Wednesday, January 26, 2022

The World of Suzie Wong (1960)

The World of Suzie Wong was released in 1960 and was a major hit.

From around 1958 to around 1962 was a fascinating period in Hollywood history where censorship was concerned. Censorship was already looking a bit shaky. In 1953 Otto Preminger’s The Moon Is Blue was the first Hollywood movie to be released without a Production Code Seal of Approval. The conventional wisdom was that this was impossible. Not having a seal would mean no distribution and financial ruin. But The Moon Is Blue was a hit. Preminger did the same thing again in 1955 with The Man With the Golden Arm. Few people in Hollywood had Preminger’s toughness, courage and self-confidence but by the late 50s there was a growing feeling that something would have to be done to allow Hollywood to make grown-up movies.

A major step in this direction was taken by Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Maggie the Cat (Elizabeth Taylor) is as crazy as a cat on a hot tin roof and the reason is made very obvious. She’s not getting any sex. What was shocking was not the revelation that her husband Brick was incapable of performing in the bedroom. The shocking thing is that the movie showed us a woman who simply cannot remain sane without regular sex. Everything to do with sex was scary but this movie was confronting the scariest thing of all - female sexual desire.

Then in 1960 came Butterfield 8. The shock revelation is not just that Gloria (Elizabeth Taylor) is a call girl (which is only hinted at). It’s not just that she is promiscuous (which is explicitly stated). The horrific revelation is that she really really enjoys sex, which is why she is tortured by guilt.

In 1961 came Breakfast at Tiffany’s, which made the fact that Holly Golightly (Audrey Hepburn) is a call girl reasonably clear whilst still maintaining plausible deniability. Maybe Holly Golightly is just a really friendly girl who has a lot of men friends although there’s still the slight problem that she has an apartment in Manhattan, wears expensive designer dresses and has no visible means of support.

The World of Suzie Wong also pushed the edge of the censorship envelope, and pushed it hard. This was a very big-budget major studio production in which the leading lady, the hero’s love interest, is absolutely unequivocally a prostitute.

Hollywood was however still treading carefully. We’re expected to believe that the hero, Robert Lomax (William Holden), doesn’t hire her for sex. He just wants to paint her. His sexual interest in her is however made pretty clear but again there’s some plausible deniability. Clean-cut all-American men don’t sleep with prostitutes.

Lomax meets a pretty Chinese girl on the Hong Kong ferry. She tells him that her name is Mei Lee, that her father is very rich and that she is a virgin. Lomax encounters her again when he gets to his hotel. The Nam Kok Hotel is in practice a brothel, although the proprietor is at pains to assure him that it isn’t technically a brothel (which would be illegal). In the bar he runs into Mei Lee again, although it tuns out that her name is really Suzie Wong, her father isn’t rich and she most definitely is not a virgin. She is the most popular whore in the hotel.

Lomax wants to use Suzie as a model. She is rather offended that he doesn’t want to sleep wth her. There is some playful naughtiness here. When Lomax asks Suzie to pose for him she immediately offers to take her clothes off. He says he’s never done nudes. She tells him this would be a good time to start.

Lomax is fascinated by Suzie but he tells her he doesn’t want to get involved with women again. Which is of course a lie. He’s romancing Kay, the English daughter of a banker. What Lomax means is that he doesn’t want to get involved romantically with a whore. He’s a bit half-hearted about the romancing of Kay because he’s pretty confused. He keeps thinking about Suzie, then gets angry at himself and at her. He’s clearly very attracted to Suzie and also appalled that he’s attracted to a prostitute.

So the bulk of the film is occupied by Lomax’s desperate attempts to convince himself that he doesn’t want Suzie.

There’s also some amusing cultural confusion. At one point Suzie is beaten up by a sailor. She tells her friends that Lomax beat her up in a jealous rage. It’s not a malicious lie. It gains her a great deal of status (the other girls wish they had boyfriends who loved them enough to beat them up in jealous rages) and it increases Lomax’s status in the eyes of the other prostitutes.

Kay is determined that she is going to marry Lomax and she doesn’t see it as any kind of contest. She assumes that there is no way Lomax would choose a Chinese prostitute in preference to the beautiful daughter of an English banker.

