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American Cinematographer (1991) - Solving a Spellbound Puzzle




A myth has grown up around the Salvador Dali designed dream sequence which forms the core of Alfred Hitchcock's 1945 psychological mystery, Spellbound. The sequence, which runs two minutes and forty nine seconds (including cutaways to Gregory Peck as he recalls his dreams for Ingrid Bergman and Michael Chekhov) is rumored to be all that remains of a much longer and involved sequence. The source of some of these rumors is Miss Bergman herself, who called it "a wonderful 20 minute sequence that really belongs in a museum."

Some highly talented filmmakers were involved in making the brief but memorable sequence, including the autocratic independent producer, David O. Selznick; author Ben Hecht; director of photography George Barnes, ASC; special effects cinematographers Jack Cosgrove, ASC, and Rex Wimpy; art director James Basevi; designer/director William Cameron Menzies, and optical effects cinematographer Clarence Slifer, ASC.

Dali's designs provide the visual illustration of an amnesiac's dreams. Contained in the dreams are clues to his identity, as well as the solution to a murder which he fears he may have committed. The character of Dr. Brulov (Chekhov) describes the film's somewhat simplistic view of Freudian analysis as he urges the "J.B." to open up: "I'll explain to you about dreams, so you don't think it is 'hooey'. The secrets of who you are and what has made you run away from yourself‑all of these secrets‑ are buried in your brain. But you don't want to look at them. The human being very often doesn't want to know the truth about himself because he thinks it will make him sick. So he makes himself sicker trying to forget. . . Now here's where dreams come in. They tell you what you are trying to hide. But they tell it to you all mixed up, like pieces of a puzzle that don't fit. The problem of the analyst is to examine this puzzle and put the pieces together in the right place and find out what the devil you are trying to say to yourself."

As "J.B." starts to recount his dreams, the camera starts to move. Dollying in to Gregory Peck's face, it delves further, dissolving through into his mind, revealing the characteristic landscapes of Salvador Dali: "I can't make out just what sort of place it was. It seemed to be a gambling house but there weren't any walls. Just a lot of curtains with eyes painted on them. A man was walking around with a large pair of scissors cutting all the drapes in half. And then a girl came in with hardly anything on and started walking around the gambling room kissing everybody. She came to my table first.. . I was sitting there playing cards with a man who had a beard. I was dealing to him and I turned up the seven of clubs. He said, 'That makes 21. I win/ But when he turned up his cards, they were blank. Just then, the proprietor came in and accused him of cheating. The propriet...

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James Bigwood has published articles in American Film, the New York Times and Films in Review, and is co‑author with Doug Youngkin and Ray Cabana of The Films of Peter Lorre. He was an associate producer of New Jack City and the forthcoming Juice, directorial debut of Ernest Dickerson, ASC.