Spellbound vs. Laura – Two creepy movies for October

First, an apology/disclaimer… there WILL be classic literature reviews coming soon!!  I often watch movies/TV in batches, so this is one of those phases for me.  🙂

Spellbound (1945)

Spellbound is a twisted tale of the romance between an ambitious young doctor (Ingrid Bergman) and her unlikely boss (Gregory Peck).  The two work as psychoanalysts in the same mental health facility, and in spite of the office gossip, Constance finds herself falling in love for the first time.  Anthony, on the other hand, begins to show signs of mental distress, haunted by fears he cannot remember nor explain.  When Anthony becomes implicated in a crime, Constance – terrified of losing him – decides to apply all her knowledge on mental health to try to discern the truth from his scattered memories.

Laura (1944)

Laura (Gene Tierney), a charismatic young businesswoman, is found dead in her apartment one morning, brutally shot in the face.  Detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) arrives on the scene and begins to question everyone who was close to Laura, from her shady fiance Shelby (Vincent Price) to her jealous mentor Waldo (Clifton Webb).  From getting to know these various characters and reading Laura’s letters and diary, Mark begins to form a picture of the obsessions which surround her – obsessions which begin to affect him personally.

The Weaknesses of Strong Women

These two films were released within a year of each other, and, perhaps as a result, they share many themes.

The one which stood out to me most was the fatal flaw in both of the “strong” female protagonists.  Dr. Constance Petersen’s biggest weakness is not her sacrificing her career to Anthony (though that is hardly commendable in this plot’s context); rather, her biggest weakness is sacrificing her identity for him – identity in both the literal and metaphorical senses.  Laura, also an ambitious and driven woman, will not distance herself from toxic relationships, and she suffers for it.

Generational Divide

I was struck by the portrayal of the older generation between these two films.  In Laura, the older gentleman Waldo is portrayed as a witty but arrogant fop, lovable in his quaint manners but questionable in the pursuit of his young protege.  By contrast, in Spellbound Hitchcock brings us the wonderful character of Dr. Brulov, Constance’s mentor and an honorable father figure.  Both types exist in the real world, of course.

The Better Story?

Spellbound is a much more chilling movie; Laura has far more humor and less macabre.  If you are looking for thrills, you’ll find Spellbound to be fairly adequate, if not so unnerving as Vertigo.

That said, of the two movies I preferred Laura by a wide margin.  Spellbound is disappointing in that the crux of the story – could you fall in love with a murderer? – is not developed to the extent that it drives home a point or even the question.  For all its failures as a thriller, Laura is a hardboiled who-dunnit that will keep you guessing to the end, and its message/moral remains intact and fully developed. 

Echoes of Literature in "Julia Ross"

If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

The cautionary cliche, while well known, still remains almost limitless in its potential for the mystery and thrillers genres.  Perhaps this is why watching My Name is Julia Ross (1945) immediately calls to mind its literary precursors from the works of Arthur Conan Doyle and Daphne du Maurier.

The opening, in fact, takes a page out of Doyle’s “The Adventure of the Copper Beeches,” only this time set in the 1940s.  Londoner Julia Ross is a beautiful young woman, recently unemployed and completely alone in the world.  Her only friend and would-be boyfriend, Dennis Bruce, has just announced his marriage to someone else.  Depressed, and at a loss for how to pay the bills, Julia responds to an ad seeking a secretary for a wealthy Mrs. Hughes.  Mrs. Hughes makes Julia a generous offer, on the condition that Julia come to live with her at her mansion in Cornwall.  When Julia wakes up the next day, she realizes she’s been been drugged, taken prisoner, and given the name “Marian” in order to impersonate Mrs. Hughes’s missing daughter-in-law.

Unlike Doyle, the filmmakers lose no time in divulging Mrs. Hughes’s nefarious motives, so unlike “Copper Beeches,” the whole scheme is revealed in the first fifteen minutes of this 65-minute film.  It seems premature, but then as the plot pivots to escape-room – er, escape-estate – conflict, you can start to enjoy the tension as Julia tries to outsmart her captors.

Nothing could be more film noir than the Cornish coastal setting, one made famous earlier by Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940).  Mrs. Hughes’s house could be a sister to du Maurier’s Manderley, and the sinister beach, roaring with the sound of breakers, makes you feel like you’re in a spin-off story set in the same foreboding environment.

Less effective are the characterizations.  To be fair, Julia Ross (played by Nina Foch) is a passable heroine for this type of story; in fact, she’s far more spunky than the nameless narrator of Rebecca.  On the other hand, it could be argued that Rebecca’s shyer, more nervous protagonist – especially as played by Joan Fontaine, in one of my very favorite performances – is better suited for the genre.  Julia is what I would call “selectively smart,” too dumb to see something fishy in Mrs. Hughes’s offer, but smart enough to try plan her own escape.

The other characters, unfortunately, are even worse.  The ex-husband of Marian, Ralph Hughes (played by George Macready) is supposed to come across as psychotic and rapey.  He would be terrifying if his lines weren’t so painfully hilarious and involving him randomly stabbing things with a pocket knife.  May Whitty is convincing as an apparently average Mrs. Hughes, but there is no backstory to suggest why she would shield and aid her awful son, apart from the fact that, well, they’re family.  This film would really have benefited from some tighter script-writing and/or an additional thirty minutes to fully build the characters.

One of my biggest pet peeves in a movie is when the screenwriters force a tidy ending when a succinct one would be more effective.  Spoilers in white: In this case, Julia’s future is resolved not by her making a smarter employment decision, but when the still-single Dennis Bruce, whom we’ve barely got a chance to meet, decides to pop the question.  Uh, what lesson is being learned here?  Even Doyle, back in those old Victorian days, was kinder to his heroine Violet Hunter, explicitly against Watson’s wishes!  The ending of this film was very much tacked-on and highly unsatisfactory.

Overall, I give the film 3.5 stars.  It’s not in the league of Rebecca, but if you enjoy thrillers of that style and era, then My Name is Julia Ross is a small investment of time for revisiting moody Cornwall.