Of course the big question for the viewer, bearing in mind that this is America in 1960, is will the studio risk allowing an ending in which Suzie and Lomax end up together? To get the answer to that question you’ll have to watch the movie.

William Holden is not my favourite actor but he’s good here, taking into account that he’s playing a character who is not overly sympathetic. Nancy Kwan as Suzie is an absolute delight. The supporting performances are very strong with my favourite being Jacqui Chan as Suzie’s friend Gwennie. Gwennie is pretty but she looks like a librarian even though she is in fact a prostitute as well. She’s great fun.

It’s a mystery how this movie got past the Production Code Authority. It has Interracial sex, interracial love, a very very sympathetic portrayal of prostitutes, an easy-going attitude towards sex in general and some very risqué dialogue (after he has a date with Kay Suzie asks Lomax if Kay is still a virgin). It seems likely that by this time the Production Code Authority was just about ready to run up the white flag. The studios were making it clear that they intended to keep pushing the limits of the Code whether the Production Code Authority liked it or not.

Paramount’s Region 1 DVD is barebones but the 16:9 enhanced transfer is excellent. This is a very handsomely mounted production with great location shooting and would benefit greatly from a Blu-Ray release.

The World of Suzie Wong is a romantic melodrama generously laced with humour and it marked a major step forward for Hollywood in terms of dealing with sex openly and honestly. It’s an important movie for that reason, and it’s a very good movie. Very highly recommended.

Friday, January 21, 2022

Rebecca (1940), Hitchcock Friday #10

Rebecca was a major hit in 1940 and is the only Hitchcock movie to win a Best Picture Oscar.

There has long been some controversy among Hitchcock fans about this movie. Mostly the controversy centres around the question of whether it is really a Hitchcock movie or a David O. Selznick movie. There’s also the question of whether it’s a suspense movie or a gothic romance.

In the late 30s Hitchcock was riding high. He was the hottest director in Britain and his international reputation was growing steadily. It was obvious that Hollywood would try to lure him away. Selznick made him the proverbial offer one can’t refuse. But he really should have refused it. Going to Hollywood at the beginning of the 40s was in retrospect a mistake and signing with Selznick was a huge mistake.

Selznick of course interfered constantly with the production. He had his own ideas of what kind of movie he wanted and those ideas did not coincide with Hitchcock’s.

The superb opening sequence (one of the best in all of cinema) sets the tone right away. This is the world of gothic romance. The extraordinary house, Manderley, looks like it should be on the cover of a romance novel. When we’re introduced to Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier) he is clearly established as the hero of a romantic melodrama. And it’s obvious that Joan Fontaine is going to be playing a romantic melodrama heroine.

When she first sees Maxim standing on a clifftop the unnamed heroine (Fontaine) is convince he’s about to jump. He scoffs at the idea but it’s entirely possible that he did intend to jump.

The heroine is acting as paid companion to a perfectly appalling rich middle-aged woman. Maxim runs into her again and is charmed by her. She cannot understand what the handsome rich Maxim de Winter would be interested in such a silly little fool (which is how she regards herself) although as the story unfolds it becomes obvious that she is exactly the sort of girl he would fall for. He knows right from the start that she is the woman he wants, and needs.

Maxim marries her and takes her to live at Manderley. It’s all rather intimidating. She’s not used to managing a household with a couple of dozen servants. Maxim assures her that the housekeeper, Mrs Danvers (Judith Anderson), will take care of everything. That’s where life really becomes a nightmare for the heroine. She’s afraid of almost everything and she’s particularly afraid of Mrs Danvers. With good reason. Mrs Danvers makes her disapproval very obvious. The heroine finds herself constantly being compared to Maxim’s first wife, Rebecca. She is constantly told that Rebecca was gorgeous, sophisticated, witty, exquisitely dressed. The heroine is painfully are that she falls short in every one of those areas. She is convinced that Maxim only married her out of pity and that he is still in love with Rebecca. Mrs Danvers has kept Rebecca’s room exactly as it was on the night she died, as a kind of shrine. Mrs Danvers worships Rebecca’s memory and it’s obvious that she intends to make the heroine’s life at Manderley a living hell.

Rebecca was drowned in a boating accident a year earlier. The heroine is continually reminded of how devastated Maxim was and how he has never recovered from Rebecca’s death.

