Sunday, September 4, 2011

“FREUD” (1962) Dir: John Huston

What I remember:

“Freud” is the second film in this blog that was directed by John Huston. He obviously had no problems taking on big subjects, or disparate subjects, for that matter. A man who could direct “Treasure of the Sierra Madre”, “Asphalt Jungle”, “Moby Dick” and “Freud” is certainly no slave to genre, nor can he be classified as an Auteur.

I saw this on TV back during my high school years. The opening alone was on such a high level of writing and directing that I recall being simply stunned (I probably would have used the term “blown away” at the time). The camera focuses on some strange hypnotic drawings, while Huston’s voice-over describes man’s three great revelations/humiliations. “Before Copernicus, man thought he was at the center of the universe, Before Darwin he thought he was separate from the animals. Before Freud, he thought he could control his own mind”. Or something like that. So yes, maybe it was dime-store intellectualism, but I wasn’t even a college Freshman yet, so Sophomore-ism seemed pretty cool. Now, I’d probably think, why is Noah Cross talking about Freud? Shouldn’t he be saying something like “You've got a nasty reputation, Mr. Gittes. I like that.”

I vividly can recall the dream sequence from the Susannah York character’s hypnosis as being visually very different and compelling. This was years before I saw Hitchcock’s “Spellbound”, with dream sequences that are a direct antecedent to those in “Freud”. Salvador Dali designed the “Spellbound” sequences, so it’s possible that when I watch now, I will think that the “Freud” scenes pale by comparison. All I can say is that I thought it was brilliant as a pretentious, artsy fartsy teen.

Nonetheless, “Freud”’s subject matter was fascinating to me, and I still find mental illness one of the most misunderstood, misdiagnosed and misrepresented conditions of human existence. So little progress has been made since the period represented in this film. Maybe it’s time for a movie about THAT.

This film, listed as “Freud: The Secret Passion” (are you kidding me?) is unavailable on DVD. That galls me beyond words. Why the hell can you buy a piece of garbage like “Children of the Corn” on Blu-Ray for fuck sake and you can’t get “Freud” or “Porgy and Bess” on regular old DVD? I am forced to watch this on some very crappy transfer on YouTube. Looks like I am set up to be disappointed. Kee-rist, I hope not.

After re-watching:

“What a splendid thing to descend to Hell and light a torch from its fires!” Dr. Meynert


Sigmund Freud (Montgomery Clift) is a young Viennese neurologist who is fascinated by neurosis and its main symptoms, hitherto categorized as “Hysteria”. Along with his colleague, Dr. Breuer (Larry Parks), he pursues the sources of neurosis, but eventually comes upon a theory which even Breuer, his closest ally, must reject.


As far as biopics go, “Freud” has many of the run-of-the-mill characteristics; it compresses much of the man’s story into a very small window, it hyper-dramatizes some of the key moments in his career, his personal life and relationships are trivialized, and the work that brought him his fame and notoriety is simplified into terms that most of us can understand. Think about some recent efforts like “Ray”, or “Pollock”. This is, sadly, the nature of the beast. No great person’s life/work/torment can be adequately captured in a two hour film. Also, thanks to the film being made in 1962, Freud’s addiction to cocaine, and his mistaken use of the drug as a treatment for his patients, is never even referenced in the slightest. You’ll need to find another missing masterpiece, “The Seven Percent Solution” to see that story.

Yet “Freud” does some things very differently than others in its genre. There is filmmaking of the highest order going on here, and parts of the script are as brilliant as anything you might read in the finest of novels. Supposedly, the first draft of the script was written by Jean-Paul Sartre, as commissioned by Huston. Jean-Paul Sartre! It is assumed that some of what he wrote survived the rewrite by Charles Kaufman (No, not THAT one. The man who brought us “Adaptation” was about 4 years old when this made).

The importance of this film has to do with our understanding of just how huge a breakthrough it was for mankind to discover the unconscious mind. Our knowledge of ourselves is paramount to our mental health. Our collective mental health is paramount to the health of our society. Should one, as the opening monologue insists, place Freud on the same pedestal as the great thinkers in history; akin to Galileo, DaVinci, Newton, Copernicus, Darwin, Einstein, Marx? Or is he simply just one of the cogs in the slowly turning machine of Psychiatry? Well, this film would have you believe, Freud was a man who bucked the system, who stood for what he believed regardless of the condemnation of his colleagues. A man who risked career and livelihood for the chance to destroy some myths about the human mind. I think he was a hero.

Apparently, so did John Huston.


As I stated earlier, what makes this better than the typical biopic is the filmmaking itself. The more I watch the films of John Huston, the more I am inclined to put him with the masters of the medium. This movie must have had some major obstacles- obstacles not unlike those Freud himself might have encountered. When your star is in the midst of committing a decade-long suicide (as Clift’s close friend Elizabeth Taylor described his last years) then you will probably have some trouble shooting your film. Universal Pictures sued Clift since his problems caused the film to go way over budget. More on this later.

Huston manages to overcome these problems, and he also manages to evoke the period with very few outdoor shots. The film was shot in Germany, but one would never know. Most of the “action” takes place in drawing rooms and lecture halls. The set designs are very impressive- all the décor looks like you’d imagine the 19th Century halls of wealth and learning to look. The dream and memory sequences have a soft focus blur, and much of the imagery is reminiscent of German Expressionism of the ’30’s. These sequences are great, but nowhere close to the brilliance of those in “Spellbound”. Perhaps the enlistment of a visual genius like Dali would have helped Huston reach that level.

