Freud (John Huston, 1962)

The Criterion Collection, a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films presents Freud.

criterion logoJohn Huston directs Montgomery Clift, Susannah York, Larry Parks, and Susan Kohner in this biographical study of psychologist Sigmund Freud (Clift) as he develops his ground-breaking theories on the subconscious and its impact on daily life.  At a point in his life where disillusionment abounds and Freud finds himself at odds with his fellow colleagues, a visit to a Parisian clinic where hypnosis is used to treat hysterical patients inspires him to experiment with bold new techniques.  Freud concentrates his efforts on Cecily Koerttner (York), a young woman suffering a nervous and physical breakdown in the wake of her father’s death, and through whom Freud comes to appreciate the significances of sexual repression, paternal obsession, free association and hypnosis.  Gradually, the dark and frightening depths of the human mind are revealed to Freud, forcing him to examine his own disturbing dreams and question his own assumptions about himself.  Huston draws an earnestly conflicted performance from Clift in this shadowy, Gothic dramatization of the psychoanalyst’s work from 1885 to 1890.

Disc Features:

  • New, restored 2K digital film transfer, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition
  • Audio commentary featuring film scholar Norman N. Holland
  • Huston, Sartre and the Freud Scenario, a visual essay on Huston’s failed collaboration with Jean-Paul Sartre to develop an original screenplay for Freud, made in collaboration with the National University of Ireland, Galway Archive’s Huston Family Collection
  • Huston’s 1946 documentary on the treatment of American soldiers suffering from shell-shock, Let There Be Light
  • PLUS:  A booklet featuring an essay by director David Cronenberg

John Huston’s Freud (aka Freud: The Secret Passion) is a Hollywood-style biopic of the famed Austrian psychoanalyst’s life between 1885 and 1890, a particularly formative period in Sigmund Freud’s development of various theories including those on hypnosis, dream interpretation, free association, infantile sexuality and the Oedipus complex.  The film commences presenting Freud’s frustrations at a mental asylum overseen by clinic head Dr. Theodore Meynert (Eric Portman), who dismisses the treatment of hysterics for lacking an originating physical ailment.  Freud travels to Paris to observe the use of hypnosis by Dr. Charcot (Fernand Ledoux) and finds his inspiration.  He returns to Vienna, marries his love Martha (Susan Kohner), and opens clinic to treat neuroses with the support of Dr. Joseph Breuer (Larry Parks).  Much of the film is occupied with Freud developing and refining his treatments through Breuer’s former patient Cecily Koertner (Susannah York), a young woman suffering a breakdown following the death of her father that leaves her unable to walk or drink.  First through hypnosis and then through “the talking cure,” Freud is able to decode Koertner’s recurring dream (a dreamt hospital standing in for the memory of a brothel where her father died), observe the impact of repression and false memories, and note the importance of childhood fixations on parents of the opposite sex.  As he does so, Freud begins coming to terms with his own neuroses, starts analyzing his own dreams, and develops an understanding that is own fears and misgivings are neither conscious choices nor arbitrary occurrences that arise in his personality.  Specifically, Freud discovers that his dreams of darkened caves and his discomfort with trains stem from a childhood resentment of his father.  Along the way, Freud faces opposition from the medical establishment and the film concludes with his paper on infantile sexuality being vehemently rejected by the attendees at a medical conference, a blow made all the more tragic by the failure of his longtime colleague Dr. Breuer to support him.  In its final sequence, Freud visits the grave of his father, a final reconciliation brought on by his psychoanalytic insights into himself, and the concluding voiceover (narrated by Huston himself) describes Freud’s work to better understand ourselves as “the beginning of wisdom” and our greatest weapon against “man’s oldest enemy – his vanity.”

Criticisms of Freud generally fall into two major categories.  The first concerns misrepresentations in the development of Freud’s theories (generally related to the order and timing of his professional progress) and to depictions of neuroses and treatments considered comical (Freud’s ability to instantaneously hypnotize subjects and Carl von Schlosser’s Oedipal demonstration being the most frequent targets).  The second line of critique relates to a broader criticism of Huston as a director who fails to mine the depths of his subject matter, preferring to superficially canvass and recount events rather than interrogate their profundity.  The former is the easiest to dismiss, as Freud does provide a good general understanding of psychoanalysis and those expecting an academic dissertation on its history from a Hollywood biopic should be more embarrassed by their criticisms than the film’s perceived failures.  With regard to the latter, Huston’s literal approach to his subject matter is characteristic.  Many point to Huston’s reliance on Clift’s eyes, which seemingly dance at will, as a shorthand cheat by the filmmaker to convey Freud’s epiphanies and methodological advances.  Clift’s reactions bear much of Freud‘s narrative load, but his performance is rarely acknowledged for its ambivalency, sometimes inspired and other times horrified.  It is here where Freud finds its depth and fascination.

