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

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

Rebecca McCallum concludes her analysis of Ingrid Bergman’s performance in Spellbound

I’ve Been Watching You

It is not merely her colleagues who objectify and demean Constance, as throughout Spellbound she is underestimated and threatened by men occupying supposed positions of authority. There are several occurrences where she is questioned by or finds herself in the same room as police officers (at Green Manors and later at her analyst’s house) and each time she is able to outsmart them.

When her newfound love flees Green Manors she goes in pursuit of him to the Empire State hotel. Upon arrival she is subjected to the unwanted approaches of a customer who disrespects the boundaries of respectability by sitting closely next to her in the foyer before pressurising her into joining him for a drink. The house detective (Bill Goodwin) soon swoops onto the scene to intervene, shooing the man away. However, any hope for a reprieve for Constance is lost as the detective himself soon emerges as a potential threat, informing her ‘I’ve been watching you for some time’, a statement that speaks to a troublingly voyeuristic tendency. Although he is a detective, he is no match for Constance who fools him into thinking that she is a married schoolteacher looking for her husband following a domestic argument. Such is his bravado that at one point, he claims to be ‘a psychologist’ totally unaware that he is in fact, talking directly to one.

In being deft enough to play to his ego, Constance manages to persuade the detective to obtain samples of handwriting that belong to checked in guests and (thanks to the note he wrote her earlier) she is able to discern which room John is staying in. As she walks towards it the hallway of the hotel acts as an outward reflection of the corridors of the mind. 

Gender and Identity 

Throughout the film, Hitchcock repeatedly seeks to masculinise Constance as shown by the costumes she wears and her unwavering loyalty to fact, science and logic. Constance subverts the traditional expectations concerning gender roles as she assumes a position usually reserved for men in cinema – that of a therapist who is treating a female patient (see also Marnie). It is she who goes in pursuit of John (as Scottie does of Madeline in Vertigo and Mark in Marnie) who is on the other hand coded as female through his multiple identities (as is Marnie with her social security cards, and Judy in Vertigo in taking on the role of Madeline for Elster), his lack of agency and – at one point – he is even seen fainting. 

However, despite coding Constance as male she is still indisputably female – therefore this makes her both powerful in her accomplishments and regrettable in the sense that, were she to be entirely feminised, the supposition is that she would not be able to cure John and uncover the truth. Read this way, Constance’s journey (similar to that of Lena in Suspicion) is about the falling away of assumed masculine qualities in order to embrace her softer, more feminine side.

In one respect, this leaves a rather reductive taste in the mouth through its lack of progressiveness. However, there is also further exploration to be considered in terms of which identity is truly her own and whether (as in many of Hitchcock’s films) her character is ultimately a conglomerate of the masculine and the feminine. 

The Master Cannot Tame The Pupil 

With the authorities on their heels after an article is featured in the press about John’s elopement, Constance whisks him off  from the hotel to her perceived safe place – the home of her own analyst and teacher, Alex Brulov (Michael Chekhov). However, early warning signs that this is not a sanctuary for Constance come when upon arrival they are forced to wait in the sitting room with two police officers.

Concocting a story that she and John are newlyweds on their honeymoon, Constance handles the situation with coolness and intelligence. When Alex returns home, he proves himself to be intelligent but altogether misogynistic, not at all dissimilar to the men at Green Manors. In fact Alex makes some of the most disturbing comments about women in the film, including that females only make good analysts until they fall in love and how ‘a woman in love operates on the lowest form of intellect.’ As a student of Alex’s, Constance has no doubt been moulded into his logic-committed and scientific approaches and has been instructed to remove feeling and sentiment from all situations. However, Constance will push against this by proving herself as someone who can think with their head and heart, as both an analyst and a human being. 

