Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Reeling Backward: "Spellbound"

I found another Alfred Hitchcock movie I don't like.

Few, if any, Hollywood directors were as productive and consistently good as Hitchcock. From the time he started making pictures in the U.S. in 1935 until his last big hit in 1964, he directed 37 films, while starting up an important television franchise, too. It's simply astonishing how many classics came out of that three-decade period: "Psycho," "North by Northwest," "Vertigo," "To Catch a Thief," "The Man Who Knew Too Much," "Lifeboat," "Notorious," "Strangers on a Train," "Rear Window" -- it goes on and on.

But Hitch also made some clunkers, although a lot of people are reluctant to admit it. I never cared for "The Birds," which its silly plot about killer pigeons, and "Marnie" is absolutely laughable.

I'd never seen "Spellbound," which is considered to be one of his major works, until recently. And it was a real let-down.

There's the approach to psychoanalysis that's absurdly simplistic -- all you have to do is get the patient to remember their repressed memories, and voila! No more crazy.

Add to that the cliche of a man and woman meeting and immediately falling in love. Especially Ingrid Bergman as a cold, calculating psychiatrist who's willing to pitch her entire career and go on the lam with a man she's only just met, while he was posing as the new head of the clinic where she works. Turns out he's an impostor with amnesia who believes he killed the doctor he replaced.

So, here are the facts:
  1. He's nuts. And maybe a murderer.
  2. In the course of 24 hours, she falls in love with him enough to ignore point #1.
  3. They run away together, her theory being to cure him before the police capture them.
Not exactly brainiac behavior, and her character is supposed to be super-smart.

Also, "Spellbound" contains bar none the worst fake skiing scene in cinematic history. They're careening down a mountain together, going really really fast. The long shots of the stunt doubles look like they're going down a 45-degree grade at least 30 mph. But in the close-ups, their bodies stay perfectly smooth, never jostling up and down or side to side. They look like two people standing on an escalator.

I've never gone in for a lot of feminist film theory, but I have to say the much-touted misogyny of Hitchcock is on full display here. Every single male character makes some kind of cutting remark about Ingrid Bergman in particular and the female gender in general. "There's nothing I can't stand more than a smug woman!" "Women make the best psychoanalysts ... until they fall in love. Then they make the best patients!" "Listen to yourself, it's baby talk!"

Obviously he got a lot better, but in one of his first film roles, Gregory Peck is just cringe-worthy. I lost count of the number of times he swooned. I think Peck prepared for this role by practicing to faint without hurting himself. Then he comes out of his spell, flashes a big smile and pours on the showbiz charm. Granted, the character is supposed to be crazy, but did he have to be so smarmy?

Hitchcock is deified more than just about any other American film director, and deservedly so. But let's not blind ourselves to the fact that amidst all those great films, he made some flicks like "Spellbound" that are worthy of ridicule.

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