Alfred Hitchcock and Ingrid Bergman

9 12 2013

Alfred Hitchcock with Ingrid Bergman, star of “Spellbound,” “Notorious” and “Under Capricorn.” One of Hitch’s favorite female leads, Bergman pulled back from Hitch’s Hollywood-style thrillers at the end of the 1940s to star in films directed by her new husband, Roberto Rossellini. These films were in the Italian neorealism style, like “Europe ‘51” and “Journey to Italy.” Bergman eventually moved back toward roles in Hollywood movies. She never worked with Hitchcock again after “Under Capricorn,” but they remained close friends. This picture is probably from the American Film Institute tribute to Hitchcock in 1979. ingrid


Alfred Hitchcock Goes Down Under with “Under Capricorn”

15 10 2010

“I was literally intoxicated at the thought of the cameras and flashbulbs that would be directed at [Ingrid] Bergman and myself at the London airport. All of these externals seemed to be terribly important. I can only say now that I was being stupid and juvenile.” — Alfred Hitchcock

Alfred Hitchcock reteamed with Ingrid Bergman for the third and final time, following “Spellbound” and “Notorious,” for 1949’s “Under Capricorn,” a period piece set in 1831 Australia. Costarring Joseph Cotten and Michael Wilding, it captures the strange culture clash in Australia at that time, where upper class British immigrants mixed it up with the rough-hewn, barely civilized convicts who had been shipped Down Under against their will.

Wilding plays Charles Adare, an Irish aristocrat with no money and no prospects who has come to Australia with his cousin, the new governor of New South Wales. While visiting a bank, Adare meets Sam Flusky, a brusque ex-convict who has made a fortune. Flusky proposes using Adare in a land-buying scheme, and Adare, hungry for money, goes along with it, despite the admonitions of both the bank manager and his cousin to steer clear of Flusky.

Adare learns that Flusky’s wife is an old friend of his, but on seeing Harriet Flusky for the first time since childhood, he’s shocked to see how weak and infirm she’s become. Flusky has learned to ignore the problem — which is that Hattie is drinking herself to death — leaving the running over the house and the care of his wife to their housekeeper, Millie. Adare decides to help Hattie regain her strength and confidence, but Millie undermines Hattie’s attempts to take control of the house. When Hattie tries to assert her authority over the cackling quartet of women who work in her kitchen, Millie brings in a pile of empty bottles of liquor, revealing Hattie’s drinking problem to the staff.

Millie complains to Flusky about Adare’s interference in the household, and hints at Adare’s growing affection for Hattie. Rather than fight, Millie quits, leaving the house in the less than capable hands of another young servant.

Adare tries again to help Hattie, this time by forging an invitation for the Fluskies to a ball. Sam refuses to go, saying he’s no dancer, but lets Adare take Hattie. While they’re at the ball, where Hattie is the hit of the evening, Millie returns to the house. She convinces Flusky that Adare is trying to break up his marriage. When Hattie and Adare arrive back at the mansion, Flusky throws him out, but after a riding mishap, Adare returns, and Flusky attacks and accidentally shoots him.

The governor threatens to send Flusky to the gallows if Adare dies, as it will be his second offense. To protect her husband, Hattie confesses that she committed Flusky’s first murder: He was a stable boy and she a noblewoman, and when they fell in love, her brother tried to kill Flusky, forcing her to shoot him. Flusky took the blame, and she followed him to Australia to wait for his release from prison.

Millie, once again the mistress of the house, attempts to poison Hattie, but Flusky intercedes. Flusky sees that there was nothing between Hattie and Adare, and commits himself to helping his wife recover fully. Adare recovers as well, and without Flusky’s corroboration of Hattie’s story, no new charges are brought against either of them. The story wraps up with Adare leaving for home to be the first person to return from Australia without a fortune.

The melodrama runs thick in “Under Capricorn.” It’s another film about a helpless woman, like “Rebecca” and “Suspicion,” and while there are interesting aspects of the film, there’s very little suspense. It is strange, too, that with a character like Sam Flusky, who’s described repeatedly as violent, the only meaningful moment of action in the whole film is when he attacks Adare. (There’s a scuffle between Adare and a street peddler at the beginning of the movie, but it’s really minor.)

As in “Rope,” Hitch used long takes and moveable sets in “Under Capricorn.” Ingrid Bergman reportedly hated this method, with its interminable speeches and complex choreography. The camera movement is actually distracting, at times; It circles the actors and sweeps across rooms like a restless, silent guest at a party, and follows them down corridors in an odd, unnatural way.