I’ve always considered Laurence Olivier, as a film actor, to be an entertaining ham. It has to be admitted however that in this movie he keeps his hammy tendencies rigidly under control and he is certainly perfectly cast as the brooding tortured Maxim de Winter. His performance works very well.

Not everybody likes Joan Fontaine. Selznick apparently wanted Nova Pilbeam as the female lead. Based on her performance in Hitchcock’s wonderful Young and Innocent (1937) she might have been a god choice. Hitchcock thought she was very good but too young. Joan Fontaine got the part and for me her performance works. Yes, she’s timid and mousy but she’s playing a character who is timid and mousy. And she has enough vulnerability and charm to make it perfectly plausible that Maxim would fall for her. I think Fontaine is superb in this movie.

George Sanders is fun in a small part as Rebecca's degenerate cousin. Judith Anderson is positively terrifying.

There is a theory that Hitchcock wanted to make a suspense movie and Selznick wanted to make a women’s picture. There’s obviously a lot of truth to that but it’s worth pointing out that Hitchcock didn’t need Selznick to introduce him to the idea of making movies aimed at female viewers. And this was Hitchcock’s second Daphne du Maurier adaptation (the first being Jamaica Inn) and du Maurier was a writer of gothic romance melodramas. There is however little doubt that Rebecca is more of a woman’s romance movie and less of a suspense movie than Hitchcock had intended. Selznick usually got what he wanted.

A more important question is whether people who dismiss Rebecca as a lesser Hitchcock film do so precisely because it is a “women’s picture” and a melodrama.

This movie has Selznick’s fingerprints all over it. Apart from the great opening sequences there are none of the spectacular visual set-pieces you expect from Hitchcock. It is of course superbly shot with plenty of nice little visual touches but overall it does not feel like a Hitchcock movie. This is all pure romantic melodrama. There is some mystery late in the movie, and a small amount of suspense, but Rebecca is essentially a melodrama. It is very much in the mould of the 1940s Hollywood women’s picture.

Whether that is a problem for you depends on how you feel about melodrama. If you’re expecting a Hitchcock thriller you’ll be very disappointed. If, like me, you actually enjoy melodrama then Rebecca is one of the great movie melodramas. Very highly recommended for gothic romance and melodrama fans.

Monday, January 17, 2022

Born Reckless (1958)

Born Reckless is an unassuming little 1958 rodeo musical melodrama B-picture that turns out to be thoroughly enjoyable mostly due to its star, the wonderful Mamie van Doren.

Kelly Cobb (Jeff Richards) is a rodeo star whose career can’t last much longer because his body just can’t take the punishment any more. At the moment he’s flat broke, which is usual. Even when things go well they go badly. He wins a hefty slice of prize money at a rodeo but a crooked promoter runs off with the money and Kelly is still flat broke. He travels around the country with his sidekick Cool Man (Arthur Hunnicutt), an older and even more broken down ex-rodeo star who acts as a father figure to Kelly. Kelly hopes for one big win so he can buy a little ranch, but that one big win seems more elusive by the day.

Then cute cowgirl singer and trick rider Jackie Adams (Mamie van Doren) starts tagging along with Kelly and Cool Man. She has obviously decided that Kelly is her kind of man. Jackie isn’t stupid. Kelly is a pretty nice guy and a girl could do a whole lot worse. And a man could do a whole lot worse than Jackie.

Jackie’s a nice girl but when you have a body like hers you don’t have to go looking for trouble. Trouble will find you. And trouble always means a man. Kelly doesn’t see himself as the knight in shining armour type but he’s an old-fashioned guy. If a woman is attracting unwanted attention from some sleazebag then he’s not the sort of man who’s going to stand by and let that happen. A fight invariably follows and Jackie spends much of her time patching up Kelly’s wounds. Kelly always wins his fights, but he doesn’t escape without an assortment of cuts and bruises.

It seems like love is destined to blossom but there’s a problem for Jackie. She has a rival. Liz is rich, scheming, unscrupulous and she collects men the way other women collect shoes. And the unfortunate truth has to be admitted that Kelly does like chasing the ladies. Liz is a formidable rival, but Jackie is a fighter.

It's amusing that the brunette is the bad girl and the blonde bombshell is the good girl.  