Freud is often described (and sometimes diminished) as a whodunit, with its titular psychoanalyst playing the detective seeking to solve psychic crimes.  Aside from being needlessly limiting, this comparison also misidentifies this biopic’s nearest generic relation.  Freud‘s high-key, chiaroscuro lighting can give the film a noir-ish feel, but its connection appears closer to Gothic horror.  The filmic Freud is far less the dogged gumshoe and much more the doomed archaeologist descending into the cursed mummy’s tomb, far closer to the fated archivist compelled to read ancient and eldritch tomes that threaten a maddening knowledge.  The film organizes itself around light (conscious understanding) and darkness (the unknown subconscious), and Freud’s voyages into the darkness (“almost as black as hell itself”) leave him terrified and prepared to abandon his quest as often as it leaves him encouraged.  Freud, as Norman Holland describes it, treats the mind as a body moving through space, successfully expressing movement of thought as movement through space, but that progression is not toward uncovering a motivated villain as in a detective film, but involves surviving, understanding, and containing a monstrous realm that neither respects nor abides our fragile ordering of the world.  No where is this more apparent in Freud than in the depicted dreams and highly subjective memories that are presented in foreboding and unreal terms.  These highly symbolic and surreal sequences approach the nightmares and transdimensional visitations of a Lovecraft story, meetings between worlds that leave its human protagonists shaken and near insanity.  Freud is an exploration of a hidden and unwelcoming domain.  The shadowy subconscious spreads ominously from inky black dream caves, across stone-paved streets, through wrought-iron gates and “yonic arches,” into homes and offices, and finally back into our minds, paralyzing us with fear and neurosis.  It may be the closest thing in Huston’s varied filmography to true horror.  If it is not, it certainly dresses itself in the customary garb.

On top of being an effective Hollywood biopic and an intriguing exercise in invoking the syntax and semantics of Gothic horror, Freud also has the benefit of being a notoriously difficult production (always a sexy topic to film buffs).  Despite having made Let There Be Light (1946), an examination of the treatment of shell-shocked soldiers in an American psychiatric hospital, Huston was generally dismissive of psychoanalysis, considering it the domain of bored housewives.  He initially teamed with Jean-Paul Sartre, who was also critical of psychoanalysis, and had the famed philosopher draft a synopsis.  The initial version was 95 pages and would have made a film 5 hours long.  Cuts were discussed, yet Sartre’s second draft was even longer and dealt with prostitution, incest, masturbation, homosexuality, and child abuse.  The two parted company and Sartre eventually asked for his name to be removed from the project altogether.  Huston and Sartre seemed to share natural enmity, with Huston describing Sartre as hideous and pontificating, while Sartre felt Huston actively avoided thought.  The task of drafting the film’s script was taken on first by Wolfgang Reinhardt and then Charles Kaufman, who had worked with Huston on Let There Be Light and to whom the script to Freud is generally attributed.  The use a central patient who synthesized various figures treated by Freud, including Anna O., was a key idea of Sartre’s that survived the script process (although Cecily’s bounty of symptoms is another frequent element of criticism).  The script was a mere bump in the road compared to the production.  Montgomery Clift, with whom Huston had previously worked with on The Misfits (1961), had been involved in a serious car accident in 1956 that significantly marred his matinee-idol good looks, limited his physicality, and left him abusing pills and alcohol.  (There is something very compelling about seeing Clift, this physically damaged, secretly homosexual, professionally struggling actor, hidden beneath the beard of Sigmund Freud, a man feeling psychically and professionally undermined by his own discoveries.)  To Clift and much of the female cast, Huston was a tyrant who took every opportunity to berate and humiliate the film’s star, while Huston and the crew found Clift unprofessional, addled by self-medication and incapable of remembering his lines.  Clift and his co-star Susannah York challenged Huston and the film’s script, demanding rewrites to conform to their understandings of how psychoanalysis operated.  Universal would actually go so far as to sue Clift over his frequent absences, the matter being later settled out of court.  Perhaps as a final statement, Freud was nominated for 4 Golden Globes and 2 Academy Awards, but none acknowledged Clift’s contribution.  One of those nominations goes to composer Jerry Goldsmith’s dissonant score.  Fans of Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) should recognize 3 tracks reused in the sci-fi horror classic.  Ironically, Goldsmith also composed the score to Alien, but the Freud tracks were purchased and reused without his consent and much to his chagrin.

Freud R2 DVDWe’ll not promote a specific cover artist for a Criterion cover treatment in this instance, but rather a concept.  This cover from the Region 2 DVD release, with the overlapping images of Freud and Cecily, emphasizes the convivial, parallel psychic journeys each takes through the film.  Further, it highlights the gaze of each character, elaborating on Freud‘s emphasis on the eyes as windows to the psyche and its reliance on the look as the primary engine for conveying awareness and enlightenment.  If anything, a cover artist’s interpretation of this concept should integrate the two figures even further, overlapping them more so as to share a single eye.  The combination of Freud and Cicely in this manner, perhaps as negative images, would convey the near metaphysical aspects of the film and offer some sense of the unknown darkness that resides within each, influencing their natures and actions.  Freud deserves reconsideration, particularly for its strong performances and its references to Gothic horror.  As a Universal title without a North American disc release, Freud seems like a potentially accessible title to the Collection, letting it add another Clift performance and expand its catalogue of John Huston films back from its more modern entries.

Credits:  We strongly recommend Norman Holland’s essay “Seeing Huston’s Freud.  It provides an excellent overview of the film’s troubled production, addresses its potential areas of weakness, and offers a compelling analysis of the film’s Freudian practice of displacement, often reviewed scene by scene.  The breadth and depth of Holland’s analysis made him an easy choice for a commentary track.  The conflicted collaboration between Huston and Sartre deserves its own special feature and the proposed visual essay is inspired by the NUI Galways Archives blog post on the topic.  Huston’s Let There Be Light actually appears on the disc release of Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master (2012).  It may be that the film is in the public domain and/or that its status as a government production makes it readily accessible.  Either way, it would make an excellent addition to a Criterion edition of Freud, providing the viewer with a better appreciation of Huston’s admiration for psychiatry and the individuals it treats.  Criterion are also lovers of all things Cronenberg.  With his release of A Dangerous Method (2011), Cronenberg commented that Huston’s version was not a serious portrait of the psychoanalyst, but that Clift was interesting casting.  An essay by Cronenberg on the film would likely be fascinating and we can’t help but wonder about his thoughts on Clift and whether his criticisms of the film, particularly given its nightmarish visions, might soften on further consideration.

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