READING BETWEEN THE LINES: Spellbound and Suspicion

Fans of classic crime fiction – and I count these among the majority of my visitors – are unlikely to make a favorite double bill out of today’s two Alfred Hitchcock films. Yes, both are adapted from mystery novels by Golden Age writers: Spellbound from Francis Beeding’s The House of Dr. Edwardes and Suspicion from Before the Fact by Francis Iles, pseudonym for Anthony Berkeley, one of the fathers of the Golden Age of detection. I have read two Beeding novels (here and here) and enjoyed them both; Edwardes is almost impossible to find, but a review I read suggests that, typical for him, Hitchcock left much of the book’s plot behind when he guided along the screenplay. I also confess (yes, lots of confessing goes on at a crime fiction blog!) that I haven’t read the Iles book, but I know what the story is supposed to be. And what it’s supposed to be, in film form, most assuredly it is not. 

Hitchcock was famously uninterested in filming classic mysteries. The fundamental questions of who- and howdunnit generated minimal suspense for him, at least as movie questions. He would be more interested in the why of it all, true – but the mystery in a Hitchcock film was the Maguffin, a question posed, the answering of which provided the hero with a catalyst for change.

Given the antecedents for detective fiction found in Spellbound and how they play out, I would say we’re lucky that there aren’t more “standard” mysteries in Hitchcock’s filmography. Not to say that Spellbound is a fully traditional, fair play whodunnit: I defy you to put together any part of the solution as to who the mysterious Dr. Edwardes is, why he became that way, or who killed . . . well, spoilers apply from here on in. 

Strangers on a train

The film stars Ingrid Bergman as Dr. Constance Peterson, a pinned-back, bespectacled, cold-as-ice psychoanalyst living and working in a mental hospital in Vermont, whose professional demeanor is shattered by the arrival of the new head of the facility, Dr. Anthony Edwardes (Gregory Peck). After a minute of film time, her glasses are gone, her hair is mussed, and her male colleagues are leering at her for being such a “gurrr-ull” around Edwardes. A series of fortunately timed events leads Constance to realize that 1) Dr. Edwardes has a screw loose, and 2) Dr. Edwardes isn’t Dr. Edwardes. Fortunately, he’s way too cute for her to believe he’s evil, and soon Peck – who now remembers that he has forgotten everything and goes by the name John Brown – is on the run, suspected of having done in the real Edwardes, with Constance following him in order to solve all the mysteries and claim her man. Her tools? Repeated applications of psychoanalytical practice on everything: her boyfriend’s behavior, his speech and, courtesy of artist Salvador Dali, his dreams. 

Hitchcock, who was on his second unhappy partnership with David O. Selznick, did much research to get the mental stuff right. He was even saddled with Selznick’s own psychoanalyst who acted as the film’s consultant and butted heads with the director at every turn. The result . . . well, I’m not going to say that the psychoanalytical parts of this movie are hokum. I will leave that to a fellow student from my Stanford class, a psychoanalyst himself, who said that every “diagnosis” was ridiculous and made the film painful to watch. 

Here’s the thing: as a longtime reader of mystery fiction from the 20’s through the 40’s, all too often I have come across questionable applications of science, even from some of my favorite authors. Take my literary hero, Agatha Christie: sometimes her beliefs in what is inheritable through the blood are simply embarrassing (“koff-koff” Hercule Poirot’s Christmas). Or take the case of Ellery Queen who, as late as the 1960’s, revealed his limitations of understanding the mind in the horror-fest that is The Last Woman in His Life

Spellbound feels like one of the talkiest Hitchcock films ever, and most of the talk turns out to be bull poopy. It also drops clues at every turn; I mean, who draws wavy lines on the tablecloth with their fork? Worst of all, it’s occasionally boring, as Constance’s dialogue with John Brown veers between clinical and lovey-dovey. The section I most enjoy occurs when the couple visit her former teacher and mentor, Dr. Alexander Brulov (Michael Chekhov, the playwright’s nephew!) Chekhov looks and sounds like Albert Einstein here, and he is the source of the only real humor in an otherwise drab screenplay. 