Jeff Richards wasn’t A-list star material but his performance is pretty decent. It’s a low-key but believable performance.

Mamie van Doren is likeable, lively, sexy, funny, high-spirited and generally adorable. She was never able to make the jump to A-pictures but when she landed a good role she could turn in a very effective performance. And she sparkles here. She gets to sing quite a few songs. The songs aren’t bad and if a song was even half-decent van Doren could sell it. She also looks terrific dressed as a cowgirl.

Howard W. Koch was a competent B-movie director and he demonstrates a surprisingly sure touch in this movie.

It might seem presumptuous to compare this movie with Sam Peckinpah’s superb Junior Bonner but as a low-budget attempt to explore similar themes it works a whole lot better than you’d expect. The characters in Born Reckless are a bit more than stereotypes. There’s a touch of subtlety to the characterisations that you really don’t expect in a B-movie, and there’s a nice atmosphere of creeping defeat and melancholy. Kelly knows he’s probably not destined to be one of life’s winners but all he knows how to do is be a rodeo cowboy and he can’t see any really promising way forward.

The Warner Archive release is barebones but the anamorphic transfer is generally very good.

Born Reckless is a pleasant surprise. It’s a much better movie than it has any right to be. Along with Guns, Girls and Gangsters (1959) and Untamed Youth (1957) it’s one of van Doren’s best pictures. It offers her a role with enough substance to allow her to demonstrate why she was such a B-movie icon, and why she still has a loyal following.

Born Reckless is highly recommended.

Friday, January 14, 2022

Paul Verhoeven's Basic Instinct (1992)

Paul Verhoeven's Basic Instinct is the greatest of all neo-noirs and the greatest of all neo-Hitchcockian thrillers. It's a very grown-up movie. It's intelligent, provocative, unsettling, sexy and honest. It was controversial at the time and remains controversial today.

And of course the links with Hitchcock's Vertigo are striking. Sharon Stone is even made to look like Kim Novak.

I've reviewed this movie at Cult Movie Reviews - here's the link to my review.

Monday, January 10, 2022

The Casino Murder Case (1935)

The Casino Murder Case, released by MGM in 1935, was the ninth of the Philo Vance movie adaptations. Of the Philo Vance movies I’ve seen so far this is by far the worst.

Numerous actors tried their hand at playing Philo Vance. Only one ever succeeded in getting it right and that was William Powell. In this case MGM, in a moment of complete insanity, decided to cast Paul Lukas as Vance. Lukas is wrong in almost every way but mostly he’s wrong because of his thick Hungarian accent. Philo Vance has to have an upper-class American accent. He’s an American blue-blood. That’s absolutely the core of the character. In one of the earlier movies, The Bishop Murder Case, MGM tried casting Basil Rathbone as Vance. That was an interesting experiment but it didn’t work because Rathbone was not convincing as an American. But it wasn’t as disastrous as the casting of Lukas. Had the movie been about an aristocratic central European detective he might have been OK but Philo Vance has to be thoroughly upper-crust American in order for the character to work at all.

It gets worse because Lukas is wrong in other ways as well. Philo Vance has to have an arrogant self-assurance but he also has to have a rather languid manner, both qualities which Lukas fails to convey. As a result the character he plays in this movie has absolutely zero connection to Philo Vance. This movie was doomed from the first moment Paul Lukas appeared on the scene. It’s not that Lukas is a bad actor. It’s just that this is one of the worst pieces of miscasting in movie history.

As for the plot, it begins with an anonymous letter claiming that if Lynn Llewellyn gambles tonight at his uncle’s casino tragedy will ensue. District Attorney Markham does not take the letter seriously. Philo Vance takes it very seriously and decides that he needs to take a closer look at the Llewellyn household.

There’s the unstable and eccentric old Mrs Llewellyn (Alison Skipworth), her son Lynn (Donald Cook) and his wife Virginia (Louise Henry). Much to the horror of the whole family Virginia intends to go back on the stage. There’s Lynn’s sister Amelia (Isabel Jewell), who’s rather fond of the bottle. There’s Amelia’s fiancé, Dr Kane (Leslie Fenton). There’s old Mrs Llewellyn’s brother Dick Kincaid (Arthur Byron) and there’s old Mrs Llewellyn’s secretary/companion Doris (Rosalind Russell). There’s plenty of tension between all these people.

