Freudian Themes in Alfred Hitchcock's 'Spellbound' Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Freudian Themes in Alfred Hitchcock's 'Spellbound'

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A surreal Dali-esque picture including a face, a melting clock and a man in a suit.
Our story deals with psychoanalysis, the method by which modern science treats the emotional problems of the sane. The analyst seeks only to induce the patient to talk about his hidden problems, to open the locked doors of his mind. Once the complexes that have been disturbing the patient are uncovered and interpreted, the illness and confusion disappear ... and the evils of unreason are driven from the human soul.
- Introduction to Spellbound (1945)

Senior Crew and Cast

  • Producer - David Selznick

  • Director - Alfred Hitchcock

  • Dream Sequence Designer - Salvador Dali

  • Dr Constance Peterson (Ingrid Bergman) - A psychiatrist at the Green Manors insane asylum.

  • John Ballantine (JB) (Gregory Peck) - An amnesiac at the start of the film, he believes himself to be a Dr Edwards who is taking up a new job as director of the Green Manors asylum.

  • Dr Alex Brulov (Michael Chekhov) - A senior member of staff at Green Manors and Dr Peterson's mentor/teacher.

  • Dr Murchison (Leo G Carroll) - The elderly retiring Director of Green Manors.

  • Dr Fleurot (John Emery) - A psychiatrist, who is interested in starting a relationship with Dr Peterson.

  • Garmes (Norman Lloyd) - A patient suffering from a guilt complex who believes that he has killed his father, but that his brother has punished him by having him committed to the asylum.

Background to the Making of Spellbound

Psychoanalysis has been used as a plot device in suspense/thrillers since the 1940s, where an analyst would solve a mystery instead of the more traditional detective or private eye. However, the first film to ever use this plot was Alfred Hitchcock's Spellbound.

Freudian psychodynamic theories were very current and fashionable at the time of the making of Spellbound. The basic ideas were widely known; that neurotic symptoms are a symbolic reaction to a psychological shock and that the memory of the shock and its associated feelings are so distressing that they need to be banished from conscious recall by the mind's defence mechanisms. Sigmund Freud died in London in September 1939, and preparation for Spellbound began only four years later.

The producer, David Selznick, went into analysis in 1943 after the joint strain of a complicated relationship with an actress and remaining an independent film maker without the backing of a big studio. Perhaps unconsciously using a defence mechanism, he sometimes claimed instead that he was actually analysing his therapist, May Romm. Either way, it gave him the idea of doing a film to be based on his experiences in psychotherapy, and he had worked with Hitchcock before. He even brought his psychotherapist in on the set to be a technical advisor.

Spellbound is an unusual and unlikely combination of psychoanalysis and a thriller/murder mystery. Hitchcock was known more for thrillers, and this is one of his less well known films because it moves away from this type of plot. However, Hitchcock was well aware that the film was a fantasy. As you can see from the quote above, he announces at the very beginning that the film is simply a story taking place in a Freudian world; we should therefore see it as such. Once, when Selznick's psychotherapist disputed a point of fact with Alfred Hitchcock on how therapy works, Hitchcock is said to have told her, 'My dear, it's only a movie'.

However, it explores themes that are central to Freud's work, such as the unresolved tension between 'material reality' (what actually happened) and 'psychical reality' (what our conscious allows us to believe happened). The fantasy itself is a version of the Oedipus story, with incestuous desire and repressed guilt, with a few other riddles for the viewer to solve thrown in. There is also the idea of 'the old making way for the new' both in the abstract sense of the old ideas on how to treat the insane making way for the new, Freudian ideas, and the actual sense of being replaced by younger staff, or new people in a relationship1.

The Story

The head of the Green Manors mental asylum, Dr Murchison, is retiring to be replaced by Dr Edwards, a famous psychiatrist. Edwards arrives and meets all the staff, including the asylum's only female doctor, the beautiful but cold Dr Constance Petersen. She is deeply distrustful of the old style of analysis based on intuition and feelings and takes the more objective approach (represented symbolically by her spotless, white lab-coat), in contrast to Murchison, the retiring chief. She is recognised as being an excellent psycho-analyst, whose ability to analyse data is unquestionable, but she has no life outside of her work.

All this changes when Constance is immediately attracted to the new arrival, and he to her. She loses her cold exterior and, it would seem, her ability to have clear, intellectual thoughts. They begin to fall in love, but it soon becomes clear that Edwards has some problems. He begins to show strange signs of some kind of psychological disturbances, reacting bizarrely with panic attacks to things as simple as rubbing a fork against table cloth, or the black stripes on a sweater, in fact any parallel lines. Dr Edwards' strange behaviour unsettles the staff, and at one point he collapses and is put to bed by Constance. This arouses her professional interest in him as a case study, to add to her already increasing personal feelings.

Staff discover that the real Dr Edwards has been murdered and the impostor 'Dr Edwards' is in fact a paranoid amnesiac who is suspected of the murder, but is unable to remember anything at all, except the initials JB on a cigarette case, which seem to indicate his real name, John Ballantine. He goes on the run to avoid trouble.