In any case, the revelations in the dreams are beautifully realized, using camera, costume and set. One of Breuer’s and Freud’s patients, Cecily Koertner (Susannah York) tells of going to a hospital in Naples to identify the body of her father. She tells of how the nurses looked at her funnily. You see that the nurses in the dream lounging around in frilly skirts, some sitting suggestively. As the Doctors strip away the artificial layers with which her unconscious has shrouded this memory, you see that the nurses are really prostitutes, that the hospital is in reality a brothel, and that the doctors who came to get her were police.

John Huston’s great achievement was to make the plot of “Freud” a very elaborate, psychiatric whodunit. We want to understand exactly what causes Ms. Koertner’s paralysis and blindness as much as Freud and Breuer do. Did her father molest her? Did she seduce him? Did her mother reject her? As the layers of her past are revealed concurrently to Freud, the audience and Koertner herself, the film becomes as hypnotic as one of their spells.

Speaking of which, a major problem with the movie comes from the act of Hypnosis and how it is portrayed. There are some times when Freud simply waves a pencil in front of a patient’s eyes, says “You’re getting sleepy”, and the man falls unconscious in a manner of seconds. “Look at the candle”….and boom! Sometimes, that part is just laughable. How better it would have been for them to show the real process once, and then subsequently just said, “I’m going to put him under” and dissolve to the state of hypnosis.

Jerry Goldsmith wrote the score, and it is brilliant and haunting. There is not a moment where it calls attention to itself, and yet subtly it adds to the eeriness and tension of any scene. Interestingly, Ridley Scott borrowed the title music from “Freud” for use in “Alien”, a score written by Goldsmith too.


In the ‘50’s, Montgomery Clift was as big a star as the movies had. He, like Marlon Brando, could have named his price in modern day Hollywood. By the time “Freud” was made, he had had a terrible car accident, which started an addiction to pills. There are times in this film when you wish he could have been more animated, more angry. His piercing eyes and soft-spoken delivery seem much better suited to a mysterious love interest, not an intellectual scientist.
It is an uneven portrayal. On one hand, he has some very fine moments. One scene, when he realizes that a patient of his is sexually obsessed with his own mother, he is repelled and his professional detachment is shattered. As he realizes what is happening, Clift perfectly embodies the disgust and ambivalence he feels. Yet in another scene where Cecily threatens suicide, his pleading with her seems almost half-hearted. The lines are well written; Clift just puts nothing into them.

Huston does all the voice-over, not just the prologue and epilogue. You have to wonder during those times when the voice-over is supposed to be Freud’s inner thoughts, if those lines were supposed to be spoken by Clift, but he was unavailable. It feels incongruous having the narrator’s voice come in and start speaking lines that should be coming from the character’s mouth.

Larry Parks, of “The Jolson Story” fame plays Dr. Breuer. This is also Larry Parks, of “Blacklist” infamy. He was one of the artists who testified against colleagues in the McCarthy hearings, admitting his involvement in the Communist party, and yet still found himself banned from work. This is probably his most famous role besides Jolson, and he is very good. When he realizes that Ms. Koertner is in love with him (psychiatrists call this symptom “transference”), he has to decide to stop treating her, or else ruin his marriage. His frustration is palpable. One wonders what he might have accomplished had he been allowed to freely pursue his career.

Susannah York as Cecily is beautiful and flirtatious. She shows remarkable range for a young actress. She was just 23 at the time of the film’s release, and she cold not look more luminous. Her energetic portrayal of the psychosomatically riddled woman is as hyperbolic as Clift’s Freud is static. When the two share the screen, particularly in the suicide attempt scene, the disparity is conspicuous. Ms. York is probably the “On Second Look” mascot; I will be writing about her in two upcoming blogs about “Tunes of Glory” and “The Silent Partner”. Talk about your underrated, underused actress. Sadly she just passed in 2011. I’m a fan.

As for the supporting cast, David McCallum (‘60’s heartthrob who played Ilya Kuryakin in “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.”) takes a short turn as the young man with the Oedipal complex, and does a splendid job. Character actor Eric Portman as Dr. Meynert is a stand out. Ingenue Susan Kohner as Freud’s wife gets little to work with, and does less with it. Sigmund and Martha were supposed to have a very passionate relationship, and that is nowhere to be found here. Interestingly enough, she is the only Jewish actor in the film. Both Freud and Breuer were Jewish, as of course were Martha and Frau Freud, the mother of all mothers. Apparently Eli Wallach campaigned very hard to play Freud. He even went so far as to grow a Freudian beard for the audition. Rumor is he never got a chance. Considering Montgomery Clift’s problems, one wonders if Wallach could have made this film even better. Certainly his being Jewish would have helped the Waspy Huston understand that part of the story.


I still love this film, despite the obvious central flaw of the casting of the lead. It is remarkably intelligent, and the writing is at times transcendent. Huston’s gothic/noir style is a perfect atmosphere for this story about the removal of shrouds of ignorance. This is a film that should be required viewing for anyone interested in mental illness, or simply the machinations of the mind. And by that I mean everybody. Sadly, the only way to see this is to either have it on tape, hope it comes on TCM, or watch it in pieces on YouTube. Criterion---are you listening?

1st Look-★★★★ 2nd Look-★★★1/2

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