Then the poisonings begin.

Plotwise the movie is passable. It tries to mix mystery and humour. The humour isn’t very successful but the Hollywood studios in the 30s were obsessed by the idea that mysteries and thrillers had to have comic relief.

There are some reasonably effective red herrings. The resolution is moderately effective.

Apart from the disastrous performance by Paul Lukas the rest of the cast is OK with Rosalind Russell and Isabel Jewell standing out. Eric Blore is mildly musing as Vance’s valet. Look out for Leo G. Carroll, entirely wasted as the butler.

Edward L. Marin (who directed the excellent George Raft film noir Nocturne in 1946) at least keeps things moving along.

The movie was based on S.S. Van Dine’s 1934 novel of the same name.

This movie is one of six included in the Warner Archive Philo Vance Murder Case Collection. The transfer is a bit rough with quite a bit of print damage and at times a slightly washed-out look. This boxed set is very uneven with some fine movies and some duds but it is at least interesting for the chance of seeing no less than six different actors playing (or attempting to play) Vance. What it does demonstrate beyond any question is that nobody part from William Powell should ever have been allowed to play Philo Vance.

If you’re going to buy the set anyway then by all means give this one a spin but really it’s a very average mystery offering at best passable entertainment.

Thursday, January 6, 2022

Duel in the Sun (1946)

Duel in the Sun was David O. Selznick’s 1946 attempt to do a western in the Gone With the Wind style, an epic western. Selznick also saw it as a vehicle that would make his girlfriend Jennifer Jones into the biggest star in Hollywood. The problem, predictably, was that Selznick did what he always did. He interfered constantly in the production, driving away several directors and turning the production into a shambles. The script was rewritten countless times. Selznick took a hand in the writing. Only David O. Selznick could take a basically sound idea and turn it into a bombastic over-produced mess. In spite of all this Duel in the Sun (derisively known as Lust in the Dust) has its good points and manages to be entertaining in an eccentric sort of way.

It starts with a musical prelude. These musical preludes were the worst idea Hollywood ever came up with, this one one goes on and on and on and makes an already bloated movie even more bloated. At 146 minutes this movie is about an hour too long.

The story begins with the execution of Pearl Chavez’s father for murder. Pearl is half-Indian which explains the makeup job on Jennifer Jones who plays Pearl.

Her father’s dying wish was for Pearl to be sent to live with his second cousin Laura Belle McCanles (Lillian Gish). Laura Belle had been the movie of Pearl’s father’s life but she married a Yankee senator instead, Jackson McCanles (Lionel Barrymore). Laura Belle and the senator have two sons. Jesse (Joseph Cotten) is the good son. Lewton (known as Lewt) is the bad son. He’s a wild one.

Both sons take an interest in Pearl. Jesse’s interest is, naturally, noble and honourable. Of course it might have helped if he’d actually told her he loved her. Naturally Lewt’s interest in her is not the least bit honourable.

Give the choice between the decent honourable Jesse and bad boy Lewt Pearl naturally ends up with the bad boy. The trouble is that Pearl thinks Lewt will marry her. Lewt, having already had her, has no interest in marriage and in any case a McCanles is not going to marry a half-Indian girl.

There’s plenty of material for melodrama in all this and it’s melodrama we get, in a gloriously overheated style.

In 1946 it was very unusual for a western to be shot in colour. Duel in the Sun isn’t just in colour, it’s in amazingly lurid Technicolor. In keeping with the chaotic nature of the production three cinematographers worked on the film. And visually it really is extraordinary. It looks totally artificial and that turns out to be one of the movie’s biggest strengths. This is melodrama. The more artificial the setting the better.

There are some staggeringly brilliant visual moments. There are also some cringe-inducing moments.

The acting is all over the map. Lionel Barrymore is, as always, hammy but hamminess works in melodrama. Jennifer Jones gives a histrionic but entertaining performance. I suspect that the main problem with her performance was the constant script changes ordered by Selznick which had the result of making Pearl’s behaviour wildly inconsistent.

Joseph Cotten gives his standard Joseph Cotten performance. Which is OK, there’s nothing terribly wrong with a standard Joseph Cotten performance.