Constance does a strange and rather far-fetched thing for a doctor. Instead of turning JB over to the police she decides to risk her whole career and follow him, since she is convinced that she can cure him with love and devotion, letting the heart win over the mind, despite her factual knowledge of therapy! She manages to track him to a Manhattan hotel, and they are reunited.

JB suffers flashbacks and a strange recurring dream. He wants to search for the truth about his past, and thereby restore his sanity with the help of Constance, who tries to reawaken lost memories gently without pushing him over the edge. It is also important to find out what actually happened to the real Dr Edwards. They seek help from her old teacher, Dr Brulov, but there are detectives looking for them.

The puzzles of the strange dream are solved, and JB returns to the site of his apparent murder of the real Dr Edwards. From Constance's dialogue the viewer finds out that he has been arrested, charged with murder and put in prison, and nothing more is seen of him until the end of the film. This is the point in the film where the supposed fantasy of Ballantine's story begins to be revealed as reality.

Without giving the plot away too much, at the end of the film Constance solves the murder. She confronts the real murderer, and Ballantine is finally released, both from prison and from the guilt which has haunted him. He is reunited with Constance.

Identification by the Viewer

Successful films have the audience identifying with one of the characters, for example, especially with films in the 1940s, the 'active male hero' or 'passive female'. Hitchcock's films are not known for his portrayal of women. He has even been accused of sexism. Many of the actresses in his films are portraying blondes who are troubled, morally challenged women of seemingly limited intellectual capacities.

The female viewer has a promising start, with an unusually strong character - both for Hitchcock's films and in fact many films of the 1940s. Constance is the only female doctor at the asylum. She is seen as being almost incapable of feelings, distrustful of intuition (a feminine characteristic) with a masculine devotion to her job. However, as soon as she falls in love, Constance is shown as not being capable of clear thought and rapidly becomes more like a subjective, silly, over emotional adolescent, prepared to risk her whole life and career for a man she has only known for a few days. Hitchcock probably intended this to mean that women can't function while in love. Several of the male characters even comment on this.

The male viewer is asked to face his own childhood Oedipal struggle and identify with Ballantine, a character going through guilt for the death of a father-figure, desire for a woman initially presented in the role of a maternal carer, and eventual identification with a new father-figure.

The Parted Eye

Hermia: Methinks I see these things with parted eye, When everything seems double...

Demetrius: Are you sure That we are awake? It seems to me That yet we sleep, we dream.
- A Midsummer Night's Dream, Act IV, Scene ii

One of the themes running through the whole film is the idea of things being divided. The world of psychiatry has the old and the new ideas. There is the difference between age and youth; parent and child. The main characters have two identities. Is he Edwards or JB? Is she an objective doctor or a muddle-headed woman in love? The murderer's identity is a surprise as this reveals a hidden side. Straight lines divide. Are we responsible for our own actions or just victims of circumstance? What is true and what is false? There is actual reality and reality created by defence mechanisms. Which is 'material reality' and which 'psychical reality'? There is also a distinction between what we are consciously aware of and what is accessible through hypnosis and dream analysis.

This is all reflected in the best known scene from the film, the visually stunning dream sequence, designed by the surrealist artist Salvador Dali. The central image is of an oversized pair of scissors cutting through an eye painted on a curtain. Dali had used a similar sequence in another film, of a razor slicing through an eyeball2, and Hitchcock would have seen this. Surrealists make no distinction between fantasy and reality. If it can be imagined, it exists.

The images of the dream sequence reflect this first theme of dividedness. In particular, portraying both aspects of the turmoil in Ballantine's mind. Some images mirror the actual events he has lived through and give clues to this 'material reality'. Other images are clearly parts of his imagination, indicating the 'psychical reality' of the Oedipal complex, which is the second theme underlying the whole film.

Freudian Themes

At one point in the film Constance explains, in simple terms, the psychological notion of the role of imagination and fantasy in the creation of guilt:

People often feel guilty over something they never did. It usually goes back to their childhood. The child often wishes something terrible would happen to someone, and if something does happen to that person, the child believes he has caused it. And he grows up with a guilt complex over a sin that was only a child's bad dream.

The Oedipal struggle is the other theme that runs though the film, associated not just with guilt, but also fear and identification. The child's feelings of wanting to replace the father in the relationship by eliminating him in some way ('dead father') are accompanied by initial guilt, followed by fear (of the 'bad father'), followed by identification (with the 'good father'). The 'family' roles represented by the characters in the film are referred to overtly in dialogue, more obscurely in half heard comments, or more subtly in visual images.


Ballantine is the character with the Oedipal struggle. There can be only one 'mother' figure, that of Constance. However, all of the male characters represent different aspects of the 'father' figure. The film follows the sequence of feelings toward these father figures: guilt for the 'dead father', killed in the imagination; fear of the 'bad father', with his power to punish; and eventually, resolving the complex, identification with the 'good father'.


Constance is cast in the caring, maternal role as a doctor. She is referred to as the mother figure, first by Fleurot, who says he can 'detect the outcroppings of a mother instinct toward Dr Edwards'. Later Brulov warns her, 'You are not his mama'. Constance watches over him while he sleeps. However, she protests at being seen in this role. This theme is later also reflected and hinted at by one of the detectives who comments that his boss has called him a 'mama's boy'.


