As with other entries in Criterion's Alfred Hitchcock series, this new disc, replacing an older, bare bones issue from Anchor Bay, offers a remarkable transfer of the film, and a massive trove of archival goodies.
Hitchcock's second film for legendary producer David O. Selznick, "Spellbound," re-teamed the director with Lee Garmes, the ace cinematographer of "Rebecca," and went for a uniquely luminescent look. Whereas the prestige MGM films of the period are characterized by low contrast, brightly lit scenes and subtle soft focus, "Spellbound" adds extra layers of shadows and abstract patterns; and sharper detail, with a peculiar glow around the actors: characters glow with hypnotic power, as though the film stock was imbued with the luminescence of fine lead crystal.
Once again, Criterion's done a lovely job retaining the film's image quality without skimping on the extras. Broken down into the "Labyrinth" section, there's a fairly exhaustive paper trail of the film's development: from a summary of Francis Beeding's original story, "The House of Dr. Edwardes;" to the various treatments, beginning with memos, a novel summary, and draft notes by adapter Angus MacPhail, and Selznick's longtime scribe, Ben Hecht.
In an arguably audacious move, Selznick engaged his own psychiatrist as one of the head-noodle consultants, and the DVD reproduces correspondences between Dr. May E. Romm and the producer. Additionally, there's early drafts and "dummy" text for the film's prologue. Though Hitchcock shot a montage of clinical material, Selznick subsequently axed the footage, terming it more suitable to investigative dramas like "The Snake Pit." In its place, Hecht added two opening quotations, including one by William Shakespeare to set the mood of the film.
Certainly one of the best-known elements of the film is Salvador Dali's dream sequence, which is given a fine breakdown by writer/producer James Bigwood, via surviving stills and original art. The sequence, while still quite arresting in its final state, was significantly reduced because of pacing issues, and some blatant sexual imagery deemed taboo by the Production Code.
Criterion's also included notes from the Production Code office, and audience responses from test screenings. (A firm believer in sneak previews and test screenings, Selznick felt a film could be improved in the edit room, with the aid of appropriate genre fans.)
In addition to production, promotion, set and behind-the-scenes stills, the film's original trailer is a delightful mix of hype, showing Selznick's continuing efforts to brand himself and his studio as an independent, with 'better stars than in the Heavens' and premium production elements.
Also in the promotion department is the original 1948 Lux Radio Theatre production of "Spellbound," featuring Joseph Cotton and Alida Valli in the lead roles. (Valli had been brought over from Italy, and would subsequently star in the final Selznick-Hitchcock film, "The Paradine Case,” in 1947.) Each major segment is chapter indexed, including a blatant promo spot with "guest" Dorothy Blair - a slick-tongued publicist on the Universal payroll, extolling exciting details for Universal's "Naked City."
The last major goodie is a 3-part exploration of the theremin - an early electronic instrument used by composer Miklos Rozsa to heighten the film's theme of the subconscious. Rozsa ultimately won an Oscar for his score, though "Spellbound" pigeon-holed the composer as an expert on psychological films, before the hard crime sub-genre (like "Naked City") gave him a new, hard-to-escape casting. Criterion includes almost thirty minutes from a rare 1974 conversation with author Rudy Behlmer (indexed into five chapters with a "play all" option); "The Fishko Files," in which Public Radio hostess explains her own efforts to learn the peculiar instrument; and some musical and book references for the curious. (Left off the list, however, is the Steven H. Martin's 1993 documentary, "Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey," and the myriad versions of Rozsa's iconoclastic score which exist on CD.)
Returning for another commentary track is Marian Keane, who provides another theoretical analysis of a Hitchcock film. The tone is very dry, and fans searching for historical nuggets are better served accessing the aforementioned text files. Keane's pedantic observations reflect her belief in the absolutism of the auteurist theory, and a number of her verbal brush strokes are contradicted by the factual information from surviving production documents. (Both Rudy Behlmer's "Memo from David O. Selznick," and Leonard Leff's "Hitchcock and Selznick" books contain sufficient material supporting the vital roles and contributions of writer Ben Hecht; and Selznick himself, whose editorial skills - egomaniacal and obsessive, notwithstanding - during writing and post-production stages often improved a film's pacing and clarity.)
Lastly, Leff's research into Hitchcock's 'first American period' with Selznick is distilled into a tight essay in the luscious twenty-page booklet, along with Lesley Brill's accessible breakdown of the film's investigation and exploitation of psychoanalysis.
Hitchcock titles released by Criterion include "The Lady Vanishes," "Notorious," "Rebecca," "Spellbound," and "The 39 Steps."
© 2002 Mark R. Hasan