Considering many viewers don’t seem to care for Bewitched, there’s a lot of ink floating around out there about this slick little second feature from MGM. I find myself in the minority, because I think it’s a gem. Make no mistake, in one important way (depending on your point of view) it hasn’t aged well: it’s a rather crude look at schizophrenia in its most sensational form--multiple personality disorders. And because of the era’s (or rather, Hollywood’s) limited understanding of psychology and the movie studio’s propensity to take dramatic license with existing scientific knowledge, the film does a disservice to those whose lives have been touched to one degree or another by mental illness. Be that as it may, the problems are easily forgiven, and what remains is a well-made and inventive thriller with a few great moments. Bewitched is also distinctive as a prototypical film noir.
The story goes down smooth: Joan Ellis (Phyllis Thaxter) is a pleasant young woman with everything life has to offer, particularly a fine family and loving fiancé. But hang on--she hears a nasty voice in her head that wants to be in charge, to be “let out.”
Fearful of a scandal, Joan skips her small mid-western town and makes for New York City, where she finds work as a cigar counter girl. Soon, she’s wooed by Eric, one of the building’s many attorneys (Stephen McNally). At first she’s skittish but after he comes on strong they are quickly engaged. Just when Joan feels that everything is once again coming up roses, she discovers her old fiancé waiting for her in her room; he’s tracked her down and wants to take her back home. As he packs her bag for the return trip, the voice in Joan’s head finally speaks up: it doesn’t want to leave the big city for Dullsville, so it commands Joan to pick up a pair of scissors and kill--which she does!
Jump to a quick trial where Joan’s sweet nature guarantees that she’ll beat the rap. Just as the not guilty verdict is being read, the voice speaks up, telling Joan how kill again and again in the future. Not wanting this to happen, Joan blurts out a last second confession--and Bewitched begins to take some strange turns...
The voice in Joan’s head belongs to Audrey Totter, famed for Tension, Lady in the Lake, etc., etc. Though Totter is uncredited, she really sinks her teeth into her part; although there’s a campy quality to the way she taunts and jeers at Joan, it works. The fascinating aspect of Joan’s dichotomy is that each half of her mind represents an archetypical film noir woman--Karen is a femme fatale and Joan is the good girl.
The femme fatale part is easily parsed. Karen is a black widow: she uses Joan’s good looks to attract men and act out her violent impulses. She kills Joan’s first fiancé, and warns her that she’s ready to kill the next--and then the next after that. Joan herself is both the pure innocent and the noir anti-hero: she’s cruelly victimized by fate and by chance, through what her psychiatrist calls “one birth in a million.”
Like other noir protagonists, most often males, Joan is forced to ride out her predicament, with only the merest illusion of the outcome fate has in store for her. Despite this trauma, Joan’s actions are heroic: she attempts to save her family from the stigma of scandal by fleeing her hometown; and when presented with the unvarnished truth of Karen’s intentions at her trial, she sacrifices herself in order to kill Karen. Phyllis Thaxter’s performance deserves praise: she is able to make Joan and Karen appear dramatically different, without stooping to Jekyll and Hyde style preening. Her timing is good, and she is able to make her violent scenes creepy, if not actually frightening.
In addition to the role of fate and the thorough characterization of Joan, there are some exciting visual moments in Bewitched, including an expressionistic street sequence featuring an elaborate tracking shot: Joan is caught late at night on a deserted street, where she encounters a few real-life manifestations of her inner turmoil. The noirish quality of the atmosphere at this point is excellent, though it doesn’t quite mesh with the rest of the film.
Bewitched also uses montage to great effect, though it sometimes appears this was done to keep the running time brief. Joan’s entire arrest, booking, and courtroom experience is summarized in a fast cut, claustrophobic, and curiously sweaty montage that shows attorneys, witnesses, and jurors all grotesquely leering at the accused. Arch Oboler’s direction is competent, but he doesn’t sustain a noir vision throughout.
Mental illness was popular fodder in film noir, especially in the years just after the war. The idea of a film protagonist being stricken by something so arbitrary and invisible (and at the time: fantastical) was a trendy way to demonstrate how an everyday Joe or “Joan” can get worked over by cruel fate.
What separates noirish takes on the subject from more “serious” productions is that the illness in noir invariably becomes an excuse for violent crime. So in this regard film noir is quite exploitative of mental illness, which is why viewers shouldn’t knock the manipulative and melodramatic treatment of multiple personalities in Bewitched. If the subject was treated clinically instead of tongue-in-cheek, the film just couldn’t have been made.
The one place where we can gripe is the whitewashing of Joan’s “cure.” It’s disappointing to think that even in 1945 audiences would believe a ten-minute hypnosis session with a psychiatrist would cure Joan of her demons. It smacks of witch-doctoring, and actually makes the finale more droll than riveting. It would be more in keeping with the tone of films to come, and with the fact that the character had actually killed, if audiences thought Joan was obligated to bear her burden uncertainly into the future.
In the end though, the trick to enjoying this picture is to simply take it with some salt. Bewitched isn’t The Three Faces of Eve or The Snake Pit: it’s a sensationalist second feature with roots in radio drama and isn’t meant to be viewed as anything more than diversionary entertainment. 1940s MGM was not the place for hard-hitting noir--that would come later...