From: Subject: Date: April 21, 2005 3:53:51 PM CDT Hankblog

Tuesday, July 20, 2004

Movie Retrospectives: Wrong Men and Notorious Women

In some respects, it's kinda interesting starting out with this particular Hitchcock/Bergman collaboration for Wrong Men and Notorious Women. All of the features we'll be looking at this week are Hitch films featured in a discontinued box set by Criterion that focus on Hitchcock's skill at creating tension and mystery out of confusing situations. It just so happens that the first feature I chose to look at for this week shows off his raging misogynist side in all its glory as well.

Spellbound focuses on Dr. Constance Peterson, a psychiatrist played by the always radiant Ingrid Bergman. Peterson works at Green Manors, a mental asylum where Peterson has developed a reputation as being almost too singularly devoted to her work and research. Her determination to always find new ways to help her patients combined with her repeated refusal of the advances by some of her male coworkers has led most of her colleagues to believe Peterson a cold fish. All this changes soon enough with the arrival of Dr. Anthony Edwardes, played by a very young Gregory Peck.

Edwardes has come to Green Manors to assume the position of head of staff, replacing Dr. Murchison (Leo G. Carroll). Dr. Murchison is reluctant to leave his post, but the ravages of time have left him battling senility, and he recognizes it is his time to go. Drs. Peterson and Edwardes immediately click and fall into what could be a potential whirlwind romance, were it not for one small problem. Edwardes seems to be prone to some kind of panic attack that strikes him when he is confronted with excessive whiteness in his surroundings (the color, not some kind of Caucasian fear :-), or by parallel vertical stripes.

This phobia in and of itself would be merely odd in any other director's hands. In Hitchcock's hands, it becomes a means to an end towards moving the story into more suspenseful territory. Before you know it, you learn that Edwardes is not in fact Edwardes, has no clue who he really is, and may be a suspect in Edwardes possible death. Peterson and Edwardes rush off, trying to stay one step of the authorities while Peterson utilizes all her skills as an analyst to try and unlock the memories trapped in "Edwardes" head to determine who he really is...and ascertain his guilt or innocence.

The story moves along at a fairly brisk pace as Peterson and the faux-Edwardes (now using the alias John Brown until they can learn more) go around the state of New York in search of clues to unravel the mystery. Despite the possibility that she may be falling for a man who may not be what he appears, Peterson finds all her old beliefs about the nature of love between a man and woman completely unraveled. She is drawn to Brown in ways she does not pretend to be able to understand or explain.

And that is exactly where the story jumps the tracks somewhat for the modern audience. There are so many backhanded comments/compliments/observations about the "nature" and behavior of a woman in love that I almost imagine that had this been written for a modern audience, the central theme could be summed up as follows: women in love ride the short bus to school.

Don't believe me? Watch the movie for yourself. The only quote on imdb for the movie that supports this ideal is one from one of Peterson's colleagues, when he says "Women make the best psychoanalysts until they fall in love. Then they make the best patients." There are others that amount to more of this same idea. Peterson is at various times called stupid, crazy, and incapable of functioning in her professional ostensibly because she has fallen in love with Brown/Edwardes. It's true that she winds up taking measures that would go well out of the bounds of her professional canon for this man. But the comments that are made in this respect throughout the film which were played straight up for the audience this was written for come off as laughably backhanded insults today. I could not help but look at the friends I was watching the movie with and shake my head while asking "Did they really just say that?"

The film's ardent anti-feminist tone aside, the movie itself while not Hitchcock's strongest work is still very enjoyable to watch. This was Peck's third credit, and think it might have been his first true lead (still uncertain on that point). He already displays a great deal of the strength and range that would define his career. When he passed last year, Paramount Theater here in Austin ran To Kill a Mockingbird in memoriam. Before the film, they were fortunate enough to have a screen test that Peck did that nabbed him his first studio contract. The film came from UT's Harry Ransom Center Archives. At the time as I recall them explaining, Peck had just enrolled in med school at UCLA, and was trying acting as little more than a lark. Yet he displayed more skill as an actor in one cold reading from a script than I've seen in most actors today. He was truly one of the all time greats, and will truly be missed.

In the same vein, I can never get enough of Ingrid Bergman. She plays Dr. Peterson exceptionally well, giving her a very expressive face that adds a lot of depth to her lines. Just as a psychiatrist may read body language in evaluating a patient, the viewer gets a chance to read a different level of Bergman's performance by seeing what her body language may convey. This is most evident in the way she carries herself in her stiff formal mode prior to Edwardes' appearance at Green Manors, and the more comfortable, self assured way she carries herself after she falls in love with him.

There's also all the typical Hitchcock touches that give the movie his personal feel. The score accentuates things nicely, especially during a dream sequence in which Peterson and her mentor from school try and interpret the dreams of Brown to find the secret to his missing memories. The dream sequence was laid out and designed by Salvador Dali. Although originally set to run 20 minutes in the original script, only a small portion was finally used. The effect it has in bringing all of the final missing pieces together does require a bit of a leap of faith, but is no less entertaining for that.

An enjoyable, if dated, suspense yarn featuring a couple of top notch performers. A good way to start things off this week.

Tomorrow: We return to Ingrid and another celebrated leading man (Cary Grant) in Notorious.