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Spellbound (October 21, 2010)

David Selznick, the producer, owned a number of film artists’ contracts. I’ve spoken before about his contract with Ingrid Bergman, but he also had contracts with Alfred Hitchcock and Gregory Peck. Selznick often leased his artists to the major studios, who produced the films. In this case, Selznick produced Spellbound himself with Hitchcock, Bergman and Peck. In late 1943 Selznick asked Hitchcock to develop a “psychiatric” story for a film. Hitchcock persuaded Selznick to purchase the rights for a 1927 novel, The House of Dr. Edwardes, which had been written by two British writers named Hilary St. George Saunders and John Palmer under the pseudonym Francis Beeding. Hitchcock developed treatments with his wife, Alma Reville, who had worked on the scripts of many of his earlier films, and with Angus MacPhail. Selznick hired Ben Hecht to write the screenplay, and his own psychoanalyst, Dr. May Romm, served as technical adviser. Her involvement with the film was later criticized by her professional association.

The film was produced from July to October 1944 and was released in October, 1945. Hitchcock chafed at Selznick’s supervision, going so far as to stop filming, and claim the camera was broken, when Selznick visited the set. Salvador Dali was hired to design the film’s dream sequence, in which Hitchcock planned to “break with the traditional way of handling dream sequences through a blurred and hazy screen” by depicting the dream with “great visual sharpness and clarity, sharper than the film itself”. Selznick commissioned public opinion surveys following production, probably one of the first uses of such a technique in Hollywood. He delayed the film’s opening until he could develop more public interest in the movie. He also learned that the American public wasn’t that interested in a feature film that focused on psychoanalysis, so he tried to stress the romantic angle of the story over the psychiatric. Selznick did the final edits in post-production, in pursuit of that goal. Among other changes, the Dali sequence was greatly shortened. The film cost about $1.7 million and grossed over $6 million.

Miklos Rosza won the Oscar for best music, scoring of a dramatic or comedy picture. His music featured an electronic instrument called a theramin that was used to help increase tension in scenes in the film. Michael Chekhov was nominated for the best supporting actor Oscar for his performance as Dr. Brulov. George Barnes got an Oscar nomination for best black and white cinematography, Jack Cosgrove got an Oscar nomination for best special effects, Hitchcock got an Oscar nomination for best director, and the film was nominated for the best picture Oscar.
In this picture, Hitchcock’s use of strong visual images, presented as the subject of obsessions, jumps up a level from his earlier films, giving us a taste of the visions to come later in such movies as Vertigo or The Birds. It compensates for what sometimes seems like the descent of the characters’ dialogue into mindless psychoanalytic jargon. The film critic David Thomson wrote, “Hitch had the good sense to break it down as a piece of nonsense with great scenes – and so it endures.” Hopefully both sides of this film – the script’s exposition of psychoanalysis, which we really can’t take seriously, and the visionary images most people who see this picture carry away with them in their memories—will be part of what you notice while you watch Spellbound with me tonight.