Review: Spellbound (1945)

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The Fault… is Not in Our Stars, But in Ourselves… — William Shakespeare

It’s so easy to adore Ingrid Bergman and it’s no different in Spellbound. Yes, she starts off as an austere psychiatrist purely interested and invested in scientific thought and practices in psychoanalysis. However, by the film’s conclusion, she evokes the passionate vitality that made her so beloved in pictures such as Casablanca (1942) and Notorious (1946).

The eminent Gregory Peck was still in the dawn of his career and while not your typical Hitchcockian hero, he is Gregory Peck a handsome actor with tremendous presence and a quiet dignity that made him an acting favorite for years to come, shortly to gain the reputation of an undisputed superstar. Put two such icons together and it’s honestly very difficult not to be won over, especially in a Hitchcock picture.

In fact, I’m predisposed to empathize with both of them from the very beginning and to thoroughly enjoy this picture even if it’s hardly the best of Hitchcock or the respective stars. But the story about the female psychiatrist Constance who falls in love with her colleague and subsequent patient one Dr. Edwards does have its share of enjoyments without question, aside from the names above the title.

As with any solid Hitchcock movie, there’s psychological duress and the man is implicated in a murder that he must run away from even if it’s proved he is innocent. So Spellbound is no question a romance and a bit of a mystery wrapped up neatly in a psychological thriller.

Michael Checkov the famed Russian stage performer (and nephew of Anton Chekhov) plays Dr. Brulov, Constance’s old mentor — a charming sort of gentleman who is impertinent but oh so sweet to his friends  — exhibiting the most jovial of personalities.

Even today, there still is a certain logic to psychodynamic therapy as there is to cognitive behavioral therapy that seems believable depending on how it is utilized and who is practicing it. Thus, though there are jumps Spellbound makes that are a little bit preposterous or a little too easy to resolve — like the perfect correlation between dreams and reality — there’s still kernels of truth in this film and it must be lauded for tackling the ideas of Freud in ways that were fairly groundbreaking for their day.

It also boasts the famed dream sequences inspired and partially orchestrated by the acclaimed surrealist artist Salvador Dali. His imprint is undeniable on the images that Peck recounts, reminiscent of the Persistence of Time and other similar works. Even Hitchcock would continue to address these topics with an arguably more Hitchcockian dream sequence in Vertigo and some similar analysis at the end of Psycho to assess Norman Bates.

Of course, Hitchcock films are at their best when the plot is working in spite of dialogue. Though the script is composed by Ben Hecht who has a long list of wonderful accomplishments, there’s also the influence of the overbearing hand of David O. Selznick on the picture meaning it relies perhaps too much on verbal explanation instead of Hitchcock’s own timeless setpieces or visual approach to cinema. Still, he does manage a few perspective shots that are particularly interesting providing us the frame of reference of several of his characters in key moments.

There’s also the benefit of Miklos Rozsa’s particularly elegant score which nevertheless is less a Hitchcock score as Bernard Hermann would famously compose later. In some respects, it suffocates the drama though it does include the cutting edge use of the Theremin, this marking one of its earliest appearances in a film score.

But ultimately, Spellbound does have a delightful false ending, as things slowly spiral down into despair only to find their new conclusion as all the puzzle pieces of Peck’s character begin to fit together. His exoneration is followed by the ousting of the real perpetrator, another quintessential Hitchcock villain.

The summation seems to be that though humanity might be wrought with shortcomings, many of them buried so deep inside, love does have an uncommon power to heal old wounds. The fault might be in ourselves but that need not be the resolution of the story.

3.5/5 Stars

4 Living Legends Part 2

day-midnightlaceMichele Morgan (1920-): A French beauty and leading lady for numerous decades known for integral roles in films in her native France and across the globe. Her filmography includes Michel Carne’s revered classic with Jean Gabin Port of Shadows as well as Carol Reed’s adroit drama Fallen Idol.

Nanette Fabray (1920-): Fabray had her roots in vaudeville and musical theater and I know her best for her memorably fun role in the Stanley Donen musical Band Wagon alongside Fred Astaire, Cyd Charisse, and of course, Oscar Levant. In the 1950s she was also paired with Sid Caesar on his eponymous “Caesar’s Hour.”

