbound began. Hitchcock and Selznick agreed that Dali was an ideal choice for developing the visual look of the sequence. Although Dali’s original concept for the sequence did not survive unaltered in the final cut of the film, his influence nevertheless appears in the hallucinatory quality of J. B.’s dream. Its imagery, sounds, and dialogue are faithful to the operation of the “dream-work” as described by the founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud.

As we begin to see in the clip, the ongoing process of the interpretation of J. B.’s dream will give Dr. Brulov and Constance a series of clues that bear on the two central questions of the mystery they are trying to solve. Nevertheless, these are only hunches (or educated guesses) that must be followed up later in the narrative to be proven right or wrong. Interpretations of dream elements change as Constance and J. B. investigate the latter’s recent past in greater detail. As a result, the mystery resolves itself slowly, but with increasing suspense.

Stills from Hitchcock's SPELLBOUND (1945)

The mystery of Spellbound is indeed solved in its third act. As a result, someone dies. The death occurs in yet another iconic Hitchcock scene, one which contains a point-of-view shot involving a revolver, as shown above. Due to my aversion to “spoilers”, I am not going to reveal at whom the revolver is pointing. I am also not going to disclose the answers to the two central mystery questions of Spellbound. Instead, I recommend that readers watch the film to find out for themselves.