Saturday, April 4, 2015


I don’t know how well Alfred Hitchcock’s murder mystery and psychological thriller SPELLBOUND (1945) portrays psychoanalysis, homicide and the detection of both murder and the motivation for it, but even if its ideas about all three are as nutty as a fruitcake, I had a great time watching it. The movie also explores the nature of love, but doesn’t realty solve that mystery, except perhaps to say that the heart wants what the heart wants and, in the words of psychoanalyst Constance Peterson (played by Ingrid Berman), “the heart can see sometimes better than the mind.”

Peterson is a well-respected psychoanalyst whose stated motivation for being one is to “drive away the devils of unreason from the human soul.” I say “stated motivation” because psychoanalysis assumes that we are not aware of what really motivates us. We have all kinds of forbidden desires that we must repress (like, for men, killing your father and marrying your mother—what unconscious things motivate women was more confusing to Freud, and to me) in order to function in society, in order for society itself to function, for if everyone let loose with their Dionysian selves, baying at the moon, copulating and killing and perhaps even neglecting to cough into their elbows, this rickety thing we call civilization would come tumbling down around our id-driven, libidinous ears. We manage to repress these things, but they force their way back to our consciousness in the form of dreams and guilt complexes and God knows what else. Exactly how and why this happens eludes me (maybe it did for Freud and Hitchcock too).

The idea that we are driven by what we are not aware of leads to some unexpected conclusions. One is that we may not really be responsible for what we do, being prisoners of our repressed desires. The other is that psychoanalysis becomes a kind of secular confession, whereby you confess to the priest/analyst that you always wanted to do such and such bad thing, and you are either told to say ten Hail Marys or that you couldn’t help but have those nasty impulses because we are first and foremost creatures of unreason, and it is OK to want really bad things as long as we don’t do really bad things.

So far, so good. Peterson is cool and detached, and sees love not as something to celebrate so much as to be investigated, not as the highest thing to which we can aspire, but as a symptom of the irrational self. For all her reserve, though, she can’t help but feel her heart go pitter patter when the new head of the hospital, Dr Edwardes (Gregory Peck) comes walking into the room. She denies it, but we know that she protests too much. Is Gregory Peck that adorable? I don’t know, but Bergman would make any man not a statue (and maybe even a statue) start spouting love sonnets and strumming his guitar outside her window.

But of course there has to be a block to their love, or we wouldn’t even get to act II. The small problem that crops up is that Edwardes is an impostor who may or may not have killed the real Dr Edwardes (who apparently was a pain in the ass). Peterson won’t believe that Edwardes is guilty, even though her mentor, Dr Brulov, points out that he very well could be, and then goes on to say “women make the best psychoanalysts until they fall in love, and then they make the best patients.” Brulov, by the way, is priceless as a little Viennese fellow with a Hamburg and a van dyke who speaks endearingly broken English.

Is Peterson right to trust Edwardes, whose real identity is a mystery? Does the heart know better than the head? If he didn’t do it, what is the source of his delusion that he did? Don’t worry, Dr Peterson is on the case. She vows to analyze the living crap out of Edwardes until she has the answers, in between bouts of smooching with him on the therapeutic couch, thereby violating the first rule psychoanalysis: don’t fall in love with the patient. We can assume, we students of psychoanalysis, that in addition to the hanky panky there is a lot of transference going on. Transference happens in analysis when you transfer the forbidden desire for, or rage against, the parent or someone else to the analyst. The analyst is supposed to recognize this as part of the process, and to never commit the sin of counter-transference, of falling in love with the patient (and it is actually against the law to consummate that love if the analyst does).

Edwardes runs away, filled with guilt and wanting to protect Peterson from his crazy self. What a hot fantasy—your analyst not only looks like Ingrid Bergman, she is willing to travel to the ends of the earth (or at least Rochester NY, which is almost the same thing—see the movie for an explanation) to save you, to be your savior and your lover all at once. It’s great stuff, and there is great tension too, as you really don’t know whether Bergman should trust him or not. If you are in therapy with a sexy therapist, you should not watch this movie—it’s just a tease.

I won’t reveal all the details. I just want to point out that Hitchcock, who has been accused of not liking women, portrays Peterson as a competent and courageous heroine. While the men around her accuse women of not being able to conquer their irrational selves, she outsmarts them all, and solves all the mysteries: of the death of the real Edwardes, of the identity of the faux Edwardes, and of the origin of John Ballantine’s (the real identity of the Peck character) guilt complex.

In one superb scene, she even cons a house detective into finding Ballantine for her in a NYC Hotel by playing the damsel in distress, letting him think he is the psychologically astute one, puffing himself up in that way men have while she is just so grateful, always having relied on the kindness of (male) strangers.

And what are the clues she uses to solve all the puzzles? Dreams, of course. The movie treats Ballantine’s recurrent dream like it is a treasure map written in a code that, once deciphered, will reveal all. I don’t think dreams in real life point to any definitive psychological answers, any more than clues to a crime might. Still, the way that Hitchcock utilizes the dream is ingenious. If this isn’t how dreams work, it should be.

The final scene is classic. Peterson confronts the real murderer and, having psychoanalyzed him to a “t” and in so doing solved the crime, goes on to tell him how and why he did it. He comes clean, then threatens to kill her, but she understands him so well that she knows he won’t. And he doesn’t. He kills himself instead. And Ballantine and Peterson live happily ever after, perhaps following the advice of Brulov, who tells them to “make babies, not phobias.”

© 2015 Mike Welch


  1. One of the great ones. The pictures of the dreams were done by Salvator Dali himself, in the style of his melting watches.

  2. The combination of G. Peck and the divine I.B. was sure to be a winner of all eternity... no actors have ever come up to their level... today's Hollywood scene seems like puff pastry beside them... tjstraw