Spellbound Blu-ray ReviewFebruary 09, 2012
Alfred Hitchcock's Spellbound is widely regarded as the first mainstream motion picture to focus primarily on the field of psychoanalytics.
That may be the most boring sentence ever written, but it's typically how most people kick off a conversation about Spellbound because - go figure - it happens to be true. It's a shame, because the movie is much more than that.
Here's what else is true about the film that tends to get lost in the shuffle: Spellbound is also a pretty sound thriller.
In the grand scheme of things, when taken in context against Hitchcock's later work, it's a fairly middle-of-the-road, paint-by-numbers mystery. But when standing alone (not forced to be shoulder-to-shoulder with, say, Rear Window or North by Northwest), Spellbound makes its mark as a fairly intelligent and well-structured story.
Ingrid Bergman stars as psychologist Dr. Constance Peterson, a seemingly cold and logical woman with no emotional attachments to anyone or anything. However, upon meeting her new boss, Dr. Anthony Edwardes (Gregory Peck) she is clearly smitten with him, and the two gradually fall deeper in love with one another.
Before long, though, it becomes clear that Edwardes is not who he seems; he turns out to be an amnesia victim (who remembers only that his first name is John and that his last name begins with the letter "B") who may have murdered the real Dr. Edwardes.
The clues start falling into place one-at-a-time, revealing an engaging if slightly pedestrian approach to the murder mystery genre.
The most memorable aspect of the film is the analysis of JB's dream - a scene that was devised and constructed by surrealism legend Salvador Dali. The imagery and structure of the scene is haunting, even by 1940's standards, and it makes a real connection with the audience (a feat that modern attempts at cinematic surrealism struggle with more often than not).
The performances are generally top-notch. Most of the interaction in the film takes place between Peck and Bergman, and it's that constant exposure to one another that allows them to inject both life and believability into their characters. If the audience can believe that the characters are really connecting with one another, it's easier to allow for the characters to connect to the audience.
It's a subtle and nuance-ridden art and something with which Hitchcock excelled. The problems faced by the characters carry much more weight when we see the by-products inflicted upon the characters.
However, Spellbound doesn't quite reach the heights of greatness that some of Hitchcock's later works managed. It's worth noting that Hitchcock himself was only just becoming a member of a new breed of celebrity directors - filmmakers who could sell a movie as easily as the famous actors starring in them - and hadn't quite earned the title "master of suspense."
Spellbound is generally well-written and well-paced, but there's little suspense. As mentioned before, the approach to telling the story is somewhat pedestrian, and the big shocker moments can be called from ten miles away.
Having said that, though, Spellbound is still an enjoyable movie and it respects the intelligence of its audience more than most of its cinematic counterparts of its era. The 40s were, in many ways, the birth of the dumbed-down popcorn flick, and Spellbound was a film that dared to throw a word like "psychoanalytic" at its audience.
MGM and Fox bring Spellbound to Blu-ray with an AVC-encoded 1080p transfer that looks fairly clean. The film comes across as being relatively soft for the most part, but this is more a problem with how the film was shot than anything else. It could be argued that the softer approach helps to enhance the visual magnificence of the surrealist dream sequence, but I don't necessarily buy that argument.
Still, the transfer looks pretty clean with no obvious signs of artifacting.
Sound-wise, the movie comes with a DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 soundtrack that does its job but is really nothing spectacular. Not to sound like an apologist or anything, but really; how many big sound moments is a 67-year-old suspense flick really going to have?
Dialogue is pretty clean, and even though there's an occasional hiss that you'd expect from a mono-track classic, it's nothing so overwhelming as to distract from the movie.
Beyond the Feature
Spellbound comes to Blu-ray with a host of special features. None of them are as fascinating as the Criterion DVD release from a few years back, but it's nice to see a movie like this be given its fair due in terms of supplements.
The most fascinating of the special features is the documentary, 'Running With Scissors: Hitchcock, Surrealism, and Salvador Dali.' This is an in-depth look at the construction of the iconic dream sequence, with special emphasis placed on the historical significance of Dali's work as well as a contextual look at how he came to be involved with the film.
Other special features include:
All special features are presented in standard definition.
Overall, Spellbound isn't the greatest showcase of Hitchcock's work. It is, however, an interesting film inasmuch as it presents an interesting part of his journey to becoming one of cinema's most famous and accomplished filmmakers.
The performances are strong, and the story stands up to scrutiny more often than not. If you've never seen it, it's definitely worth checking out.
- Jason Jarman
Shop for Spellbound on Blu-ray for a discounted price at Amazon.com (January 24, 2012 release date).
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