Hypnosis and the Movies
Hypnosis may or may not work in real life I don’t know. My mind doesn’t seem to be willing to allow me to be hypnotized at least not in the ways that one sees on film. I guess I’m not willing to abdicate control of myself to anyone else; perhaps it’s a matter of trust. In any case its use appears in many stories that one sees onscreen whether it’s a technique used: by Dracula to get his victims under his power by a psychiatrist (or psychologist) in an attempt to elicit a suppressed memory or to assess a person’s mental health or of course for laughs in a comedy. Two of the earliest and most memorable star brothers from one of Hollywood’s most successful families: John Barrymore gave us the unforgettable Svengali (1931) while the older Lionel Barrymore played the male title role in Rasputin and the Empress (1932). Other films which feature hypnosis (or psychiatrists / psychologists) centrally in their plots include:
Secrets of the French Police (1932) – David O. Selznick was the executive producer of this RKO B drama that stars Frank Morgan and features Gwili Andre as a woman that’s hypnotized into behaving like the missing Russian princess Anastasia in order to fool the Grand Duke Romanoff.
Carefree (1938) – Fred Astaire playing a single psychiatrist is just one of the many funny aspects of this musical comedy which also stars his frequent collaborator Ginger Rogers; she is engaged to Ralph Bellamy who asks his friend Astaire to help him with their relationship problems. But while she’s under hypnosis Ginger falls for Fred (and Bellamy finds that he’s the third wheel as he so often did throughout his career).
Kisses for Breakfast (1941) – this humorless B comedy features Dennis Morgan as an amnesiac who finds himself married to two women at the same time; he’d forgotten that he already had a wife when he meets and marries Jane Wyatt’s character. The situation’s resolution begins after his first wife engages the family doctor to hypnotize her husband (to help him to remember her).
The Seventh Veil (1945) – After talented concert pianist Francesca (Ann Todd) attempts suicide she forgets her identity; she remembers it (and the movie story is told in flashback) with the help of a psychiatrist (Herbert Lom) that restores her memory. Then she must choose between her Svengali & Pygmalion-like guardian (James Mason) and her first lover (Hugh McDermott).
Possessed (1947) – similar to The Seventh Veil (1945) in that it begins with a woman (played by Joan Crawford) that’s incoherent for the same sort of love conflict reasons unable to articulate her past until a psychiatrist uncovers it using patience and drug treatment; her story is told via flashback sequences.
Shadow on the Wall (1950) – future first lady Nancy Davis (she would marry Ronald Reagan less than two years after this movie’s release) played the psychiatrist that helps Gigi Perreau identify her stepmother’s killer (Ann Sothern) in order to free her falsely accused and convicted father (Zachary Scott) from prison and the death penalty in this above average B thriller.
The Yellow Cab Man (1950) – the late Charles Lane appears (uncredited) in this comedy which features Red Skelton in the title role; the accident prone Skelton (who’s denied coverage by the casualty company agent that Lane plays) invents an elastic glass product that a creepy lawyer (Edward Arnold) schemes to steal by having a phony doctor (Walter Slezak) hypnotize him into revealing its secret formula.
Don’t Give Up the Ship (1959) – this Jerry Lewis comedy features Dina Merrill as a Navy Ensign named Benson; using a sort of hypnosis she helps him to recall and recount what happened to a World War II ship which had been under his command during the war that is now missing.
Marnie (1964) – Tippi Hedron (in the title role) doesn’t understand her kleptomania or frigidity which is more humorous in this Alfred Hitchcock thriller than the director’s other cold blonde characters because her husband is played by the overtly virile Sean Connery who also appeared in his third James Bond feature (Goldfinger (1964)) that year. Her recollection of the incident that she’d repressed is not psychiatrically induced but since I’d failed to mention Hitch’s other psychological drama – Spellbound (1945) which includes a dream sequence by Salvador Dali that helped it earn a Special Effects Oscar nom – I thought I’d include it here.
The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (1976) – no less than Sigmund Freud (played by Alan Arkin) is engaged by Dr. Watson (Robert Duvall) to hypnotize the famous detective Sherlock Holmes (Nicol Williamson) in hopes of bringing him out of the irrational paranoia and obsession with his nemesis Dr. Moriarty (Laurence Olivier) brought on by his measured (referred to in this crime mystery’s title) use of cocaine.
There are at least ten others that I can think of which are related (e.g. psychological and/or psychiatrist driven plots) but they don’t involve hypnosis.
© 2007 Turner Classic Movies – this article originally appeared on TCM’s official blog