Curing Amnesia with Love (and a little psychoanalysis): Hitchcock’s “Marnie” and “Spellbound”

Curing Amnesia with Love (and a little psychoanalysis): Hitchcock’s “Marnie” and “Spellbound”

Brooke J. Cannon, Ph.D.
(From the Turkish electronic publication Psinema 2009 Issue 7).


Romantic love is one of the most popular themes in movies. Indeed, a keyword search on the Internet Movie Database ( finds over 22,000 hits for the term “love.” Often attraction is fueled by similarity; one is attracted to another who shares the same characteristics, such as personality, interests, and beauty. Attraction may also arise when one sees characteristics in a romantic partner which are missing in oneself, such as strength, confidence, assertiveness; this is known as complementarity.

The type of attraction portrayed in movies depends upon the genre. Romantic comedies often chronicle the route of the couple as they begin apart from one another and, following a series of obstacles and misunderstandings, they eventually find each other at the end. In these cases, both partners typically have an equal level of positive traits, such as stability and mental health and they tend to have similar personal qualities. Films such as You’ve Got Mail and When Harry Met Sally fit the similarity explanation of attraction.

Melodramatic romances often include one or both characters with significant failings. When both partners are flawed, the relationship is consistently strained; there is movement toward and away from the partner, never in synchrony. They may or may not be together at the end of the film. Again, the level of their imperfections is similar and this fuels the attraction. This is exemplified by the relationship between Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind.

Rhett: There’s one thing I do know… and that is that I love you, Scarlett. In spite of you and me and the whole silly world going to pieces around us, I love you. Because we’re alike. Bad lots, both of us. Selfish and shrewd. But able to look things in the eyes as we call them by their right names.

Romantic relationships in dramatic films may also reflect an imbalance in the characters’ traits; one character may have primarily positive features while the other is deficient in those areas. In these cases, the stronger character typically is the healer, motivated by love to work to cure the deficits in the partner.

Two of Alfred Hitchcock’s films, Marnie (1964) and Spellbound (1945), reflect this complementarity in relationships. Both films involve one character helping the other to heal by uncovering repressed traumatic memories. In Marnie, the stronger character, Mark (Sean Connery), is attracted to the clearly troubled Marnie (Tippi Hedron). Mark is rich, handsome, and successful. He encounters few challenges in his daily life, so he meets this need through a hobby of studying and taming wild animals. Marnie presents as a detached, self-confident young woman who has little, if any, experience with love, romantic or otherwise. We learn that she is a kleptomaniac; Mark learns this secret about her, as well, and sees her now as his challenge to tame.

Marnie: If you love me, let me go. You don’t know what I am, I’m not like other people. You don’t love me – I’m just something you caught.

Mark: Yes, I tracked you and caught you and by god I’m going to keep you.

Mark blackmails Marnie into marrying him. On their honeymoon, she rejects sexual contact, although Mark might perceive this as something she “needs.” Unable to suppress his own need for sexual conquest, Mark apparently rapes her, although this is off camera and left ambiguous. The next morning, however, Marnie attempts suicide.

[Supplemental information with the movie DVD reflects that the original screenwriter did not believe that the rape would be consistent with Mark’s character and that the female audience would then have a negative perception of Mark. He wrote two different scenes, with and without the rape, and put them into the screenplay. Hitchcock was not pleased and fired him.]

Thereafter, they sleep in separate beds. Mark now has the challenge to identify the source of Marnie’s sexual aversion. He reads books, such as “Sexual Abberations of the Criminal Female,” and engages in word association tasks. Throughout the film we see prominent use of color; Marnie has aversive responses to the color red. Through Mark’s detective work, he learns of her past: the source of the sexual aversion, the conditioned response to the color red, and her limited experiences with love. The audience is left with the impression that this insight has “cured” Marnie and captured the wild game for Mark – all motivated by love.

Similarly, love motivates the search for the source of amnesia in Spellbound, although the healer in this case has more failings that the character with the memory loss. Dr. Constance Peterson (Ingrid Bergman) is the sole female psychiatrist working at a mental asylum. She is reserved, seemingly frigid, and emotionless. That is, until the new head of the asylum arrives, Dr. Anthony Edwardes (Gregory Peck). Dr. Peterson is intrigued by Dr. Edwardes; she discovers that he is actually suffering from amnesia and does not know his true identity. Like Mark in Marnie, she sets off on a mission to help him with his repressed memory. Like Marnie, Dr. Edwardes also shows aversive responses to visual cues – in this case parallel lines. Dr. Peterson has found her purpose and, through this complementarity in the relationship, she falls quickly, and madly, in love.

We learn that the real Dr. Edwardes has been murdered and that the imposter has the initials “JB.” Dr. Peterson acts impulsively and against character, as she risks her professional career and potentially her life, as she puts total faith in the belief that JB is truly a good person and not a murderer.

They visit her own mentor and psychoanalyst, Dr. Brulov (Michael Chekhov) who, with a head unclouded by romantic love, helps to analyze JB.

Dr. Brulov: Women make the best psychiatrists until they fall in love. After that they make the best patients.

Dr. Brulov interprets JB’s dream, full of Freudian symbolism [the dream sequence was created by Salvador Dali], which identifies the location of the trauma – a ski slope. Dr. Peterson and JB return to the scene, and while skiing JB uncovers his memory of the trauma and of his own identity. Once “cured,” we see that JB is a successful, confident man, who now fully complements Dr. Peterson’s own insecurities.

In both Marnie and Spellbound, there is one partner who is stronger and another who is more deficient. Marnie, even though “cured” of her repressed memory, still was psychologically weaker than Mark and needed his strength and emotion to complement her. Dr. Peterson, like Marnie, was inexperienced in love, was emotionally restricted, and needed JB’s strength to complement her inadequacies.

But what about Mark and JB? Although Mark was attracted to the enigma of Marnie as a challenge, much like his hobby of taming wild animals, once she was tamed at the end, what maintained the attraction? Similarly, once JB’s amnesia was cleared, he was without deficit; what attracted him to Dr. Peterson?

The answer lies in both complementarity and similarity. Mathes and Moore (1985) found that it is self-esteem which determines whether complementarity or similarity is the motivating factor in attraction. Those low in self- esteem, such as Marnie and Dr. Peterson, are more likely to be attracted by complementarity in relationships. In contrast, those high in self-esteem, such as Mark and JB, are more likely to be attracted by similarity.

In conclusion, romantic love in the movies may be motivated by similarity, by complementarity, or by a combination of both. Indeed, this form of cinematic art does imitate life.


Mathes, E. W., & Moore, C. L. (1985). Reik’s complementarity theory of romantic love. The Journal of Social Psychology, 125, 321-327.