Filmmaker Arch Oboler came to the movies from radio, where he made a reputation for his creative approach to radio drama with the iconic horror series Lights Out and other radio dramas. He approached filmmaking with the same commitment to finding imaginative ways to tell stories and express subjective experiences on the screen, even while working in the salt mines of the B-movie unit at MGM, where he made his directorial debut with Strange Holiday in 1945.
He adapted Bewitched (1945), his second film as a director, from his own radio play, “Alter Ego,” a drama about a young woman haunted by a voice in her head grows into an alternate and ultimately aggressive personality. Phyllis Thaxter, a young, fresh-faced ingénue newly contracted by MGM, stars as Joan Ellis, a bright, hopeful young bride from a good family with a history of “unease” that erupts in sudden assaults by the disembodied voice in her head. And they are assaults, spoken with a charge and a ferocity (not to mention a desire for “transgressive” pleasures) that overwhelms the meek good girl. The voice (by an uncredited Audrey Totter) becomes stronger and more aggressive and Joan makes a deal with the increasingly powerful personality: she will run away, leave her life behind for the excitement and possibilities of New York City, if the voice will leave her alone. It’s only a temporary reprieve.
Bewitched is a psychological thriller that delivers a murder, a dramatic courtroom trial, and a psychiatrist to provide exposition, but it is also an attempt at a serious approach to multiple personality disorder. This is long before such psychological concepts became more known through productions like The Three Faces of Eve (not to mention Hitchcock’s Psycho) and he presents therapy as less a process than a psychological exorcism, but if the terms and explanations are naïve, his commitment to the real case history that inspired his drama is genuine. Joan’s story is framed by the case notes of Dr. Bergson (Edmund Gwenn), a psychiatrist who recalls her case file while Joan sits in prison awaiting her fate: “In 59 minutes, the clock will stop for her.” Gwenn plays the voice of authority as a kindly, professorial doctor, gentle and understanding, pulling out a pipe to puff thoughtfully as he explains psychological concepts in layman terms.