Earlier this month, I criticized Alfred Hitchcock's 1944 ensemble thriller Lifeboat for having a script that was too tightly engineered, obscuring the human angle of its thriller plot with precision cleverness. His very next movie, 1945's Spellbound, is exactly the opposite: loose to the point of incredulity, with a ramshackle murder mystery enshrouded in misogyny and of-the-moment pop psychology more worthy of a comic book than a medical journal. And, yet, it coasts easily through these obstacles on the smooth slopes of its notable star power, with Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck at their most appealing and fragile, adding a strong human core to an otherwise silly story.
Bergman stars as Dr. Constance Petersen, an accomplished psychotherapist whose lack of love life is nevertheless of great concern to her fellow doctors at the Green Manors mental hospital. While she amiably rebuffs the unprofessional advances from her colleagues and focuses on her work, there is more than a little hint of the old maid school marm affect to Dr. Petersen. However, when the hospital's new director arrives in the form of handsome young Dr. Anthony Edwardes (Peck), Petersen's heart goes all a-flutter — but that's nothing compared to how Edwardes turns into a goony puddle of nerves every time he sees a pattern involving parallel lines. Petersen, falling in love, devotes herself wholly to curing the only man ever to stoke the fires of her heart, and uncovers an even bigger mystery in the process.
Spellbound falls squarely within the class of quirky misfires from Hitchcock's prolific output of classics during the 1940s. As a movie ostensibly about psychoanalysis, it's fittingly rife with evidence of the director's infamous issues with women, but it's hard to tell at times if Hitchcock is merely baring his own feelings or attempting social commentary. After all, in spite of the way Petersen is flagrantly condescended to by her male peers, the joking discussion of just how hard Edwardes should be allowed to punch her, the schoolgirlish depiction of her romantic yearnings, and the chronic underestimation of her resolve by every man she encounters, she is the only clear thinker in the movie, and it's her intrepid commitment uncovers a truth of which most everyone else was wholly ignorant. Demean and/or objectify Dr. Petersen at your peril.
It might just be that Bergman alone rescues Spellbound, single-handedly surmounting Hitchcock's rampant prejudices and vindicating womankind with a near-perfect performance that stands above his petty jabs. She's at her luminous movie star peak here, and imbues Petersen with an inner-strength that might have been portrayed as mere mush by a lesser actress. Peck, still boyish in only the second year of his immediately successful film career, looks at times like a 13-year-old lost in the body of a leading man, and this dissonance works perfectly for Edwardes' identity crisis. Their chemistry is enormous, and always makes their struggle feel worth the investment — even when it ends in a series of hammy, unsatisfying gimmicks, including a potentially neat but underwhelming dream sequence designed by Salvador Dali.
Spellbound does not come close the quality of Hitchcock's masterpieces, but it's sloppy fun, with typically lush music and visuals from composer Miklós Rózsa and cinematographer George Barnes, respectively.