When Salvador Dalí painted a dream for Alfred Hitchcock

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It was one of those rare moments when the three most popular forms of art joined together, represented by three excellent personalities of that time, working together with something that then became history. Music, cinema and art. Rósza, Hitchcock and Dalí. The common ground that brought them together was Spellbound, 1945, Alfred Hitchcock’s movie with Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck as protagonists. A film that became famous especially for one of the most fascinating representations of the dream dimension. With three strong characters working close, reducing their ego in the name of art.

On the one hand Miklós Rósza, a real classical composer, born in Hungary, formed in Germany and stable in the United States for over 50 years. One who already had his fair success with his classical music concerts around Europe (they said that Richard Strauss appreciated him a lot), but at one point in his life he decided to devote himself to Hollywood soundtracks. Between the 40s and the 50s he wrote the music for some of the most important dramas and noir movies of that time (Ben-Hur, Double Indemnity, A Double Life, The Thief of Baghdad). Yet it wasn’t Hitchcock’s first choice for Spellbound: he opted for Rósza only because his historical collaborator Bernard Herrmann didn’t have time. Rósza produced a brave and suggestive soundtrack, adding the experimental touch with the use of the theremin and contributing to that unstable, psychic mood that made the movie so fascinating. Yet neither Hitchcock nor producer David Selznick appreciated his work, even complaining about the excessive autonomy of the music from the film and trying more than once to impose their indications. For Rósza it wasn’t a pleasant experience, and he never collaborated with Hitchcock or Selznick again. But with that soundtrack, he won the Academy Award.

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Salvador Dalí – scenography for Spellbound,1945

Salvador Dalí was called as top expert in the figurative representation of the dream. At that time he was already a celebrity, for that unique mix of personal talent and self-marketing skills that made him one of the most beloved artists of the twentieth century. Surrealism was just that: Expresing the contents of the unconscious, like a stream of consciousness coming directly from the material that populate the dreams. Without filter, uncensored. And the pivotal moment of Hitchcock’s film was a dream: the one described by Gregory Peck to the psychiatrists who were helping him recover the lost memory. Hitchcock sensed the moment and asked Dalí to draw the scenography for that three-minute sequence. Sequence that became a cult: eyes sticking out of the walls, faceless men, objects with twisted edges. The spectator felt like inside one of his paintings. And the psychological aspect made everything more fascinating: all the elements of the dream have a very precise meaning, which will be revealed afterwards, bringing to the lot twist of the ending. The art of the unconscious subjected for the first time to his scientific interpretation. Dalí’s aestethics couldn’t receive better legitimation.

To pack the whole thing together was obviously the Director, Alfred Hitchcock, in one of the many creative peaks of his almost-sixty-years-long career. It wasn’t yet in his maximum level of celebrity (that would have arrived in the 50s), but he made already some of those movies that afterwards will be considered masterpieces of black and white cinema (Rebecca, Shadow of a Doubt, The 39 Steps, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Suspicion). On the paper, Spellbound would be a sure success, thanks to the huge cast and the presence of Dalí and Rósza. But the topics was everything but popular: a film with a high psychological content, set mostly in a psychiatric clinic, with the ambition to express notions that someone would consider academic, making them accessible to the wide audience. He succeeded, playing the mystery like a master, leaving the curiosity to the spectator for the whle movie, hiding the intentions of the characters, changing their connotation, feeding the suspects and exploiting the twists. In the end it was a great success, both for critics and audience, with Rósza winner of the Academy Award for Best Soundtrack and Ingrid Bergman for best actress. Hitchcock was also nominated as Best Director, but you know, he never won that award. Another element that helped to increase the mythical aura around his character, turning him into a solid reference for generations of filmmakers to come.

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