Fleurot is presented at the start of the film as someone who has a romantic interest in Constance, although she rejects him. Although Ballantine does not attack him directly, there is a minor character, Garmes, a patient with a similar guilt complex, who Hitchcock allows to do this as a surrogate for Ballantine. At the same time as Ballantine and Constance are seen having their first love scene, Garmes attacks Fleurot. Similarly, there is a scene in the hotel lobby which reveals Constance as being in need of protection from unwanted advances. However, although Hitchcock has the viewer witnessing these scenes, Ballantine, the Oedipal rescuer, does not, so Fleurot is not a good character for the role of 'father figure'.


Brulov has been Constance's teacher, she trusts him, and turns to him for help when there is nowhere else she can go. He begins Ballantine's analysis by telling him 'I am going to be your father-figure'. He joins Constance in watching over the sleeping Ballantine, like parents taking care of their sick child. There is a scene in which Ballantine intends to get rid of this father figure, perhaps because he sees him as a rival in the affections of Constance. However, he is prevented from causing any harm, and learns to trust him too.


The struggle with Murchison might be a professional rather than sexual one - over who possesses Green Manors rather than Constance. It is the idea of the old making way for the new. Murchison recognises the 'father and son' type generation gap, telling 'Edwards' when they meet, 'You're younger than I thought you'd be'. In fact, Murchison reverses the Oedipal conflict, so that the 'father' manages to project something onto the 'son', although, again, Ballantine is not ever aware of this aspect to the Oedipus conflict so he cannot really be seen to be afraid of this figure.

Minor Characters

Characters who are dead before the film starts function jointly as another elaborately disguised, father-figure and it is the understanding of their part that leads to the final resolution of the conflict. JB mistakenly thinks he must have killed the real Edwards. This, he believes, is causing the strong guilt feelings. However, it is finally revealed that all Edwards' death has done is reawakened a long-standing guilt complex stemming from a terrible, half remembered, childhood tragedy.

From the point in the film that JB is revealed to be troubled by this event in his past, it seems that the story will become a case history of his imagined world and how he has repressed the actual guilt, anxiety and sexual desire. However, the truth is that he actually does have good reason to respond in the way he does. One of his father figures really has been killed, and many people believe JB to be the guilty man. Another of the father figures really is plotting a way to bring him down. The woman who takes on the job of caring for him really does come to have feelings for him.

Although the character is missing from the film once arrested, the Oedipal issues are resolved in his absence, and the film finally moves from the fantasy into actual events. Using several different Freudian defence mechanisms, JB has displaced guilt over a repressed traumatic incident in his childhood, and transferred it onto the death of the real Edwards.

However, it is revealed that JB did not kill either of these 'good father' figures so he has no need to feel guilt. He does not even have to face up to the 'bad father' after all, so there is no anxiety. By the end of the film he is free from the struggle, which he didn't bring on himself anyway. He was simply a victim of some unfortunate circumstances. He is ready to understand this, and to move on with his life. The conflict has reached the point of resolution.

Cheesy Quotes

  • Women make the best psychoanalysts until they fall in love. After that they make the best patients.
    - Dr Brulov

  • We both know that the mind of a woman in love is operating on the lowest level of intellect.
    - Dr Brulov

  • Now, this honeymoon is complicated enough without your dragging medical ethics into it.
    - John Ballantine

  • Good night and sweet dreams... which we'll analyse in after breakfast.
    - Dr Brulov


  • The film is very loosely based on a novel called The House of Dr Edwardes. The novelist, Francis Beeding, was, in fact, two people who wrote it despite hardly ever meeting.

  • Hitchcock always made a cameo appearance in his films. In Spellbound you can see him coming out of the lift at the Empire Hotel carrying a violin, about 40 minutes into the film.

  • If Selznick tried to interfere during filming, Hitchcock would pretend the camera was broken until he went off set.

  • A special Spellbound perfume was marketed at the same time as the film was released.

  • This film is in black and white but has the shortest-ever Technicolor sequence - two frames tinted bright red near the end of the film, where a gun shot goes off while pointed at the camera.

  • The impossible perspective in this particular 'point of view' shot was made possible by the construction of a large model of a giant hand holding a giant gun.

  • There is a skiing scene with a backdrop that looks very outdated to modern viewers, but is nonetheless pivotal to the understanding of the story. The 'snow' falling in it is actually cornflakes.

  • One scene has the psychiatric doctors performing surgery, which wouldn't happen.

  • Dali's dream sequence was originally supposed to run for 20 minutes. It included a scene with Constance covered in ants. Only part of it was actually filmed, and even less of it ended up in the final released version. The five by six metre canvas used in the film is currently on display in London at the Dali Universe exhibition in County Hall, next to the London Eye. The oil painting can be found in the Dreams and Fantasy section of the exhibition which contains more than 500 pieces of Dali's work.

1It could be argued that this theme runs through a lot of film plots!2The film is called Un Chien Andalou (1929) and was made by Dali with Luis Bunuel.

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