HITCHCOCK’S WOMEN: Hearts and Minds – Constance Petersen in SPELLBOUND (1945) – PART I

Rebecca McCallum continues her Hitchcock’s Women series, here looking at a character who risks everything for love…

A figure sits behind a desk authoritatively. She wears glasses, a long white coat and is smoking whilst engrossed in work. In our first encounter with Spellbounds’ protagonist, Hitchcock codes Constance Petersen (Ingrid Bergman) as masculine, mysterious and with multiple layers awaiting deconstruction.

Hitchcock’s somewhat heavy-handed exploration of psychoanalysis on film tells the story of how a psychoanalyst falls for an imposter (Gregory Peck) who arrives at Green Manors, the hospital where she works, professing to be Dr Edwardes, a replacement for the Head Doctor Murchison (Leo G. Carroll). However, as she gets closer to Dr Edwardes, Constance soon realises that his identity is under question and he is in fact John Ballantyne, a man who is harbouring several dark and untold secrets. In typical Hitchcockian fashion, to add to the drama, the pair also begin to fall deeply in love. A wanted criminal, John flees the hospital on the run while Constance finds herself shaking off her penchant for logic in favour of listening to her heart.  Resourceful, intelligent and able to handle herself amidst relentlessly critical and oppressive circles of men, Constance takes risk after risk as she locates John, seeks to cure him of his trauma and prove his innocence so they can love one another with a full knowledge of the truth.

Fighting the Chorus of Toxic Masculinity 

An early cinematic foreshadowing of Clarice Starling in Silence of the Lambs (1991, dir. Johnathan Demme), Constance is a woman who has worked hard to become incredibly successful and respected in her career but despite this, she finds herself perpetually under the scrutiny of men. The world of Green Manors is dominated by the male sex and Constance is alone as the only female member of staff. Her male colleagues – who act as a commenting chorus of toxic masculinity – remark upon her sexuality, calling her a ‘pulsating woman’ and a ‘frustrated gymnast’, both whilst in her company and in her absence in the most base and derogatory of ways. Early on, there are multiple references to her being cold – ‘you approach everything with an ice-pack on your head’ – and possessing unemotional qualities which are deemed problematic precisely because they are perceived as being opposite to assumed conventional traits of femininity. Furthermore, one member of staff invades her space and disrespects her boundaries when he attempts to kiss her unwantedly.

Constance chooses to give this bombardment of inappropriate behaviour no power and promptly dismisses her male colleagues one by one, often using humour to diffuse underlying feelings of discomfort she surely must be experiencing: ‘you sense only your own desires’ she firmly responds in one such case. In short Constance consistently proves that she is in control, and it is not a stretch to conclude that this is what the men around her find most threatening of all. As Lisa Fremont says of Miss Torso in Rear Window: ‘she is doing a woman’s hardest job, juggling wolves’. 

An Exchange Of Light

When Constance and John first meet, Hitchcock casts a light across her face to indicate the emergence of her passionate feelings. Although she is unaware of his true identity, there is an indisputable connection between them and they are instantly drawn to one another. Unlike her colleagues John behaves respectfully towards her, while it is apparent that Constance brightens his otherwise melancholy demeanour. As a result, their attraction is instantaneous.

Time and time again, Constance’s ability to observe – no doubt formed through her profession of choice – leads her forward and ever-closer towards the truth. She is sharp, discerning and pays attention to details that other around her miss, which enables her to fit together the many pieces of a complicated jigsaw. We first see signs of this during her initial meeting with John at the canteen dinner table where a fork mark on the tablecloth clearly upsets him. Although he manages to keep this concealed from the rest of the group, we know (through Hitchcock’s framing) that Constance has picked up on this. Such a small piece of information will become vital to unravelling the truth behind John’s trauma as it will later lead her to observe a similar reaction to patterns on her gown and on a bed before she will eventually arrive at the conclusion that lines and the colour white are a fundamental key to unlocking his past.

Not long after they meet, when Constance is talking to a patient about the guilt complex, it is clear that she stirs up something in John relating to his history. Sensing this connection, and drawn to her instinctively, John invites her for a walk in the countryside not merely because she is helping him to understand himself but because he senses this is the tonic she needs too. Their relationship then, at least at this early stage, feels entirely mutual and balanced – with them both showing an awareness of the emptiness of the other and identifying with this. During their walk, Constance sheds her glasses and white coat, a sign that she feels relaxed and comfortable in his presence and that she is revealing her true self. The openness of the countryside is reflected in their mood as they talk unguardedly and we see Constance laughing for the first time, utterly carefree and in a opposite mode to the one occupied at Green Manors. Evidently, she is in high spirits, feeling revitalised: John has injected a breath of fresh air into her life. This moment may also signify the first onset of transformation for Constance who will later acknowledge this change in herself whilst looking in the mirror when she visits her analysts house. Whilst out walking she and John discuss love and she denounces poets, claiming that people read about love as one thing and then experience it as something entirely different: little does she know that soon her own theory will be disproved. 

When she returns to the canteen after her walk, the male staff do not miss an opportunity to comment upon her outing with John and her appearance: ‘it will do her good to be drooled over – something’s missing from her life’. This notion that she is in need of sex speaks to their narrow-mindedness and restrictive opinion of women. As she joins them, she has leaves in her tussled hair and is slightly dishevelled. Close attention is in fact paid to her appearance as they note her stockings and the mustard on her finger. As a single female there is more than a shadow of intimidation hanging over this scene as Constance is objectified amongst a large group of men. Her handling of the situation however is firm and confident, promptly belittling their shameful behaviour: ‘I am very sorry, I must leave this nursery’. 

Opening the Door

The same night, Constance is unable to sleep and she wakes, dressing and preening herself before seeming to approach John’s door. It is unclear if her intention is to enter his room or not but seeing the light under his door (a play on the theme of her associating him with light, as in their first meeting) she heads in the direction of the library. She pulls out Dr Edwardes’ (who she still believes him to be) book Labyrinth of the Guilt Complex, looking to get closer to him and perhaps gain an insight into the strange behaviours she has witnessed.

She stands outside his door, fighting herself. Her silhouette is seen, the shadow on the door acting as a representation of her desire and also connecting with a theme that is ongoing throughout the film aligned with psychoanalysis-that of doors opening.  She cannot fight walking away and the door must be opened. With the book in her hand she uses this as a conversation starter, but this pretence soon falls and she admits with candour ‘I’ve always felt aware of what I’m thinking, it doesn’t happen like this’, opposing her earlier remarks about love and showing that romance can happen in an instant.

Constance notes the signature of Dr Edwardes on the inside cover of the book. We also know at this point that she has received a handwritten note from John. In a moment of instinct, she compares the two – an early sign of her intuitiveness – realising after careful scrutiny that they are not written by the same person, a fact which he soon confesses to her. 

Constance’s ability to closely observe will continually aide her and John in their avoidance of the law as seen at the hotel where she has the foresight to order newspapers which alert her to them being tailed so they can leave before being caught. When they attempt to take a train to Georgia she is also aware that they will be remembered due to John being unable to provide a destination at the ticket office, and she quite rightly decides to redirect their journey to Rochester.

During the famous dream sequence described by John and created by surrealist artist, Salvador Dali, she takes down copious notes and interpretations which will later become fundamental in helping her to solve the mystery. Such small details may pass others by, but Constance absorbs everything, whilst Hitchcock invites us to investigate with her every step of the way. 

Rebecca McCallum

Rebecca will return soon for the concluding part of her analysis of Constance in Spellbound. In the meantime you can check out more of her pieces on Hitchcock’s Women here.

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