Rhonda Fleming (1923-): If Maureen O’Hara was Classic Hollywood’s favorite fiery redhead, Rhonda Fleming deserves to be thrown into the conversation as well, lending herself to many intriguing film-noir including classics like Out of the Past and lesser-known gems like The Spiral Staircase,  Cry Danger, and While the City Sleeps. The true “Queen of Technicolor” is still up for debate.

Doris Day (1924-): Undoubtedly the biggest star on this list, Doris Day was quite the extraordinary performer as a singer, actress, and comedienne. Her string of romcoms with Rock Hudson and Tony Randall were memorable including Pillow Talk. However, she also paired with the likes of James Garner and Cary Grant in Move Over Darling and That Touch of Mink respectively. If there was a big-name leading man in Hollywood there’s a good bet that Day sparred with them. She also showed off her dramatic chops in Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much, a film that boasted her signature song, “Que Sera, Sera.”

While the City Sleeps (1956)

whilethecity1While the City Sleeps has a brilliant cold open followed by a pounding title sequence, courtesy of Fritz Lang, that brings to mind a bit of Diabolique and Psycho. The rest of the film turns into a case to find the wanted lipstick murderer (based on a real killer), but that only holds part of our attention.

When newspaper magnate Mr. Kyne dies suddenly, his begrudging son Walter (Vincent Price) takes over intent on shaking up the status quo and putting his mark on the company. He soon turns three men against each other as they desperately fight for the new position of executive director. The first is veteran newspaper editor John Day Griffith (played by the always memorable character actor Thomas Mitchell). The second candidate is chief of the wire service Mark Loving (George Sanders) who is Griffith’s main competitor. Finally, in the third spot is Harry Kritzer who happens to have a secret ace in the hole. Each of them is tasked with finding out the real scoop about the serial killer, and it turns into a real tooth and claw ordeal. Within the glass cubicles, everything can be seen, but not everything is heard and that’s where the secrets get disclosed.

On the outside looking in, so to speak, is star TV reporter Edward Mobley (Dana Andrew), who agrees to help his friend Griffith by doing a little digging around about the murderer. He gets some tips from a cop friend Lt. Kaufmann (Howard Duff), and Mobley tries to smoke the killer out on air. However, it leads to the potential endangerment of his fiancée Nancy, who also happens to be Loving’s secretary. Loving has his love directed towards a female reporter named Mildred Donner (Ida Lupino), who attempts to needle Mobley for info. At the same time, the killer is on the move once more, with Nancy being an obvious target. Mr. Kritzer’s own romantic entanglements get him in trouble because he is seeing Kyne’s beautiful but detached wife Dorothy (Rhonda Fleming). Mildred finds out about them and they have some talking to do. Mobley also has some making up to do with Nancy after she finds out Mildred came to see him. It’s a big mess.

whilethecity3Mobley juggles everything from his love life to the big scoop and they apprehend the killer, but things at Kyne’s don’t wind up exactly the way they expected. Mobley looks to move on from the paper with Nancy, but even he cannot get away that easily.

While the City Sleeps is an underrated tale from Lang that is positively stacked with big names. Its pacing can be deliberate at times, but it is just as much an indictment of journalism as it is a thriller. The office is a web of deception with so many interconnections between these work factions. Those you would normally expect to be scrupulous seem to give up their honor in the face of this new promotion. In a sense, Mobley seems to be outside of this fray and yet he cannot help but get involved in it. It doesn’t help that nothing turns out the way it’s supposed to. Everybody seems to gain something, but nobody really wins the game.

I must say it was great to see Dana Andrews in one of these leading roles again and although their roles were smaller, Ida Lupino and George Sanders still were a deliciously stuffy and corrupt pair. I was never really a fan of Vincent Price due to the roles he normally plays, but I was inclined to like Howard Duff (Lupino’s real-life husband) in his turn as the policemen. It goes without saying that Rhonda Fleming is positively beautiful, but she also cannot be trusted. I guess that applies to about every character in this film. It’s certainly a cynical world out there that Lang paints, where the killer might be caught, but corruption is never fully quelled.

4/5 Stars

The Spiral Staircase (1945)

spiral5The Spiral Staircase plays out like an Agatha Christie murder mystery with a moody, old mansion acting as the backdrop and numerous individuals filling out the cast. It seems to be some type of gothic-noir hybrid, with its ghostly interiors, torrential thunderstorms, and creaky shutters. However, with director Robert Siodmak at the helm, I am inclined to call it noir, not just because of his pedigree, but it certainly has the atmosphere and dim interiors that are expected of the genre.

