Producer David O. Selznick, who had recently gone through a “successful” bout of therapy (not at all common in the mid-1940s), was determined to bring the world of psychoanalysis to the screen and hired his REBECCA director, Alfred Hitchcock, to direct SPELLBOUND (1945). Ingrid Bergman stars as a cold-hearted therapist who falls in love with an amnesiac (Gregory Peck) accused of murder and tries to help him unlock the depths of his subconscious to find out who he really is.
The film has all those wonderful Hitchcock touches and has some wonderfully surreal set designs for the dream sequences by legendary artist Salvador Dali. But Selznick concentrates too much on educating the audience in the ins and outs of psychotherapy instead of focusing on the story itself. It may not be top-flight Hitchcock but the two stars help immensely and Miklos Rózsa’s Oscar-winning score is haunting and memorable.
Hitchcock asked Rozsa for a “big, sweeping love theme” and the composer provided arguably his most memorable theme. Selznick was so enamored of the theme that once he heard the main title that he made Rozsa rerecord it with twenty-four violins instead of the original sixteen because he wanted the sweeping feel that Franz Waxman got with his twenty-four for REBECCA. The theme was transcribed and released for radio play so that it was already a popular hit by the time the film was released.
But the most striking element of Rózsa’s score came from Hitchcock’s request for a “new sound” to represent John’s (Peck) amnesic paranoia. Rózsa employed the eerie, ethereal instrumental color of the theremin, an early electronic instrument sounding somewhat like a soprano voice. (Rozsa had first wanted to use the instrument in 1941 for a scene from his Oscar-nominated score to SUNDOWN but was told no by the powers-that-be.)
Invented in 1919 by Russian physicist Leon Theremin, the theremin is shaped like a tabletop podium and is unique in that it is played without being touched. Two antennas protrude from the instrument—one controlling pitch, and the other controlling volume. As a hand approaches the horizontal antenna, the volume grows softer. Approaching the vertical antenna, the pitch gets higher. In fact, the pitch of the instrument was so difficult to control that Rozsa had the theremin’s line doubled faintly in the oboe, which was placed next to the theremin to give the pitches for intonation.
The theremin would be overused in sci-fi films of the ’50s but it is quite effective here. (For a fascinating look at this unusual instrument, check out the 1993 documentary THEREMIN: AN ELECTRONIC ODYSSEY.)
It’s not surprising that Rózsa won the Oscar. The novelty of the theremin combined with the popularity of the sweeping love theme were sufficient to gain it attention. It also didn’t hurt that Rózsa also scored the year’s Best Picture, THE LOST WEEKEND (again employing the theremin to portray Ray Milland”s alcoholic dementia). Based on the popularity of Richard Addinsell’s Warsaw Concerto, Rózsa was asked to transcribe the themes from the film into theSpellbound Concerto for piano and orchestra which went on to become a popular piece on the concert stage.