Old Ass Oscars: Spellbound (1945)

By  · Published on February 27th, 2011

Every Sunday in February, Film School Rejects presents a nominee for Best Picture that was made before you were born and tells you why you should like it.

This week, Old Ass Movies presents the story of a brilliant psycho-analyst, an impostor, some trademark Hitchcock, a little aiding and abeting, and the dreams of Salvador Dali. All of these elements are wrapped up in an Oscar nominated movie (that did not win) that Scientologists probably banned from their video library.

Spellbound (1945)

Directed by: Alfred Hitchcock

Starring: Ingrid Berman, Gregory Peck, Michael Checkhov, Leo Carroll, and Rhonda Fleming

Let’s get the record straight. The Academy (which is really thousands of individual voters and not some secret cabal meeting in the basement of the Kodak Theater) has gotten some things wrong over the years. For example, Alfred Hitchcock never won an award for Best Director.

However, the numbers are there for his films.

With his first nominations in 1940, Hitchcock actually had two films in the Best Picture race – Rebecca which ultimately won and Foreign Correspondent. The following year, his film Suspicion – which he also produced – was up for the big prize but lost to How Green Was My Valley. A few years after in 1945 when the Academy had pared down the amount of Best Picture nominees to 5, Spellbound was in contention. It ultimately lost to Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend, a brilliant film in its own right.

In total, 16 of his movies were nominated for Oscars of some flavor (accounting for 50 total nominations), he snagged 6 nominations himself (1 for producing), but the real deficit is in wins. That’s where the voters fell short in their appreciation of Hitchcock. Some could say he was snubbed, but a look at the list of directors he lost to tells a different story: John Ford, Leo McCarey, Wilder twice, Elia Kazan. These are masters in their own right.

Besides, as we’ve all been reminded within the past month with increasing volume – The Academy Awards don’t matter.

Where the real criminality lies is in the list of Hitchcock’s movies that have somehow made it above and beyond his other films. Spellbound may have been nominated for Best Picture but it was never chosen by the National Film Registry for special recognition. Movies like Psycho, Rear Window, and North by Northwest have rightly earned the attention of audiences throughout generations. That there are truly brilliant works that aren’t nearly as iconic speaks to just how unfairly talented Hitchcock was.

So maybe the Academy gets ’em right sometimes and get ’em wrong others, but on the morning of an Oscar broadcast that sees a film like Black Swan up for Best Picture, it’s interesting to look back at a time when psychological horror was being nominated prolifically because of one directing presence.

In the film, Bergman plays Dr. Constance Petersen – the sort of self-assured figure who can trust her brain but not her heart. She discovers that the man set to replace her hospital’s begrudgingly retiring director is not who he pretends to be. Dr. Anthony Edwardes is played with angst and fear by Gregory Peck here in a role that was not wholly unusual for Hitchcock’s movies. Edwardes is a figure that is terrified of himself. Like John Ferguson in Vertigo, Edwardes cannot trust himself, his phobias or his own memories. He believes he’s killed the real Edwardes and replaced him, but amnesia has caused him to forget who he is, and Petersen (who quickly falls in love with him) must use her psychological expertise to bring those haunting memories into focus to solve the mystery and (hopefully) clear the fake Edwardes (who starts going by John Brown) of a murder charge.

The grace and sweat filling the screen because of Bergman and Peck is understandable. Hitchcock brought out the best talent from the best talents, and here is no different. The film is filled with intrigue and could have been good with lesser actors, but it becomes great in the hands of two figures who so completely disappear into a complex and confusing world where something as simple as the lines on a night gown can crush a man’s psyche.

In the acting category, Leo Carroll as the retiring Dr. Murchison is understated and clever, acting as an ironic anchor of common sense and logic. Carroll of course appears in 6 Hitchcock films (starting at the beginning of the director’s Hollywood run), the second most of any actor (not counting Hitchcock himself).

One of the more confounding things about the strained partnership between Hitchcock and producer David O. Selznick was the inclusion of a dream sequence (pictured above) in the film from none other than Salvador Dali. The rumor is that Dali created 20 minutes worth of footage (most of which doesn’t exist anymore) to paint the subconscious picture of John Brown. Hitchcock had nothing to do with its creation, and that’s pretty obvious based on the style. It both works wonderfully and stands out like a bald spot in a full head of hair. Oddly enough, the dream itself is the cipher for the mystery of the movie. It provides all the elements to Brown’s possibly murderous past, and it becomes the map for how Petersen begins to figure out what really happened.

It would be the last time Hitchcock made a movie for Selznick, and the last time he’d work with Dali.

In some ways, the movie was experimental for Hitchcock, but at its most fundamental it has all the standard cogs and wheels. A beautiful, dynamic woman in love with a dangerous man, a mystery and MacGuffin, and the kind of tension that few directors seem capable of.

Add to that roster the ever-present Oscar nominations and the inevitable losses. Spellbound was nominated for 6 awards including Best Picture and Best Director, but won solely for Best Score.

But the Oscars don’t matter, right? The real tragedy here is that such a captivating thriller could fall out of notice simply because the director has too many incredible movies to count. Hitchcock is a legend, but he’s the kind of legend that gets in his own way. Even if the average movie lover has seen ten of his movies, they’ve still only scratched the surface. The body of work (there’s always a body, isn’t there?) is just too big. Even so, Spellbound deserves to rise to the top alongside his other famous works. It’s a masterpiece buried beneath other masterpieces, and it demands to be unearthed so that its performances can be reveled in and its mystery can be solved again and again.

Shun the modern and read more Old Ass Movies

Related Topics:

Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector Podcast@brokenprojector | Writing short stories at Adventitious.