Bergman, Chekhov and Peck in consultation

Bergman is luminous, but then she always is, even when she’s playing a drab, seventy-year-old, Oscar-winning, Swedish nurse aboard the Orient Express. At 30 years of age, she was a huge international star, most recently on a roll with Casablanca (1942), For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943) and Gaslight (1944). Clearly, she and Hitchcock clicked: the following year, she would make something brilliant with him, and three years later they would make something, er, strange. 

Bergman and Chekhov (and Rhonda Fleming, in her first credited role, as a nymphomaniacal patient whose presence as Constance’s Hitchcockian double is all too brief) are the best things about Spellbound. Peck is, by virtue of his personality and the requirements of the script, a walking series of vagaries. One moment he is so full of self-command he can fool everyone, including himself, that he has the ability to run a mental institution. Then he’s murderous. Then he’s childlike . . . then he’s dashing, all of this in service to a just-okay plot. 

Person, woman, man, camera, TV . . . . . . ???

In the end, we’re treated to a series of solutions to the problem, all presented as if from science, as when Constance confronts the real killer and the pair do a psychoanalytical do-si-do through the explanation. I will say that the final moment of the killer’s life is pure Hitchcock, right down to the flash of red. I won’t give this moment away, even pictorially. It is a startling slap in the face to the censor’s rules; unfortunately, given the special effects of the time, it is likely to elicit laughs from modern audiences. 

Here, then, for me, was Spellbound – as a mystery. The same problems occurred when I re-encountered Suspicion, made four years earlier with Joan Fontaine and Cary Grant. Fontaine went on to win the only Academy Award ever by an actor in a Hitchcock film. Let’s gloss over that madness and dispense with the genre-related issues of this film. Iles’ novel tells the story of Lina McLaidlaw, another bottled-up, bespectacled young spinster who latches onto a charming wastrel named Johnnie Aysgarth, marries him despite the objections of her elderly parents, and then comes to regret it. Johnnie is an opportunist, a criminal, and a sociopath. Perhaps his actions lead to Lina’s father’s death. Perhaps he poisons Lina in the end. Some of this is a little vague, but there’s no doubt Lina married a bad ‘un, and she suffers for it. 

There is every indication that this is the story Hitchcock wanted to make, but he was confounded by public opinion as to what sort of man Cary Grant could play on film. He told Francois Truffaut: 

I had something else in mind. The scene I wanted, but it was never shot, was for Cary Grant to bring her a glass of milk that’s been poisoned and Joan Fontaine has just finished a letter to her mother…She drinks the milk and dies. Fade out and fade in on one short shot: Cary Grant, whistling cheerfully, walks over to the mailbox and pops the letter in”. 

What, no cookies?

That letter would have contained the evidence to hang Johnnie. So what caused Hitchcock to change his mind and redeem Cary Grant in the end? I have heard studio interference, or an angry test audience, or simply the conventional wisdom at the time that handsome movie stars can’t be killers in the end. It had happened to Hitchcock in England, with Ivor Novello and The Lodger. Maybe he was simply going with the tide. I have even read a theory that the director’s final ending – where Johnnie takes his wife out for a drive not to kill her but himself, only to have her dawning realization and wifely adoration cause him to turn the car around and head home, happy together at last – is possibly as ambiguous as the novel’s ending. Can Johnnie really be a good guy after we’ve seen his opportunism and dishonesty on full display for ninety minutes? Is his sad confession all a trick, just another in a series of tricks that have led Lena along since the day they met?

We will never know. What we do know is that the ending of Suspicion has polarized audiences since it came out and that, as I mentioned at the start, it gets a rousing chorus of boos from most classic mystery fans. So, again, as a mystery, I would tend to give this one a C-.  

