SPELLBOUND - DVD review


 
Eddie
Feng

In their crusade to bring quality cinema to the masses, the Criterion people continue to create special editions of films that either have lapsed into the public domain or have fallen into the hands of owners who do not think that it's prudent to spend their resources on burnishing an "old" movie. Most of the films directed by Alfred Hitchcock (widely known as "the master of suspense") enjoy the benefits of ownership by a big studio, but some of the droll Briton's best films came to being courtesy of independent producer David O. Selznick. The home video rights to "Rebecca", "Notorious", "Spellbound", and "The Paradine Case" currently belong to Anchor Bay Entertainment, a small outfit mostly dedicated to horror/fantasy/B movies. Of the four aforementioned films, "The Paradine Case" obviously belongs in a league of its own--a lesser league than the others, that is. Therefore, The Criterion Collection decided to augment Anchor Bay's DVD releases with special editions of the first three but not "Paradine". (My reviews of Anchor Bay's 4 movie-only DVDs and Criterion's "Rebecca" and "Notorious" special edition releases are also available here at DVD Town.)

Made in 1945, "Spellbound" stars Ingrid Bergman as Dr. Constance Petersen, a psychoanalyst. Her boss, Dr. Murchison, has been forced to retire. Therefore, the famous Dr. Edwardes (Gregory Peck) comes to replace Murchison. However, Constance soon finds out that Edwardes isn't really who he says he is. Rather, he is a victim of amnesia suffering from a guilt complex. Constance decides to help this mystery man figure out his identity.

Given the caliber of its leading man and lady, I was disappointed by "Spellbound" when I first saw it. I felt that the script stretched credulity a few too many times. Most of the film plays as a mystery as Constance and J.B. (the initials of Peck's character) race to piece together the chain of events that lead to J.B.'s condition before the police lock him away in jail. However, the filmmakers also stuck a love story into the narrative, and this is the single most unbelievable aspect of the film--it bothered me the whole time that I was watching it. "Spellbound" is based on the novel "The House of Dr. Edwardes" by Francis Bleeding. If the love story was in the source novel, then the screenwriter should've thrown it out the window. If the love story was not in the novel, then the filmmakers must've added it as part of a ploy to sell more tickets to people who wanted to see two attractive actors get touch-feely on the big screen.

Since I knew what to expect, I was better able to appreciate what "Spellbound" accomplishes while watching the film again. Rather than hoping to see kinetic thriller, I accepted "Spellbound" for what it is--a character study of people behaving in ways that contradict their natural impulses. The leaps of faith required of a viewer to accept that the movie "works" were much smaller this time around than when I first saw the movie almost a year ago. The slyness of Hitchcock's direction made me smile knowingly a few times, too.

Gregory Peck always manages to impart a sense of intellectual turmoil, even when he's playing an amnesiac as he does here. Still, since he essentially plays a blank cipher for most of the movie, his character's resonance with the audience stems for Peck's ability to generate chemistry with Ingrid Bergman. You can sense the connection between the two, and old-fashioned star power can make almost any situation plausible.

I noted in my reviews of the "Notorious" DVDs about how ravishing Ingrid Bergman looks in that movie. In "Spellbound", she plays a professional woman (a doctor), so she plays less to the camera (and to the audience) in "Spellbound" than in "Notorious". However, it is interesting to see the "Hollywood" style of filmmaking at work. In "Notorious", because of her character's sexuality, the lighting on Bergman seems muted and dark in nature, as if to paint her as a purveyor of forbidden wares. Here, in "Spellbound", the light is rather intense on Bergman's face, especially her already-sparkling eyes. There is no doubt that she plays one of the "good guys" in this film, and the filmmakers never miss an opportunity to tell you so.

"Spellbound" is probably most famous for the dream sequence designed by Surrealist Salvador Dalí, the Spanish artist most famous for his painting of melting clocks. It's a notable and historical collaboration between good ol' Hitch and Dalí, especially considering the fact that the film explores the analyzing of abstract dreams. No one took more delight in scaring us with abstractions than Hitchcock (in the "Psycho" shower scene, we're never shown the knife actually touching Janet Leigh's skin), and no one took more delight in the absurdities of reality than Dalí. Their collaborative effort in devising physical manifestations of J.B.'s skewed memories provides a look at the way our own minds work.