The big surprise is Gregory Peck. On paper he was miscast as the bad boy Lewt but in fact he’s terrific. If only he’d been given more rôles like this one, rôles that actually required him to act, instead of being cast endlessly as dull worthy priggish bores.

Characters in this movie do illogical things that are out of character simply because the messed-up script requires them to do so, even though those things don’t make a lick of sense.

Jesse is a problem. He’s supposed to be the honourable brother but I disliked him intensely. He could have saved Pearl from a whole lot of suffering if he’d just grabbed her, kissed her passionately and told her she was going to marry him. But he didn’t, because he’s an uptight self-righteous prig and I couldn’t help feeling that his attitude towards her is no better than Lewt’s, he’s just less honest about it. He might be excited by a woman like Pearl, but he’s not willing to marry her.

There was plenty in Duel in the Sun to shock the moral watchdogs of the time. Pearl obviously sleeps nude, at a time when Hollywood had married couples wearing pyjamas and sleeping in separate beds. She goes skinny-dipping. She goes skinny-dipping with a man watching her. It’s made quite explicit that Pearl and Lewt have sex. Whether Lewt forced her or not is open to debate. When Lewt treats her rough Pearl gets really excited. At a time when women in Hollywood movies were not supposed to experience lust Pearl’s lust for Lewt is very obvious. Bad boys get her really hot.

There are moments that are genuinely affecting and there are other moments that are supposed to be deeply affecting but end up being laugh-out-loud funny.

Duel in the Sun
is not a western. Selznick had no interest in making a western. It has a western setting, it has cowboys and it has some typical western plot elements but it does not have the feel of a western. It’s pure melodrama aimed (like all Selznick’s movies) at a female audience. It’s Gone With the Wind with cowboys. The struggle between a doomed aristocratic society and the new world of industry and democratic mass culture which drove Gone With the Wind is paralleled by the struggle between Jackson McCanles (who is essentially a feudal lord) and progress as represented by the railroad men.

Duel in the Sun is a sex melodrama. Every single significant action by the three central characters is driven by sex - sexual lust or sexual jealousy. And all the events of the past involving Pearl’s father, Jackson McCanles and Laura Belle were driven by sex. This is in fact a sex movie. In 1946 all of this had to be communicated by hints and suggestions. This is one 1940s movie that would have benefited greatly from including moderately graphic sex scenes and nudity. Nothing in this movie makes any sense at all unless we understand that Pearl decides on a course of action and then as soon as she sets eyes on Lewt her conscious mind goes out the window and she becomes a seething mass of woman-lust. And Lewt decides on a course of action and then he sets eyes on Pearl and his conscious mind goes out the window and he becomes a seething mass of man-lust. Many of Jesse’s actions make no sense unless we understand the strength of his sexual passion for Pearl and the extent of his sexual jealousy. For the movie to really work the sexual temperature needed to be turned up much much higher than was possible in 1946.

The movie has Selznick’s fingerprints all over it. Selznick gave directors nightmares but he wasn’t always entirely wrong. He believed that the key to success was to attract the female audience. He understood that women liked movies about love but he also understood that women liked moves about overwhelming sexual passions. Women liked sexy movies. A big glossy sex melodrama would be a guaranteed winner. His basic idea about Duel in the Sun was absolutely sound. The trouble was his constant meddling.

Duel in the Sun cannot be judged as a western because it isn’t one. It has to be judged for what it is. It’s a melodrama and it’s a women’s picture. Personally I like melodramas and I have no problem at all with women’s pictures. Duel in the Sun is a woman’s sex melodrama that almost works but it’s hampered by the ludicrous restrictions of the Production Code and by a script that isn’t as coherent as one might have wished. It doesn’t hang together as well as it should.

There’s a good write-up on this movie at Riding the High Country. Colin liked this movie a bit more than I did.

Duel in the Sun has its flaws but it’s fascinating. Highly recommended on the strength of its very distinctive flavour.

Tuesday, January 4, 2022

best classic movies I saw in 2021

The highlights of my classic movie viewing in 2021. Ten movies I particularly enjoyed.

