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The Times (06/Jul/2005) - Take Hitchcock, Dalí and 400 human eyes

(c) The Times (06/Jul/2005)

Take Hitchcock, Dalí and 400 human eyes

The master of suspense enlisted the master of Surrealism to create dream sequences for his 1945 classic movie

It was a meeting of two great minds. It was a meeting of two great monsters. And its result was one of the most striking sequences in cinema history. The collaboration between Alfred Hitchcock, the movie-making megalomaniac, and Salvador Dalí, the mustachioed Surrealist, led to a mad intermission in the story of film.

Spellbound, a DVD of which is given away free with The Times on Saturday, is a tale, as the tagline puts it, of “the maddest love that ever possessed a woman”. It is set in a mental asylum. A famous psychiatrist (Gregory Peck), arriving to take the place of a retiring doctor, falls immediately in love with the glamorous but glacial analyst (Ingrid Bergman).

This is one of the first Hollywood films to confront Freud head-on. Its producer, David O. Selznick, even brought his own shrink in on the project to offer advice. But it wasn’t medical authenticity that Hitchcock was after, it was atmosphere. As the story develops and the psychiatrist turns out to be a paranoid impostor with amnesia, the viewer suspects that, for Hitchcock at least, the movie’s allure must have lain in the opportunity it presented to find cinematic form for the dreams that encode the amnesiac’s identity. And this was where Dalí came in.

Selznick was sceptical. He suspected that his director was employing the anarchic Surrealist for publicity purposes. But Hitchcock was serious about art. Perhaps it went back to his Roman Catholic childhood, to the votive candles flickering over paintings and church statues, lending them a dark, atmospheric film-noir sort of life. He was certainly adept with a pencil. Trained initially as an industrial draughtsman, he would later take evening classes in drawing, making sketches of people at the local railway terminal and visiting galleries. Among his earliest film jobs he made the title cards for silent movies and later he worked on the designs of the sets.

His movies often reveal not only his respect for the power of painting — in Vertigo, the character played by Kim Novak is entranced by an image of a woman who wears her hair in a twist; Rebecca was so beautiful that she can be represented only as a portrait — but also, as a director who “thought in pictures” his awareness of contemporary aesthetic developments.

Hitchcock owned an impressive art collection including works by Roualt, Vlaminck, de Chirico, Rodin and Dufy. But his own favourite, he once declared, was Paul Klee. “Klee could have made good storyboards,” he explained.

But, when it came to Spellbound, Dalí — the artist who had so famously declared that “the only difference between me and a madman is that I am not mad” — seemed to Hitchcock to be the obvious choice. He had already collaborated with Buñuel on his bizarre but inspired Un Chien Andalou in 1929, and the next year, on his scandalous L’Age d’Or. And so who better to work with on a film about psychoanalysis, about “the method by which modern science deals with the emotional problems of the sane”?

Dalí’s surrealist explorations of unconscious fantasy were perfect for the plotline. This was the artist who declared his paintings to be “handmade photographs”, created by what he termed a “paranoiac critical method” in which “irrational knowledge” unravels “in a delirium of interpretation”.

But it was the painter’s exactitude that appealed to Hitchcock. Traditionally, up to that time, the director explained, “dream sequences in film were all swirling smoke, slightly out of focus, with figures walking through mist made by dry ice smoke”. It was a convention with which he wanted to break, representing hallucinations instead with an eerie precision. He wanted to express dreams with a clarity that would be sharper than the film itself.

Arriving in Hollywood with a typical fanfare, Dalí set to work, producing over the course of a couple of months more than 100 sketches and five oil paintings for the set designer to execute. He took Surrealist ideas to bizarre extremes. Some ideas — such as “a cockroach with an eye glued onto its back moving across blank playing cards” — were tactfully rejected. Others were adopted and tried out.

In one scene, for instance, to create a nightmarish atmosphere of “heavy weight and uneasiness”, Dalí envisaged suspending “15 of the heaviest and most lavishly sculpted pianos possible” from a ballroom ceiling and swinging them over the heads of cut-out figures below who, though caught “in exalted dance poses”, would not move at all, “they would only be diminishing silhouettes in very accelerated perspective, losing themselves in infinite darkness”.

Hitchcock was prepared to tackle this tall order but because the sceptical Selznick was offering only a semi-starved budget, to save time and money he substituted miniature pianos dangling over the heads of live dwarfs. The final effect was a joke. And so this too, in the long run, was one of several dream sequences that had to be eliminated.

Compromise and corner-cutting stymied the project. Hitchcock’s interest waned. A new art director was brought in. But there was so much reshooting, recutting and redubbing that the sequences were increasingly unlike those that Dalí had devised. And, in the final cut, little of what he and Hitchcock had planned appeared. Ingrid Bergman declared that it was “such a pity; it would have been sensational”.

Gregory Peck was always to remember part of what was lost. It was shot so that, as he lay there, the audience would share his nightmare, he said. “There were 400 human eyes which looked down at me from the heavy black drapes. Meanwhile a giant pair of pliers, many times my size, would appear and then I was supposed to chase him, or it, the pliers, up the side of a pyramid where I would find a plaster-cast of Ingrid. Her head would crack and streams of ants would pour out of her face.”

Later he asked why he was having such a curtailed nightmare. “The ants’ contract was cancelled,” Hitchcock replied with his typical deadpan humour. “We couldn’t get enough trained ants from central casting, and all of their fleas were already gainfully employed.” But more seriously, he added, Selznick had worried that the sequences would make audiences laugh.

But they didn’t. The press and the public were entranced by the final — if much shortened — dream sequence. It was one of the things that made Spellbound — one of the five movies for which Hitchcock was to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Director — a commercial success. And if Dalí left irritated, eventually (after, among other experiments, a freakish collaboration with Walt Disney) dismissing film as a non-art, Hitchcock was glad to take the credit.

Spellbound has become a classic — though it is probably not advisable to watch it, as I just did, before bed, when falling asleep with its surreal images still swarming and breeding in your imagination’.