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The MacGuffin: News and Comment (18/Jul/2009)

(c) Ken Mogg (2004)

July 18

Hitchcock's Spellbound is his film in which the theme of illusion and reality is first raised in a significant way, a theme whose Hitchcockian apotheosis comes in Vertigo (1958) and Psycho (1960). (The latter film is about what happened to Norman Bates 'when reality came too close' - to quote the film's psychiatrist.) It's an exciting theme because absolutely fundamental - as Kant's distinction between the noumenal (the supposedly unknowable Thing-in-itself) and the phenomenal (perceived reality, but always shaped by the nature of the brain) may remind us. In turn, Freud's concept of the Unconscious versus the Conscious mind offers a rough parallel. A literary work like R. L. Stevenson's 'Dr Jeckyll and Mr Hyde' (1886) anticipated Freud, and provided a template for any number of works about 'the divided self' to follow - including Hitchcock's The Lodger (1926), based on a story by Mrs Belloc-Lowndes. 1926 is a watershed year, the year in which Freud definitely reached both the stage and the screen. In London, the melodrama 'The Lash' featured a forgotten childhood trauma which provides the solution to a present-day mystery (cf Hitchcock's Marnie, 1964). And the German film Geheimnisse einer Seele/Secrets of a Soul (G.W. Pabst), about a knife phobia, showed a professor (Werner Krauss) cured of his terrors by pouring out his troubles to a psychoanalyst. Some of the film's dream sequences remain stunning. The novel on which Spellbound was loosely based, 'The House of Dr Edwardes', by 'Francis Beeding', appeared in 1927. What is interesting is that it took some of its inspiration from the work of a now almost forgotten playwright, the Frenchman H. R. Lenormand. His play 'La Dent Rouge'/'The Red Tooth' (published 1924) is specifically mentioned, and we are told that '[h]e dramatizes the subconscious, you know. It's like a lot of complexes walking about; very chatty they are, too, and most informing.' In 1928, Salvador Dali and Luis Bunuel combined to make the first Surrealist film, Un chien andalou/The Andalusian Dog, showing definite Freudian influence - which would carry over to the dream sequence of Spellbound, a sequence 'based on designs by Salvador Dali' (see frame-capture below). Another almost forgotten work is the Swiss/German film Die ewige Maske/The Eternal Mask (Werner Hochbaum, 1936), set in a hospital and owing something to the German silent classic Das Kabinett des Doktor Caligari/The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (Robert Wiene, 1920), which had starred the already-mentioned Werner Krauss. Die ewige Maske is described by Parker Tyler as bearing 'a family resemblance to Dr Caligari and other films of the bizarre school, both French and German - films which explore the vagaries of the mind solely for their fantasy or entertainment value'. (He may be forgetting Geheimnisse einer Seele.) Tyler encapsulates the film like this: 'For the first time in films, the Expressionist exterior is used to indicate passage from the ordinary, sane world to one of mental hallucination. Persons: a severely depressed doctor and a snubbed prostitute.' Surely the makers of Spellbound (Hitchcock, Ben Hecht, Angus MacPhail, and Salvador Dali) knew of Werner Hochbaum's film? Next I'll mention a Hollywood film, Moontide (Archie Mayo, 1942), featuring a theme tune, Irving Berlin's 'Remember?', which is 'plugged to death' (as David Shipman says). The film was originally going to be directed by Fritz Lang and include sequences designed by Dali, but the latter were dropped when Mayo took over. Thus the way was left open for Spellbound to be the first popular film to deal with psychoanalysis and to feature Dali's designs. Finally this week, here's an interesting anecdote told by Elliott H. King in his book 'Dali, Surrealism and Cinema' (2007). Apparently portrait photographer Philipp Halsmann, celebrated for his 1954 book 'Dali's Mustache' - not to mention a series of photos of Hitchcock he did over the years - was involved in a bizarre accusation in 1928 that he had murdered his father on a hiking trip in the Alps when Philipp was a 22-year-old student in Dresden. The case became known as 'the Austrian Dreyfus Affair' and there was even a Freud connection (Freud was asked about the Oedipus complex in connection with it). It seems quite possible that Hitchcock would have heard of the case and that it influenced the screenplay of Spellbound (with its death of a father-figure on a skiing trip). More next time.

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This material is copyright of Ken Mogg and the Hitchcock Scholars/'MacGuffin' website (home page) and is archived with the permission of the copyright holder.