The action opens at a movie hall after a woman is murdered by an unseen killer. But most of the actual drama takes place in the before mentioned mansion of the sickly Mrs. Warren (Ethel Barrymore). She resides with her son Steven and step-son Professor Albert Warren (George Brent) who never see eye to eye. Nearly on her deathbed, Mrs. Warren distrusts her nurse and only allows the mute girl Helen (Dorothy McGuire) to even help her. The rest of the cast is rounded out by servants, a secretary named Blanche (Rhonda Fleming) who Steven loves, and the constable and a young doctor who cares about Helen. It’s a wide array of figures and we quickly begin to analyze them for any hint of killer tendencies.

spiral3In fact, Helen is our main character and we experience much of the film from her perspective. The truth of the matter is that all the girls who were killed had some sort of defect, so the line of reasoning is that Helen might be next in line. It seems all too possible with a pair of mysterious eyes constantly watching from the shadows, but Helen does not heed Mrs. Warren’s advice to flee.

The film ultimately spirals into darkness as the killer takes one victim and looks for another. Helen must protect herself, while also confronting her past where the source of her muteness lies. Although simple in conception, The Spiral Staircase is no less an engaging mystery. It is not the best from Siodmak either, but Dorothy McGuire gives an expressive performance that deliverers so much heart and feeling without the use of words.

However, the film does ultimately allow her to find her inner voice in the midst of all the silence. She finally conquers the fear in the moment when it is most harrowing. Although her role is rather minor, Rhonda Fleming is as strikingly beautiful as ever. It’s a rather expected resolution, but there are enough quirks and twists to makes things enjoyable to the end. It goes without saying that gothic noir most definitely should be a thing if it isn’t already.

4/5 Stars

Cry Danger (1951)

589aa-crydanger2Here is yet another noir gem which would never get made today, much less in a mere 22 days! This directorial debut of Robert Parrish is boosted by an often witty script from William Bowers.

Rocky Mulloy (Dick Powell) is fresh out of prison after a former marine (Richard Erdman) testifies on his behalf though Mulloy already spent five years rotting away in prison. He went in right around the end of the war because of a robbery that he was assumed to be a part of.

Regis Toomey (The Big Sleep, Raw Deal) is Lt. Cobb and he is still skeptical when he is assigned to monitor the newly released man. Richard Erdman is the peg-legged, alcoholic marine who has a penchant for booze and dames. Also, he never actually knew Mulloy before. He just wants some of the loot.

So the two new found chums set up camp in a beat down trailer park of all places, with a music playing proprietor (Jay Adler). It’s not exactly the Ritz, but Delong finds some female company, and it just so happens that Mulloy’s former flame lives there too. Nancy (Rhonda Fleming) is married to Rocky’s pal Danny who is still in the clink. His mission is to prove his innocence, but could it be more harm than good?

Rocky goes to a local mobster named Castro (William Conrad) who left him holding the bag five years ago, and he wants reimbursement for his time. He gets some of it in the form of a horse race which leads to a big payoff.

But as it turns out, the money is hot and Lt. Cobb wants to know where it came from. Rocky obliges but it becomes all too obvious he’s being set up. There was one slip up though, proving Rocky is telling the truth for once, amidst all the lies swirling around. That does not help Delong much and his girl Darlene gets blown sky high. The bullets were obviously meant for Rocky and  Nancy.

Rocky confronts Castro and they play a little game he likes to call Russian Roulette, although it’s very one-sided favoring Rocky. The fearful mobster spills the truth, revealing Danny was actually a part of the plan 5 years ago all the time. Since he took a lighter rap, someone else is holding his share of the payoff. The missing $50,000. Who is keeping it warm for him? You guessed it.

Rocky goes back to the trailer park where Nancy spills all her beautiful guts to him. What she gives is a tempting offer and Mulloy lets her believe it will happen. Off he walks with Lt. Cobb ready to swoop in. Rocky may have gone straight, but it doesn’t mean it makes it any easier. He had to turn on one of the most beautiful girls in the world, courtesy of Rhonda Fleming.

