Friday, September 3, 2010

The Anatomy of Suspense

This afternoon, I was watching Alfred Hitchcock's classic, Spellbound. It's the story of a female psychologist trying to help an amnesiac who may or may not have committed a murder, and I was wondering what made this particular movie from Hitch so suspenseful. It wasn't the simple fact that Gregory Peck and Ingrid Bergman were being pursued by the authorities; no, it was something more, the suspense was deeper. The true suspense of Spellbound is in the uncertainty of our own thoughts and beliefs while watching it.

Within Spellbound, Gregory Peck's character starts off as one person, then turns out to be someone else. Who, we do not know, but what we do know is that he is the only suspect in a murder case. Like Ingrid Bergman's character, we are initially fooled by this charming, but clearly unsettled individual. The thing that makes Peck's character so unsettled is that you never know what he's going to say or do. Like the flip of a light switch, Peck can go from charming Roman Holiday-Gregory, to creepy, farthest thing from Atticus Finch, Gregory.

There is one scene in particular where Peck wakes up in the middle of the night, and has a mental breakdown in the bathroom. Peck grabs hold of a razor and slowly creeps back into the bedroom where Ingrid Bergman is asleep, and for all of those long, agonizing moments that Hitchcock milks for all their worth, he leads us to believe that perhaps Peck did commit this murder that he is being accused of and that he might murder again. Of course he doesn't, but it's for scenes like this where all of the suspense of Spellbound emerges.

As the movie plays on, we learn more about Peck's psychosis, why he has his innate fears of the color white, and through a marvelous dream sequence, we psychoanalyze Peck alongside Hitch and discover the odd association Peck's character has with sloped structures and his own tragic childhood of accidentally killing his own brother. And this is where I'm getting to the point.

Peck's character has masked these long forgotten traumas for years upon years, to where he ultimately forgot his entire identity just to not have to remember the severe traumas of life. Now, I think what makes this so suspenseful for an audience member, such as myself, is I begin to wonder if I have long lost memories somewhere in my own psychosis that I can't remember because I wish to never relive them. Perhaps I don't, or perhaps I do.

It's naive to think that we know everything there is to know about ourselves, the mind being quite possibly the hardest thing to dissect of the human disposition. Sure, psychoanalysis exists to try and understand the mind, but that is still just guesswork at best. The honest truth is that there are untapped regions of the human mind, doors so to speak (as is visualized in the movie when Peck kisses Bergman for the first time and we see in a dream sequence doors flying open, showing Peck entering into Bergman's psyche), these hidden regions in our mind may be our own worst enemies, like Gregory Peck's mind was in Spellbound.

So, in essence, Hitchcock internalized his classic scenario of the wrongly accused man and created quite possibly the most chilling tale of psychological analysis ever put to celluloid. The human mind is the villain for once, and that is the suspense of Spellbound.

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