Of course, the actors are riveting, if off-key: Bergman sounds like Bergman, Cotten sounds like Cotten, and the British Wilding does not sound at all Irish. “Under Capricorn” was an odd cap to a decade in which Hitchcock struggled, and often succeeded, in finding his voice. If “Notorious” was Hitch’s high point in the 1940s, this may have been his lowest. “Under Capricorn” was hurt at the box office by the scandal of Bergman’s adulterous relationship with director Roberto Rossellini. This was the second flop in a row for Hitch’s new production company, Transatlantic Pictures, and the last film the company would release. I believe it is also the last period piece Hitchcock ever made. By an odd coincidence, Hitchcock closed the 1940s the same way he did the 1930s. “Under Capricorn” has much in common with “Jamaica Inn,” in that both are period pieces, both have a strange air of artificiality, and both performed poorly at the box office.

After “Under Capricorn,” Hitchcock took some time off and regrouped while on vacation. He would come back with the basic ideas for several movies he would make in the 1950s, including something called “The Man in Lincoln’s Nose,” which would eventually become “North by Northwest,” arguably Hitchcock’s finest movie. The 1950s would come to be regarded as Hitch’s most creative and successful decade, beginning with 1950’s “Stage Fright,” starring Marlene Dietrich and Jane Wyman.

Alfred Hitchcock Gets Psychological in “Spellbound”

12 09 2010

“It’s just another manhunt story wrapped up in pseudo-psychoanalysis. The whole thing’s too complicated, and I found the explanations toward the end very confusing.” — Alfred Hitchcock

If Alfred Hitchcock sounds less than enthusiastic about “Spellbound,” his 1945 film starring Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck, it’s with good reason. It was his first film since “Rebecca” to be released by Selznick International Pictures, and David O. Selznick’s demands resulted in a not very pleasant filmmaking experience for Hitchcock, and a somewhat disjointed and trite movie.

That said, the good qualities of “Spellbound” do outweigh the bad. The story begins at a sanitorium, Green Manors, where Dr. Constance Peterson (Bergman) is fretting over the imminent departure of her boss, Dr. Murchison, played by Leo G. Carroll. Murchison has been asked to leave by the board of directors after he had a breakdown, and his replacement is a Dr. Edwardes, played by Peck.

Peterson’s colleague admires her skills as a psychologist, but says that she’s too cold, and that  she can never be truly effective until she’s known love. Of course, he wants her to fall for him, but she isn’t at all interested. And from the moment she lays eyes on Edwardes, a fire is lit within Peterson. He’s tall, young, good looking, and a bit mysterious, and she can’t resist him. Edwardes arouses suspicion, though, when he blows off his first afternoon at Green Manors to go on a walk with Peterson. (One of the funniest moments of the film occurs when Peck offers Bergman her choice of ham or liverwurst sandwiches during their walk, and she looks away dreamily and says, “Liverwurst.”)

There’s something odd about Edwardes, though. He had a hostile reaction when Peterson traced some lines on a tablecloth with a fork, and nearly freaked out when he saw something strange in a pattern on her dress. Comparing a note he sent her with a signature in a book, Peterson realizes that this is not the real Dr. Edwardes. She confronts him and learns that he is a delusional amnesiac – and that the real Edwardes is missing. The psychological jargon flies fast and furious (it’s almost like the staff at Green Manors never talks about anything but work) as they try to get to the bottom of things, but when they go to confront the phony doctor, they find that he’s gone. Peterson follows him to a New York City hotel, and she starts to work on him in earnest, believing that there’s no way he could have killed anyone.

She’s half in love with him by now, but all they have learned is that his initials are J.B. and that he was a doctor of some kind before he lost his memory. Now calling himself John Brown, he  is caught between his affection for Peterson and his growing irritation at her attempts to unlock his past and clear his name. They travel to Rochester to take refuge from the police with her mentor, an older psychologist played by Michael Checkhov (nephew of Anton Chekhov). To cover their trail, they claim to be newly married; in an odd lapse in logic, Peterson believes that Brulov is so absent-minded that he doesn’t notice their lack of wedding rings or luggage, but Brulov shows how sharp he is soon enough. When Brown awakens in the middle of the night and tries to kill Brulov in his study, the older man keeps his wits about him, talking to Brown while he gives him a glass of milk dosed with a sleeping drug.

(Another lapse in logic occurs when Brown and Peterson arrive at Brulov’s house, only to find that Brulov is not at home – but two members of the police force are waiting for him. The cops barely seem to suspect the duo, even though they’re supposed to be questioning Brulove about Peterson.)

When Brown awakens, he and Peterson explain the situation to Brulov, and Peterson begs him for help. He agrees, and, conveniently, Brown had a symbol-laden dream that night. Brulov and Peterson ignore the fact that Brown’s dream might have been affected by the sleeping drug, and instead plow into a very quick dream analysis.

