Sunday, May 30, 2010

Freud - The Pursuit of the Unknown

John Huston often made films that dealt with the subject of a pursuit. In Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) it was three men trying to find gold in the Mexican hills. In The Asphalt Jungle (1950), he detailed a group of low-life criminals determined to make one last major heist, while in Fat City (1972), two down and outs try and pursue a meager life in the world of small-time boxing. In The African Queen (1951), it's all about getting down the river to safety and in Moulin Rouge (1952), it was the obsession of Toulouse-Lautrec trying to fit into Paris society, despite his physical deformities.

Some of Huston's characters succeed in their pursuit, while many fail. But clearly the quest or chase of the principals' goals is what fascinated Huston throughout his long career. The search for the truth - or perhaps better stated, the presumed truth - is what makes Freud (1962) such a captivating film in the director's canon (The film is sometimes referred to as Freud: The Secret Passion).

This is a serious look at the beginnings of Sigmund Freud's search into the darkness of the human mind; soon after Freud (earnestly portrayed by Montgomery Clift) teams up with Joseph Breuer, who would be his partner for years, we are introduced to a young patient of Breuer named Cecily (Susannah York) who suffers from extreme neurosis. In her case, she cannot walk, as it is up to Breuer to discover why this young woman is so mentally tortured. (This character is based upon the famous real life Anna O. that Freud documented in his works.)

Breuer has been working with Cecily for a short time, but believes he must turn her care over to Freud, as it seems that she has developed a crush on Breuer. Freud takes over, first hypnotizing her and then in later sessions, he decides against this, opting merely to talk with her to discover her inner secrets.

What he discovers as he learns more of her early life is that she loved her father, who was willing to let his daughter become curious about many new things in her life. As her mother would scold her for putting on makeup (this is compared to a prostitute who paints her face), she is naturally more comfortable with her father's care than with her mother's scorn.

Freud meanwhile learns things about his chlldhood, as he had problems accepting the meek nature of his father, especially when verbally abused about being a Jew. Freud turned to his mother for comfort to make his upbringing more bearable.

Thus Freud and Cecily are linked in their passion for the parent of the opposite sex - Cecily in love with her father and Freud looking to his mother for caresses. "Truth is a mirror upside down," is Freud's explanation; for him there is sexuality in childhood.

The movie goes into great detail abut Cecily's case; it is a good 40-50% of the film and it is fascinating. Originally penned by the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre (and then reworked by two others), the screenplay is serious and detailed. This is not the kind of movie that would play today, as the pace is too slow for modern audiences, but I was intrigued by the story and by Huston's careful and literal direction.

He does give us a few dream sequences - most notably one in which Freud is dragged - via a rope tied to his waist - into a deep cave. The symbolism here seems clear - he is going back into the womb via the umbilical cord - but this is played out with great skill and originality, especially in Douglas Slocombe's excellent black and white photography, which is quite edgy in this scene (negative images as well as out of focus shots).

In the end, Freud has created his Oedipus complex, but is shouted down by his peers during a reading of this paper. Worse yet, he is turned down by Breuer, who respects his diligence and compassion, but cannot agree on the notion of childhood sexuality. Another of Huston's characters has found his meaning in a pursuit; while others mock him, he does not fail. He knows that his work has only begun. This makes him a man who is firmly rooted in John Huston's world. He may be looking more at the end results than the means, as did the gold seekers in Sierra Madre, but the goal, the journey, the pursuit, is what defines his existence.


  1. Well done! One of my first posts on my blog mentioned this film as an obscure movie I discovered on TV long ago. I love this movie. It's compelling and creepy. I have never forgotten the dream sequence you describe with the cavern. There's another scene with that phallic dark tower - or is that the same one? Both York and Clift are excellent in this film. It was very exciting to see your post on this great movie!

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  3. Thanks for the nice comments. The scene with the phallic dark tower is after the initial dream sequence.

    This is a film to be savored and watched several times, as more and more details are revealed in the main character's lives.

  4. Nice write-up! I've always been intrigued by this film because it featured Clift post-accident when he had much more limited use of his face.

  5. Tony:

    Glad you enjoyed the writeup. He was a fascinating actor, wasn't he?

  6. Really looking forward to my favourite director, David Cronenberg's take on the man! With Viggo as Freud no less.

  7. I didn't know that Cronenberg is making a film on Freud. Given the themes in his work, it should be something!

    Thanks for letting me know.

  8. Sorry I'm so late in reading this, Tom--I just finished watching Freud on YouTube today, and it took me two weeks to watch all of its fourteen parts. Having to watch the film online (rather than on a television/movie screen) was horribly grueling and someday I hope this film gets a proper DVD release... maybe by Criterion, hopefully. But it was worth it.

    Clift's performance here is pretty good, although there are times when you can tell that he wasn't having much fun making the picture; you can see the anxiety in his eyes and facial expressions, and even though this sort of betters the performance it also made me worry at times for the actor himself. A strange notion, of course, considering the movie was made over forty years ago. But the stories of a doped-out Clift becoming such an annoyance on the set that Huston had to "lock him outside" (which, according to Huston, made Clift cry) are ridiculous and, admittedly, funny. But it's sad, too. Or the stories about Huston threatening to kill Clift if he didn't get his way and how all the women on the set were on Clift's side the whole time (I've heard rumors that Huston made a lot of homophobic jokes about his star). Or how during the making of the dream sequence in the cave, when Freud is tied to the rope, Clift would intentionally burn his hands sliding down the rope to make his palms bleed--and then blame it on Huston. It sounds like it was a really, really rough movie to make.

    Still, it's a truly wonderful film. There are some unforgettable scenes, as when Freud attends the lecture by a doctor who's hypnotizing patients (in a scenario straight out of Let There Be Light) and then says, "The hypnosis is, alas, a counterfeit"; but later in the film, Freud proves him wrong. And when he's hypnotizing Cecily as she's dreaming of the hospital, only for her to wake up and scream, "It's a brothel! It's a brothel!" The ending scene, in which Freud is booed by that crowd of psychologists, was seriously hard to watch--particularly the guy (who looks suspiciously like Karl Marx!) who walks down the stairs and spits at him. Susanna York is excellent as well, and her Cecily is not unlike the equally disturbed character she later played in Altman's Images.

    This is one of Huston's most visually powerful films and it is most certainly not the kind of project that a simple studio director would touch. You have to be a brave, intellectual filmmaker to make a film like Freud, and that's what Huston so clearly was. To quote from Professor Lesley Brill of Wayne State University, who talks in-depth about the film in his 1997 book:

    Like Freud, Huston understood the shame and self-betrayal that life enforces upon everyone and with which we must come to terms if we are to experience the joy--or even the "common unhappiness", as Freud once said--of which we are capable... but the speaking of Freud's mind in Huston's voice identifies the writer and director with its errant hero. Like the detective [Sam Spade] and the scientist, the artist observes, understands, and discovers himself in a humanity that is at once his subject and his fate.

  9. Yes this is a fascinating film and a serious one that probably wouldn't reach an audience today. The visuals are beautiful and Clift's performance is quite good. I also read Huston's notes on this production - what a shame that a wonderful actor was so mentally off due to his being doped-out as well as battling his own demons.

    Susannah York is very good in this role, which is quite demanding.

    While it's a chore watching this on youtube, thank goodness it's there. Let's do hope this gets a proper DVD release someday.