When Salvador Dalí and Alfred Hitchcock Brought Surrealism to Hollywood
In 1945, Salvador Dalí’s movie agent called him up and ordered a nightmare.
The request came at the behest of director Alfred Hitchcock, busy planning the dream sequence for his psychoanalytic thriller Spellbound (1945). Although Dalí had officially broken with the Surrealists a few years earlier, his fantastical paintings—replete with melting clocks, deep shadows, and long vistas—ensured his continuing status as an American celebrity.
But Hitchcock didn’t hire him for the publicity value. “I wanted Dalí because of the architectural sharpness of his work,” the filmmaker explained in a 1962 interview. Rather than the traditional, blurred Hollywood dream sequence, Hitchcock “wanted to convey the dream with great visual sharpness and clarity, sharper than the film itself.”
Spellbound stars Ingrid Bergman as a psychiatrist who falls for her new boss, Dr. Anthony Edwardes. Unfortunately for Bergman’s lovestruck character, the dashing Dr. Edwardes (played by Gregory Peck) is an amnesiac who may just be a murderer. To prove his innocence, she must analyze his dreams.
By the mid-1940s, pop psychology was on the rise in America, fueled in large part by the fallout and trauma of World War II. Spellbound capitalized on the growing public interest in Freudian psychology; in fact, the film is one of the first major Hollywood productions to rely on psychoanalysis and mental illness as a driving force for the plot.
Dalí’s scene comes at a pivotal moment, addressing the film’s fundamental question: What was Peck’s role (or lack thereof) in the murder? The sequence opens with Peck describing his dream to Bergman. “I can't make out just what sort of a place it was,” he begins, reclining on the therapist's chaise as the shot dissolves into Dalí’s imagery: free-floating eyes in space which transform into painted curtains, savagely shredded by a man with a pair of enormous scissors; a Blackjack game with blank playing cards; men without faces, rocks with faces.
This was not the artist’s first experiment in film. Dalí had previously worked with Luis Buñuel—the Spanish legendary filmmaker considered to be the father of Surrealist cinema—on Un Chien Andalou (1929) and L’Age d’Or (1930). However, following a break with Buñuel, Dalí struggled to find acceptance for his film-based projects.
“Although he kept proposing new scripts to directors, none of them really got off the ground,” says Dr. Elliott King, author of Dalí, Surrealism and Cinema. Dalí’s 1937 screenplay Giraffes on Horseback Salad, written for the Marx Brothers, was one such instance. Featuring scenes of giraffes in gas masks set aflame and Harpo Marx catching dwarves with a butterfly net, the studio thought it might be a bit too surreal and declined to produce the project.
Clip from Spellbound, 1945, via YouTube.
“Hitchcock’s movie was the first big moment for him to do some of the things he’d been wanting to do for the last 15 years,” King explains.
Ultimately, however, Dalí’s grand ideas were cut short. Initially envisioned by the artist as a 20-minute long clip, roughly three minutes remain in the final edit. Some vignettes were discarded from the outset because they would be nearly impossible to film, including a ballroom scene with fifteen grand pianos suspended over the dancers’ heads. Others were filmed but later cut after Dalí and Hitchcock had left the set, like the moment when Bergman’s character morphs into a plaster-cast Classical sculpture.
The film’s producer, Hollywood titan David O. Selznick, became increasingly concerned about the scene. On October 25th, 1944, he wrote: “The more I look at the dream sequence for Spellbound, the worse I feel it to be… It’s not Dalí’s fault, for his work is much finer and much better for the purpose than I ever thought it would be. It is the photography, set-ups, lighting, et cetera.”
Eventually, Selznick brought on production designer William Cameron Menzies of Gone With The Wind fame to rein in the footage. “When you look back at some of Selznick’s memos, it’s very clear that he’s worried and he sought legal counsel to see if the artist could sue them based on what they did to his work,” says King.
Despite these snags, Spellbound was a box office hit. The film received rave reviews, all dutifully noting Dalí’s involvement. Bosley Crowther writing for the New York Times in 1945 called it a “rare film” and the New Yorker’s review advised “you’d better see this one.” It went on to be nominated for six Academy Awards that year and won Best Original Score for its haunting soundtrack.
Yet Spellbound—essentially a love story—is today rarely mentioned as one of Hitchcock’s best works. As for Dalí, he rarely referenced the film after completing the project—an uncharacteristic reticence that may reflect a lingering disappointment about the significant edits made to the dream sequence.
“The only thing documented that he really said about Spellbound was that the best parts of the film got cut,” King says. “Actually, I think it’s telling that he never spoke much about it because usually Dalí talked a lot.”