Video:
Like Anchor Bay's DVD release of "Spellbound", the Criterion edition preserves the film's original 1.33:1 (fullscreen on 4:3 TVs) aspect ratio. It looks appreciably better than the Anchor Bay transfer. There are a few scratches and other source print defects, but no serious damage was done to the film negative. However, the film WAS made in 1945, so it suffers from a little deterioration here and there. I still found the lighting to be a bit problematic, with light sourcing fading in and out slightly, but really, I only have minor quibbles with this otherwise fine presentation of a decades-old film.

Audio:
You can always rely on Criterion to encode mono soundtracks the way they ought to be heard--as center-channel-only mixes rather than mixes doubled to the left and right front speakers. The Dolby Digital 1.0 English audio track sounds better than the Anchor Bay DVD's track, but it exhibits the same problems. The Oscar-winning music score (composed by Miklos Rozsa of "Ben-Hur" fame) still pales in comparison to the other audio elements. High-pitched instruments sound very harsh, and you will notice a bit of hiss and static. Again, this has to do with the film's deterioration over the span of five decades as well as the recording technology of the time.

Optional English subtitles support the audio.

Extras:
Whereas the Anchor Bay DVD had nothing aside from a cardboard insert, the Criterion edition of "Spellbound" is chock full of extras. Every supplement is of substantive nature--nothing can be considered "filler" material. While it might not be able to match the scope of so many of today's multi-disc sets, this DVD is a very worthwhile purchase if you consider the amount of information that you're receiving in addition to the film itself.

The most important bonus is the audio commentary by Hitchcock scholar Marian Keane. (You can access it right away from the DVD's main menu.) Ms. Keane imparts a great deal of knowledge about the filmmakers as well as the times during which the film was made. After all, the social mores and scientific interests of the time defined the final product as much as Hitchcock's personal artistic vision. Always chatty, always informative, and never boring, Ms. Keane's commentary is well worth a listen.

The rest of the extras have been gathered under the heading of "Labyrinth". The first materials you'll encounter in the "Labyrinth" are numerous text pages of "Production Correspondence". Basically, you get to read the letters and various written communiqués that were traded concerning the making of the film, from novel form to audience reactions of the movie during test screenings. Then, there are what seems to be hundreds of photographs, all collected in a variety of "stills galleries", from publicity materials to behind-the-scenes shots.

"A Nightmare Ordered by Telephone" is an in-depth, illustrated essay on the Dalí-designed dream sequence. Since it is the centerpiece of the film, I suppose the people at Criterion thought that it merited an in-depth analysis of its own. The essay discusses how the dream sequence was thought to have been longer than what was shown in the final cut of the movie, and the essay also analyzes the thought processes that went into creating the dream sequence.

There is an entire section devoted to the film's music. You get to listen to excerpts from a 1973 audio interview with composer Miklos Rozsa. "The Fishko Files" is a WNYC/New York Public Radio piece on the theremin, a distinctive-sounding instrument familiar to those who watch hackmeister Ed Wood's movies. The DVD also provides information concerning where to look for even more information about the theremin.

No special edition (indeed, no DVD) would be complete without a theatrical trailer, and the one for "Spellbound" has been windowboxed (black bars on all 4 sides) for its DVD showcase. As with the "Rebecca" and "Notorious" DVDs, Criterion actually managed to obtain the rights to include a complete 1948 Lux Radio Theatre adaptation starring Joseph Cotten (he of so many projects involving Orson Welles such as "Citizen Kane" and "The Third Man") and Alida Valli. The radio broadcast comes with the actual vintage commercials that aired back when people listened to radios for an evening's entertainment rather than sitting in front of the TV.

Of course, being a Criterion DVD, the special edition release of "Spellbound" also includes color bars to help viewers adjust monitors to proper viewing levels.

--Miscellaneous--
A handsome, glossy booklet provides chapter listings, film credits, an essay about the making of the film, an essay about the use of psychoanalysis in "Spellbound", and additional notes about the film as well as the DVD's creation.

Film Value:
I still think that "Spellbound" is one of Hitchcock's less accessible works. It certainly was hard for me to accept that a professional doctor would fall madly in love with a man she hardly knows and who might be a dangerous killer, and some of the narrative elements exist simply to shove the story from one moment to the next. However, there are a couple of great performances in the film, including a charming supporting turn by the gentleman who plays Constance's mentor. The rare, hard-to-find bonus materials provide today's audiences with a precious glimpse of yesteryears, and the film's Dalí-designed dream sequence is a sight to behold. For those of you wanting to move beyond the usual cable showings of "Psycho", "Rear Window", and "North by Northwest", "Spellbound" is a good place to start when looking for a "different" Hitchcock.

Ratings

Video
7
Audio
6
Extras
8
Film Value
7