Seeking a place where she can treat John in private and without being captured by the authorities, Constance is patronised by Alex who continually tries to persuade her to cut all ties with her patient. Constance’s humanity shines through however as she responds with compassion and respect when Alex demonises John’s mental health, reminding her teacher that ‘we are speaking of a man’ rather than an object for observation and experiment.

When Alex resorts to administering bromide to John without his knowledge – which knocks him out completely – Constance questions his professional ethics. In return, he tells Constance not to complete his sentences with ‘human contradictions.’ The student continues to turn on the teacher and shames him with a lesson in kindness: ‘you say you only know the science; you don’t know his heart’. Threatening to telephone the police, Alex declares that he is ‘the master’: not only is Constance beaten down and threatened in her workplace but also subjected to the same mistreatment by her mentor figure. However, she succeeds in her battle with the male sex once more by holding close to her cause, managing to convince Alex to allow her a few days to work with John in an attempt to uncover the truth.

Unlocking the Truth and Fighting for Love

As the snow falls outside Alex’s home, Constance is again the only person to denote that this stirs a reaction in John. With the real Dr Edwardes still presumed missing and possibly murdered, John’s hazy recollections lead them to a ski resort named Gabriel Valley, a nod to the divine. In an inversion of Vertigo (where Scottie forces Judy to revisit the belltower), Constance returns John to the scene of the (assumed) crime. Believing this to be the site of the murder, the pair ski down the mountains which triggers a memory in John of a tragic accident that occurred in childhood and thus he unlocks the source of his guilt complex. Furthermore, in re-enacting the moment of Dr Edwardes death on the ski slope, John comes to a last-minute realisation that Edwardes fell off the mountain whilst skiing and – importantly – that he is not to blame. 

With the patient cured and declared innocent, Constance and John’s romantic relationship can now resume as they warm themselves by a crackling fire in a ski lodge. Constance’s appearance is fresher than ever (recalling her demeanour in the early walking scene in the countryside) and has a sparkling look in her eye – she has finally found happiness. However, Hitchcock twists the knife once more as John is charged with murder when Dr Edwardes body is discovered (with a bullet in the back) in the exact spot he described. John is promptly charged with murder and, denied contentment again, Constance summons up the strength to resume fighting once more.

Where doors previously opened, signifying an open heartedness, now we see them slamming shut, indicative of a removal of hope. Just as in the end of Marnie, where her feelings of rejection are illustrated through the bars of the window in her family home framing her face, here prison bars cover Constance’s visage. Not only are they a visualization of John’s incarceration but a symbolism of her own entrapment. In an ironic development, Constance begins to experience feelings of guilt herself, believing that she is responsible for John’s imprisonment. Alex advises his student to steer her focus back towards work, a place which he believes guarantees dependable joy and satisfaction. While the old Constance would have clung to this, through the journey she has undergone throughout the film she has now become led as much from her heart as her mind. 

Returning to Greenwood Manors, Constance meets with the now reinstated head of the facility, Dr Murchison, who makes a throwaway comment about knowing Dr Edwardes slightly, setting her mind to thinking. In the privacy of her room, she takes out the notebook where she logged the details and observations of John’s dream and begins to unfold the truth – namely that it is Murchison who is responsible for the death of Edwardes, a crime which he has pinned on the innocent John.

In her most victorious and pivotal moment, Dr Murchison cannot resist berating Constance, calling her ‘a stupid woman’. This is the sign of a man who has nothing but insults left as ammunition, who realises that his sinister plans have been discovered. Offscreen, he turns the gun he threatened Constance with (unsuccessfully) upon himself while the lovers are reunited in an uplifting denouement.

Throughout Spellbound Constance finds herself misjudged and underestimated by men, but she is a risk-taker: over the course of the film she continues in her quest for truth and love, putting her job and reputation on the line whilst also being embroiled in murder, with the threat of prison – and even death – hanging over her head. In short, she risks everything for love, whilst also making new discoveries about herself. 

Rebecca McCallum

Rebecca will return soon with her next instalment of Hitchcock’s Women.

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