Taken as a pair, however, both films offer an interesting take on the director’s version of a female protagonist. The typical male hero in a Hitchcock film has to get himself out of a scrape – usually prove his own innocence and someone else’s guilt – and fall in love in the process. The Hitchcock heroine has to do the same thing – for her man. Whether it’s gallantry or sexism, Hitchcock doesn’t frame his women for murder or send them on the run; rather, the typical woman of the male-centered pictures, the cool helpmate, is placed front and center. In the end, the fate of these men and women is generally the same: problem solved, relationship sealed. 

A rare happy moment with Fontaine (looking beautiful), Grant (ditto), and Nigel Bruce as Beaky

Eyeglasses are a common image in the director’s movies. Both Constance and Lena wear spectacles that embody their initial presentation as sexually repressed intellectuals. Constance babbles psycho-speak, while Lena buries her nose one book after another. Almost immediately after meeting their man, (both named John), both women doff their glasses – Constance for good, while Lena, who evidently really needs glasses, sneaks them on when she needs to read. I would suggest the main difference between these two films is in their stance on intellectualism: Hitchcock builds Spellbound as an ode to this increasingly popular science called psychiatry, while Suspicion is almost anti-intellectual, as every time Lena reads something after her marriage, it contains information that leads her down the garden path to the (erroneous?) suspicion that her husband is a killer. 

Both women are trying to solve the problem of who their man truly is. This is an odd situation to find oneself in with the person one loves. Since the problems facing “Dr. Edwardes”/John are psychological, the investigation into his true nature continues the intellectual bent of the movie; hence, all that psycho-babble. Lena’s situation is purely emotional, as everything that happens, every action and reaction that her Johnnie performs, causes her panic to increase. In one sense, then, watching Lena’s struggles is more entertaining – except the stakes seem so much lower. And while Joan Fontaine is more interesting here at the start than she was in Rebecca, she devolves into another frightened mouse halfway through the film. In most of the stills I found from the movie, Grant looks charming, threatening, desperate; Fontaine looks . . . uncertain. Evidently, it’s more exciting to play the object of suspicion than the one doing the suspecting!

I think this is a publicity shot, but you get the idea: he looks raving; she wonders what to have for dinner.

In the end, the problems of Johnnie and John are the Maguffin that leads our heroines literally out of their emotional myopia. By standing by their man in the midst of danger, Constance (on the ski slopes) and Lena (on the highway) earn their right to experience true love. In that sense, they’re no more at the center of the story than Madeleine Carroll in The 39 Steps or Nova Pilbeam in Young and Innocent. Even though the women are ostensibly the leads, we’re still in Hitchcock territory where the men are trying to prove their innocence . . . and fall in love. Constance has to do more than that; she has to catch a killer. In doing so, we understand that she has not thrown off her intellectual self but has coupled it with a healthy emotional life. 

Lena, on the other hand, only has time for a rapid about face as she realizes all her suspicions about Johnnie were false . . . maybe.  Hitchcock is going about his usual story from the female angle, and so far in his filmmaking, having a woman for the lead subdues the dynamism one finds when he tells the story the other way around. This idea will reach full bore toward the end of the decade with Stage Fright, where the heroine’s efforts to clear her man reach a more shocking conclusion, and that still doesn’t make for a very good film. 

Meanwhile, however, there’s next week’s film to consider. The director picks the best half of each star couple from the previous two films and puts them together for arguably the best Hitchcock to come out of the 40’s. It tosses out the helpmate as heroine and finally presents a deeply flawed, passionate woman at the center of the problem. This time it’s the girl who has to prove something, whether it’s her own innocence or her very worth. As for the man . . . . well, as we shall see, the roles haven’t been merely reversed. He is not simply her helpmate. Rather, in every sense, he is her deeply troubled equal. 

See you next week.

“Maybe, darling, if you just relaxed and enjoyed being married to Cary Grant . . . “