As Brown recalls the dream, the scene fades from Brulov’s parlor to the dream itself, in a very famous sequence designed by surrealist painter Salvador Dali. Brown explains that he found himself in a gambling house where the walls were decorated with eyes. A scantily clad woman was kissing all the gamblers, and a masked man played blackjack with him. A seven of clubs gives him 21, and then he is running on a barren landscape where the masked man holds a melting wheel.

Slowly, Brulov and Peterson put together Brown’s clues, realizing that he had met Edwardes at a ski resort when sled tracks in the snow outside the house set off a spell of paranoia in Brown. A name from the dream gives them a clue to the name of that resort, and they go there, trying to reconstruct events while the police continue their pursuit. On the slopes, Peterson and Brown ski downhill toward a cliff, seemingly where Brown and Edwardes had been. Brown struggles to remember what happened, and has a breakthough: He remembers a childhood trauma in which he accidentally killed his younger brother.

After tipping off the police, the body of Edwardes is found at the bottom of the cliff, but the body shows that Edwardes had been shot. Brown is arrested, but Peterson, back at Green Manors, realizes what really happened when she talks to Murchison: He killed Edwards himself when he realized that he was going to be replaced. Murchison congratulates her on her “young and agile mind,” which seems to be Hitch’s way of glossing over the fact that she has solved the case with almost no clues.

Murchison pulls a revolver from his desk drawer and tells Peterson that she won’t live to tell the police, but she keeps talking to him in soothing tone, echoing Brulov’s scene with Brown, and he lets her walk out of the room, then turns the gun on himself and shoots.

Now cleared of all charges, Brown – now using his real name, Ballantyne – is released from jail, and he and Peterson are reunited. (Why he adopted Edwardes’ identity is never explained.)

David O. Selznick had pushed “Spellbound” on Hitchcock. Selznick had undergone psychoanalysis and had become a proponent for it, so much so that he also insisted that his own psychiatrist serve as a consultant on the film. The half-baked aspects of the film’s psychology – that an amnesiac could be cured with a few sessions and one dream analysis – don’t help the scenario’s believability, and the dream itself is too on-the-nose to be believed. (The melting wheel symbolizes a revolver, the seven of clubs giving Brown 21 represents New York’s 21 Club, etc.) Hitchcock had little to do with the Dali sequence, and reportedly was not happy with the famed artist’s involvement in the production.

Still, the dream sequence bears at least one distinctive Hitchcock touch, which is the oversized seven of clubs card, a trick to make the card readable on camera and add to the strange quality of the dream in a way that is certainly not Daliesque. Hitchcock’s own touches of filmmaking brilliance show here and there, in the shocking, silent moment when Ballantyne remembers killing his brother, or when Ballantyne and Peterson kiss for the first time and we see an ornate door slowly opening, to show another door that slowly opens, etc., etc. The doors are a more meaningful symbol for Peterson’s awakening sexuality than any of the ham-fisted symbols out of the dream sequence. The final Hitchcock touch is at the climax of the story; when Dr. Murchison holds a gun on his employee, we see his hand holding the gun, with the camera showing his point of view. After Peterson leaves the office, the hand slowly turns until it faces the viewer before it fires. To make the effect work, Hitchcock had a model hand and gun built, so that it could turn smoothly.

Ben Hecht, the prolific screenwriter who had worked on “Gone with the Wind” for Selznick and with Hitchcock on “Watchtower Over Tomorrow,” wrote the screenplay for “Spellbound,” based on a story by Angus McPhail, from a 1927 novel called “The House of Dr. Edwardes.” The film also includes a brief appearance by Norman Lloyd, the saboteur from Hitchcock’s film of the same name.

Although “Spellbound” loses credibility with modern audiences over its hokey psychology, the twist on Hitchcock’s typical wrong man plot, in which the female love interest must unravel the mystery to save the man, makes the picture engaging and, at times, truly gripping. Bergman is particularly brilliant; her turn from icy analyst to a fully rounded person is rather moving. Peck is fairly wooden, although he’s hampered by his character, who spends a lot of screentime rubbing his head and trying to remember who he really is, then passing out. Take a look at the poster, above, and you’ll see the emphasis on Bergman, already an international star, over Peck, who was a relative unknown at this point in his career. Hitchcock would make one more film with Peck, 1947’s “The Paradine Case,” and two more with Bergman, the 1946 classic “Notorious,” as well as the much-maligned 1949 film “Under Capricorn.”

Hitchcock himself makes a memorable cameo in “Spellbound,” exiting an elevator in a New York City hotel, cigarette in hand, looking very pleased with himself. I haven’t been writing that much about Hitch’s cameos because so many of them are not that interesting, but the sly smile on his face here could not be ignored.

For pop music fans, it’s also worth noting that “Spellbound” features early use of the theremin, which would later gain more recognition in The Beach Boys “Good Vibrations.”

Next, we’ll look at one of the true classics of cinema: “Notorious,” starring Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman and Claude Rains.

%d bloggers like this: