In Hollywood films of the 1940s, a young woman was supposed to be full of love, life, yearning, and sexy fragility… especially if that young woman was played by Ingrid Bergman. You simply did not cast Ingrid Bergman unless you were going for sexy fragility. That was considered a waste of Ingrid Bergmanitude.
But Constance Petersen, psychiatrist extraordinaire, is determined to be that waste. One of the first things we learn in this movie is that Constance is about the furthest thing from sexy and yearning. She's cold, serious, and uninterested in romance.
Just check out what her colleague, the amorous (and creepy) Dr. Fleurot, tells her:
DR. FLEUROT: Your lack of human and emotional experience is bad for you as a doctor and fatal for you as a woman.
And when he grabs her in his arms he pauses, rebuffed, and says:
DR. FLEUROT: It's rather like embracing a textbook.
Constance, with her glasses and her dowdy outfit, is not, as Dr. "Sexual Harassment" Fleurot says, a "sweet, pulsing, adorable woman." She's serious. She's boring. She's cold.
(Of course, she's all these things through the lens of Hollywood in the 1940s, when calling a woman "bookish" was almost as insulting as calling her "a serial killer.")
But her coldness is presented in part as what makes Constance cool. Brulov tells her,
BRULOV: Women make the best psychoanalysts till they fall in love. After that, they make the best patients.
The film presents Constance's professional skill as tied to her lack of womanly love and sexiness. She doesn't even believe in love, as she tells Dr. Edwardes:
CONSTANCE: People fall in love, as they put it, because they respond to a certain hair coloring or vocal tones or mannerisms that remind them of their parents.
Psychological knowledge empties love out, and shows that it's meaningless and silly. Constance is a skilled psychiatrist, and a professional success, precisely because she rejects all the "womanly" nonsense about love.
Psychiatry may think that love is nonsense, but Hollywood doesn't. Hollywood loves love. (And also nonsense, for that matter.)
And so, Spellbound isn't a film about how love is stupid and professional women are awesome for not taking that stupidity seriously. Instead, it's a movie about how Constance, professional woman and cold fish, discovers in herself the womanly lover who can star in a Hollywood film.
Constance falls in love—basically at first sight—with "Dr. Edwardes," the new head of Green Manors psychiatric clinic (who's played by Gregory Peck, a guy designed for women to fall in love with).
Edwardes takes her out to walk about the hills, and the soundtrack swells into ecstatic romantic whooshing. When she comes back, she's visibly moved. One of her gossipy colleagues says:
"Did you notice her blush every time we mentioned his name?"
Once, Constance was impervious, cold, and inscrutable. But when she's in love, she becomes accessible, and readable, by everyone. Love also makes Constance more conventionally feminine and less concerned about her professional appearance and professional standing:
CONSTANCE: I've always loved very feminine clothes, but never quite dared to wear them. But I'm going to after this. I'm going to wear exactly the things that please me. And you.
Love: the Hollywood medicine that makes you uber-feminine and ready to embrace your inner love of lace and high heels.
So does Constance's love interfere with her psychiatric practice? In some ways, maybe not. Love doesn't stop her from figuring out that "Edwardes" isn't really Edwardes, but an amnesia case that makes Jason Bourne look like a stable dude.
And her love doesn't steer her wrong about Edwardes/Ballantyne's character, either. She thinks he's a good guy though everybody else thinks he's a murderer—and she's right. At first, her decision to pursue him when he leaves Green Manors seems foolish, as does her decision to protect him from the police.
CONSTANCE: You don't know this man. You know only science. You know his mind, but you don't know his heart.
Constance is being super melodramatic, and Brulov pooh-poohs her illogical womanish pleas for love. But she's right. Being in love, as it turns out, makes her a more insightful psychiatrist. Hooray for love.
But while Constance does become a better therapist through love, the movie also has a lot of anxiety about her professional success and skill. Ballantyne, for example, doesn't like it when she gets all medical.
BALLANTYNE: As a doctor you irritate me. I sit here swooning with love, and then suddenly you ask me a question and I don't like you anymore.
Constance explains that in therapy, the patient always resists and resents the doctor.
But be that as it may, the fact is that throughout the film, Ballantyne continually attacks her and insults her for her accomplishments and her professional status. "If there's anything I hate, it's a smug woman," he snarls.
Oof. According to Spellbound, smart women make men nervous
So: is the professional accomplished woman awesome? Or is she a contradiction and a threat? This film goes back and forth, cheering Constance on one moment, then having Brulov, or Ballantyne, say something nasty about women therapists the next.
It's significant that at the end, you're not exactly sure whether Constance will continue as a psychiatrist, or whether she'll give that up to be Ballantyne's wife. Can love and psychiatry coexist? Spellbound seems to have conveniently forgotten to answer that question.
Whether he goes by Edwardes, Ballantyne, JB, John Brown, or Captain Carror, you don't usually expect to find a Hollywood dreamboat flitting about a psychiatric institution.
But when Green Manors throws open its doors, that dreamboat sails in. Out with Dr. Murchison, the old, stodgy, administrator-looking guy. In with Dr. Edwardes. He's young. He's brilliant. He's charming. He looks like Gregory Peck. No wonder Constance swoons when he takes her away on a picnic to look at "sane trees, normal grass, and clouds without complexes." Dr. Edwardes is eminently swoonable.
But then there are problems. Dr. Edwardes looks like a Hollywood romantic lead… but he gets all snappish and weird when Constance makes a mark on the tablecloth with a fork. He doesn't seem to know anything about the research that made him famous. In fact, he doesn't know anything about himself at all.
As Dr. Brulov tells him,
BRULOV: You've got amnesia, and you've got a guilt complex. You don't know if you are coming or going from someplace.
In short, "Edwardes" is a big old mess.
After that brief, romantic whoosh at the beginning, "Edwardes" doesn't act like a romantic Hollywood lead at all. He's often peevish and mean; when Constance tries to analyze him, he suddenly stops being all lovey-dovey and instead starts insulting her.
BALLANTYNE: Stop it! Babbling like some phony King Solomon. Sit there full of half-witted devil talk that doesn't make sense.
That's hardly the kind of romantic love you expect from your dashing Gregory Peck.
When Brown isn't sniping, he's passing out. Every time he is forced to confront his past, he literally falls over in a faint. At one point he sleepwalks with a straight razor and looks like he's going to kill someone. Instead of the hero saving Constance, he's the weak convalescent in need of saving, or the dangerous villain.
The dating profile seemed good on the app, but in person? Constance, girl, dump this guy. Okay, he looks like Gregory Peck, but you can do better.
So, yes, Edwardes/Brown/Ballantyne is a mess in a pretty package. In most Hollywood films, the hero saves everyone. Here, though, Constance has to save the man—by turning him into a hero.
Ballantyne's all confused and conflicted; he doesn't even know who he is. In fact, he isn't himself —which is to say he's not the hero he's supposed to be. It's up to Constance to give him back his Hollywood heroism by reminding him that he is… Gregory Peck. (Or someone who looks just like him.)
And Constance does it; she figures out that Ballantyne's suffering from a guilt complex, and her analysis restores him to himself. The final treatment is taking Ballantyne out to the ski slopes where he saw Edwardes fall to his death, prompting his psychosis. Ballantyne and Constance replay the scene… and Constance almost falls over the cliff on the ski slope. Ballantyne rescues her, and by doing so he returns to his "real" self as the manly hero.
CONSTANCE: The accident happened at the spot where you saved me.
BALLANTYNE: Now let's not have any confusion about who saved whom.
The confusion is precisely that Ballantyne's saved by being turned again into the person who can do the saving. Whiny, whimpering, fainting, weak-willed, baby-man—away with you: Super Ballantyne is back in business.
And what does Super Ballantyne do? He marries Constance and sweeps her into a kiss at the close of the film, just like a real hero should. Hooray.
The thing is though… isn't Super Ballantyne kind of… anonymous? The dashing dude who kisses the leading lady could be any dashing dude.
Edwardes/Brown (who didn't even know who he was)—that guy was distinctive, if unpleasant. He was snippy, he was confused, he was unpredictable, and he kept passing out when he should have made a daring escape. He had weird dreams with eyeball curtains and giant scissors. Yeah, you wouldn't want to date him, but he's way more memorable than all those heroic what's-their-names.
Ballantyne ends up being a lot more interesting, and memorable, when he's not himself, and can't remember who he is. Spellbound's a memorable movie because the star isn't who he should be. You almost want to bop him on the skull at the end there and see if you can bring back that weird "Edwardes" guy.
Traditionally, mad scientists cackle and gibber and have wild, freaky hair. Dr. Murchison's hair is well-kempt and he keeps the gibbering to a minimum. Still, he's a nasty, evil mad scientist, and you shouldn't trust him with a test tube. Or a pistol, for that matter.
Murchison's the administrative head dude of Green Manors, a psychiatric institute. But like most psychiatrists in this movie, he's got some mental health issues himself (that's irony, folks). He had a mental breakdown from overwork, and the Board has decided that
MURCHISON: […] having crumbled once, I might crumble again.
In fact, Murchison is more than just overworked. He's kind of a psychopath. Angry at being ousted in favor of Dr. Edwardes, he goes out and kills Edwardes, which you have to admit is not the sort of thing a sane psychiatrist should do.
The character of the mad scientist, like good old Victor Frankenstein, is a way of expressing anxiety or worries about science. Everybody likes science; it makes the lights go on and gives us measles vaccines. But at the same time, science is kind of freaky. And scary. And maybe will create robots that kill us all.
Mad scientists: you can't trust 'em.
Spellbound seems to be all enthusiastic about psychiatry. The text at the beginning of the movie states that:
Once the complexes that have been disturbing the patient are uncovered and interpreted, the illness and confusion disappear…and the devils of unreason are driven from the human soul.
That all sounds great—but then you've got Dr. Murchison over there, and he's not banishing devils. He's shooting people, because his work as a psychiatrist unbalanced him.
Murchison doesn't have a lot of screen time; he's not much of a character. Instead, he's kind of an anxious shadow—a fear that maybe this psychiatry stuff doesn't banish unreason, but sneaks more unreason in.
Maybe, just maybe, science isn't clearing the cobwebs from the human mind. Maybe it's putting some creepy spiders in there, to skitter around between your ears.
Dr. Alexander Brulov is basically Yoda with a beard and a German accent. Seriously, watch the film again and imagine him as shorter and greener with bigger ears. Instead of "This is the way science goes backward," he would say, "This is the way backward science goes." It totally works.
And why does it totally work? It totally works because mentor-figures in films tend toward the same archetype. They're old, they're wise, and they're cute in their snarkiness. You're supposed to listen to them and say, "Aww, isn't that adorably Buddha-like," even when they say poisonous, sexist nonsense like,
BRULOV: Women make the best psychoanalysts till they fall in love. After that they make the best patients.
So yes, Brulov's annoying. But you know somewhere in that beard he's got a light saber. So you have to love him.
Bonus: he helps Constance delve into Ballantyne's fevered brain and figure out the true story behind his amnesia, fainting spells, and deep fear of the color white.
Dr. Fleurot wants to sweep Constance off her feet and whisk her off to romantic bliss. Unfortunately, he's played by John Emery, rather than by Gregory Peck, and so his sweeping fails.
Also, he's a condescending, sexist jerk, so that may be part of why Constance isn't that into him. Seriously, see for yourself:
FLEUROT: You're a sweet, pulsing, adorable woman underneath. I sense it every time I come near you.
CONSTANCE: You sense only your own desires and pulsations. I assure you, mine in no way resemble them.
That's an epic takedown right there. If Fleurot were half as smart as he thinks he is, he would have taken that rebuff and crawled under an analyst's couch and not come out for the remainder of the film.
He isn't half that smart, though, so he keeps walking around, being John Emery and wishing he were Gregory Peck. You almost feel bad for him… but not really.
Mr. Garmes feels guilty.
That's really all there is to his character. He's in the film to have a guilt complex, foreshadowing John Ballantyne's guilt complex. He thinks he killed his father, which gives Constance a chance to explain how guilt complexes work. It also gives Ballantyne a chance to demonstrate that he isn't really Edwardes, because, unlike Edwardes, he doesn't know how guilt complexes work.
Mr. Garmes tries to kill Fleurot (can't blame him there) and then tries to kill himself. He doesn't succeed… and then he largely disappears from the film. Is his guilt ever cured? You never find out. He's not the main character, and Spellbound doesn't care about him.
It doesn't even feel guilty for not caring. Harsh.
Mary Carmichael hates men. She tells you so herself:
MARY: I hate men. I loathe them. If one of them so much as touches me, I want to sink my teeth into his hands and bite it off.
Mary's at Green Manors because she's mentally ill—and the illness takes the form of a pathological hatred of men. She needs to learn to like men to get better.
As it happens, that parallels the problem of her psychiatrist, Constance Petersen. Mary's flirtatious while Constance is cold, and Mary's outright ill while Constance is just repressed.
Nonetheless, they're both portrayed as out of whack… because they aren't fond enough of guys. In a Hollywood film, women are supposed to like men and go off and get married. If they don't, you send them to an analyst before they hurt someone.
Carmichael, incidentally, is played by Rhonda Fleming, who went on to become one of the most glamorous Hollywood actresses of the 1950s. The scene with Mary and Constance, then, is a kind of a nightmare-vision: what if all these incredibly beautiful Hollywood actresses like Ingrid Bergman and Rhonda Fleming suddenly decided they hated men? What, oh what, would Hollywood do?
Luckily, Mary's whooshed off screen quickly, and Gregory Peck shows up to make sure Constance isn't frigid. Men everywhere are saved—just barely.
Detectives aren't as good as analysts.
Spellbound's a mystery—but the heroes are psychiatrists, not detectives. That's underlined when Constance meets the house detective at the hotel where Ballantyne is hiding out.
The detective thinks he's got Constance pegged as a regretful wife trying to find the husband she kicked out. Constance runs with it and totally bamboozles him. By the time he figures out that Ballantyne's wanted for murder, the pair have made their escape.
So next time you need a mystery solved, don't call the police. Call a psychiatrist. Psychiatrists: they fix everything… unless, like Dr. Murchison, they shoot you. It's one or the other in Spellbound.