The Blue Angel (Der blaue Engel), Josef von Sternberg, 1930

Chu Chin Chow, Walter Forde, 1934

Rear Window, Alfred Hitchcock, 1954

The Belles of St Trinian’s, Frank Launder, 1954

Manuela, Guy Hamilton, 1957

Vertigo, Alfred Hitchcock, 1958

King Creole, Michael Curtiz, 1958

The Malpas Mystery, Sidney Hayers, 1960

Marnie, Alfred Hitchcock, 1964

The Friends of Eddie Coyle, Peter Yates, 1973

And with a special mention to this one because it's so bizarre and visually stunning.

Camille, Ray C. Smallwood, 1921

Saturday, January 1, 2022

Spellbound (1945), Hitchcock Friday #9

Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound presents some challenges to a modern viewer. It’s about psychoanalysis. Audiences in 1945 would have taken psychoanalysis quite seriously and considered it to be science. Nobody today takes Freudian psychoanalysis seriously. This means that a modern viewer is likely to find much of the plot to be absurd and silly. The movie is going to have a camp vibe which was obviously not intended.

Fortunately this is a Hitchcock movie and Hitchcock didn’t care too much about the plots of his movies anyway.

Dr Constance Petersen Ingrid Bergman is a psychiatrist at Green Manors Hospital, a mental hospital. The director of the hospital, Dr Murchison (Leo G. Carroll) has been forced to relinquish his post after having a mental breakdown. His replacement, Dr Anthony Edwardes, is about to arrive to take over. Dr Edwardes (Gregory Peck) is much much younger than anyone expected.

He takes an immediate shine to Dr Petersen. Dr Petersen has dedicated herself to her work and has had no time for nonsense like love. She’s likeable enough but she takes her work very very seriously. She’s bookish and intellectual. But young Dr Edwardes sweeps her off her feet. She realises that she is capable of love after all.

There is however something not quite right about Dr Edwardes. He’s jumpy. Silly little things upset him. He cracks up in the operating theatre. Dr Petersen is head-over-heels in love with him but she’s not a complete fool. She realises that whoever this man is he’s not Dr Edwardes (we later find out that his name is John Ballantyne).

He admits that he’s not Dr Edwardes but the trouble is that he does not know who he is. He has amnesia. And he has quite a few other issues as well.

The real Dr Edwardes has vanished. The assumption is that the imposter has murdered him. The police are now hunting him. Dr Petersen has decided that the imposter is sick but harmless. She assumes he’s harmless because she’s in love with him.

Either psychiatric ethics were very loose in the 1940s or Dr Petersen is the most unethical and unprofessional (and recklessly irresponsible) psychiatrist in history. She’s not only prepared to let a man who might be a murderer escape from the police, she escapes with him. And she allows herself to become hopelessly romantically involved with him even though she’s treating him as a patient.

Even allowing for the fact that psychoanalysis is inherently absurd the movie’s treatment of the subject is ludicrous and silly beyond words.

A minor problem is that both Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck are just a little too young for the rôles they play. We’re supposed to believe that Dr Petersen is not just a qualified psychiatrist but an experienced one. Bergman was 30 and just doesn’t quite convince us that she could hold such a responsible position at a major mental hospital at that age. Gregory Peck was even younger and there’s no way on earth he could get away with masquerading as an eminent psychiatrist.

Bergman is also perhaps a little miscast. She is not the slightest bit convincing as a psychiatrist.

That’s perhaps not entirely her fault but due more to the chaotic mess of a script penned by Ben Hecht. Hecht contributed some of the most embarrassing dialogue in movie history. Bergman is a fine actress but nobody could deliver some of these lines without sounding ridiculous. She does her best and it’s to her credit that her performance works at all.

So Spellbound has all the makings of a total trainwreck. In spite of this there’s plenty to enjoy here. Hitchcock gives us his usual moments of visual brilliance. There’s some good suspense. The Salvador Dali-inspired dream sequence was daring and original at the time and it’s still quite impressive even if it’s silly and outlandish.

Hollywood went gaga over psychiatry movies in the 40s. None of those movies can possibly be taken seriously but most are fun to watch. Otto Preminger's Whirlpool is the only one that can be taken semi-seriously and it's a much better movie than Spellbound.

Spellbound was a huge hit in 1945 and a critical success as well. Today it is best approached as a beer-and-popcorn movie. If you have plenty of popcorn and a lot of beer you’ll enjoy yourself.