Dick Powell has another laconic performance which nearly matches his turn as Philip Marlowe in Murder, My Sweet. I always love seeing Richard Erdman as a young jokester, because he has gained a following more recently for his work in the television show Community as Leonard. William Conrad will always be the narrator in Rocky and Bullwinkle as well as Cannon. However, his big frame and mustache make for a good criminal type. What can I say about Rhonda Fleming except that she looks stunning in black and white, much less technicolor?

Lt. Gus Cobb: Now, just get it through your heads that the pressure’s on. 
(To Nancy)
Lt. Gus Cobb: I wouldn’t give a nickel for your husband’s chances before that parole board with all this going on.
(To Rocky)
Lt. Gus Cobb: And I wouldn’t give a nickel for your chances with those two apes running around looking for you.
(To Castro)
Lt. Gus Cobb: For you, I just wouldn’t give a nickel.

4/5 Stars

Out of the Past (1947) – Film-Noir

13659-outofthepastStarring Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer, and Kirk Douglas, this classic has every element of a good film noir.   Jeff Bailey (Mitchum) makes his living in a small town working at a gas station. He has an honest living and a girl. However, soon his past catches up with him when a man from his former life comes to see him, and he must explain it all to his innocent girlfriend.

Once he was a private investigator, who got mixed up with a powerful man named Whit (Douglas). He wanted some money found, but most importantly he wanted a deadly girl brought back to him. Pretty soon Jeff’s searching leads him down to Mexico. He has a chance meeting with the beautiful woman (Greer), and he understands why Whit wanted her back.

However, Kathie is not eager to go back, and they are attracted to each other. She and Jeff agree to run off together to San Francisco — away from the searching of Whit. They are nearly found out, but they get away. San Francisco is not a nice place, but they make do, until the day where Jeff is spotted by his old partner. He must split up with Kathie and they set a rendezvous. Only there is a hitch in the plan that Jeff did not foresee. He tries to deal with it in his own way, but Kathie takes more drastic measures. She left him there and went out of his life, or so Jeff thought. He had tried to forget his past dealings, and yet they creep back into his life. With a murder pinned on him, Bailey can do nothing but go along with Whit and Kathie. Soon he becomes embroiled in more treachery and backstabbing, which all has to do with the manipulative femme fatale.

With one last entreaty, she urges him to flee with her since they both have dark pasts. In the end, Kathie’s fanciful plan to escape is foiled by Bailey and it soon turns fatal. One last time she tried to control the situation, but this final time Jeff, or at least fate, got the best of her. After his violent death, Jeff’s girl wishes to know once and for all if he was running off with Kathie. A mute boy (Dickie Moore), who knew Jeff well lies so that the girl can continue her life. Because in Jeff’s case the past came back to haunt him. The kid goes back to the station, but not before looking up at Bailey’s name on the sign, because he did what Jeff would have wanted.

With its dialogue, extended flashback, voice over, and femme fatales played by Jane Greer and Rhonda Fleming, there are not many noir experiences better than this one. Obviously, the chiaroscuro cinematography is a major aspect of this film. Except for the shots in Bridgeport, it seems like every scene is veiled in shadow whether it takes place in Acapulco or San Fran, at day, night, inside, or out. Shadows are perpetual and they seem to reflect not only these characters but also the story. They are not easy to figure and none of them can ever be fully trusted.

Mitchum is perfect in the role of Jeff Bailey, thanks to his demeanor, his fitting voice, and the constant attire of a trench coat and fedora, with a cigarette clenched in his teeth. He is a man who looks like a saint compared to his acquaintances, and yet he is a man who can show a complex set of traits ranging from avarice, cruelty, love, and sometimes heroism. Kirk Douglas is great in his role as the crooked Whit, who acts the nice guy only to be cruel at heart. Every character from the henchman Joe, to the mute boy, the accomplice Meta  Carson, and even the loyal taxi driver are all memorable in the scenes they show up in. Jane Greer stands out, however, because she is one of the most notorious femme fatales in any noir. I think she toys with the audience as much as she does with Jeff. We find ourselves starting to believe her, then we have our doubts, and then we go on believing her again. It is a fine performance.

5/5 Stars

“She can’t be all bad. No one is.”
“She comes the closest.”
~ Ann and Jeff talking about Kathie