Okay, I don't know if it started with Spellbound, but Spellbound is a very good example of the basic plot of these psychological thrillers; the plot's premise goes something like "Person X suffers terrible experience as child/young adult. If person X is forced to confront terrible experience, person X will be instantly cured."
It's the premise of the movie The Three Faces of Eve and of the movie, Marnie, which I watched this weekend for the first time.
Now, Marnie deserves a few kudos.
(1) Marnie's terrible experience is what I thought it should be but didn't believe Hitchcock would actually present: sexual abuse.
(2) There's no indication at the end of the movie that Marnie (Tippi Hedren) is "cured." Her last comment to her husband/amateur psychiatrist is, "I'd rather stay with you than go to jail." Well, yes, I think most people would rather live a life of comparative luxury than go to jail.
(3) The husband/amateur psychiatrist (Sean Connery) is a bundle of weirdness himself for voluntarily marrying a woman who lies, steals, and won't let him near her. Marnie states this during the movie, and the point is never really refuted; in fact, based on the beginning of the movie, the husband is carrying out his dysfunction when he married Marnie--although he does give great lines while he is doing it:
When we get home, I'll explain that we had a lover's quarrel... That you ran away... That I went after you and brought you back. That'll please Dad. He admires action. Then I'll explain that we're gonna be married before the week is out... That I can't bear to have you out of my sight. He also admires wholesome animal lust.
You're very sexy with your face clean.However, the movie still depends on a really silly idea--that Marnie is troubled and messed up but fundamentally, in her core, normal: there is a normal person in her fighting to get out. Or, at least, a person who still has the right instincts even if said instincts are covered up by trauma.
Marnie isn't a normal person fighting to get out--she's a freaking sociopath.
Basically, the character gets positions of trust in small companies by telling incredible lies that play off people's emotions. She then becomes friendly with the staff. And finally, robs the company blind. This isn't a nice person who just can't help herself. Or even a nice person who due to her terrible childhood is doing things that in her heart of hearts she knows are wrong. This isn't even a cat burglar who steals from acquaintances or unknown victims--this is a person without conscience manipulating the people around her, so she can get what she wants.
And interestingly enough, Tippi Hedren plays the role that way--she is completely believable. Grace Kelly was originally slated for the role, and I think she could have pulled it off, but I think she would have brought more pathos to the character. Hedren has a coolness, even deviousness, which makes the role far more modern than perhaps Hitchcock intended.
Still, the fact that Hitchcock (and many other directors of the time) presented extreme psychosis as a veneer to otherwise good and normal desires tells you a lot about the time period and psychoanalysis in that time period.* I'm not sure if the idea stems from nurture (we can undo the bad environment!) or nature (the basic personality is still intact!), but the theorists of the day seemed to have completely missed the reality that a lifetime of behaviors, no matter how repented of, don't simply vanish. Marnie might feel repentent; she may recognize her childhood trauma; she may wish to be a wonderful wife and mother to her darling husband/amateur psychiatrist. But it's doubtful that robbing five companies through sheer manipulative cunning and hatred leaves a person with a lot of conscience to cling to. Not to mention that her flight responses are pretty well-trained; ten to one, the next time she panics, she's outtathere.
*Granted, Spielberg did more or less the same thing with Catch Me If You Can. According to Abagnale, nothing in his childhood accounts for the thefts he pulled off. However, Catch Me If You Can has several points in its favor; Christopher Walken does a fabulous job as the father who kind of knows what is going on but can offer no refuge to his son; Leonardo DiCaprio's character (Frank, Jr.) commits all of his thefts before, I believe, the age of 21. And lastly, Frank, Jr.'s flight responses, not his character, are tested at the end of the movie.
And finally, Catch Me If You Can, like Marnie and all psychological thrillers, is a whole bunch of fun!