Dr. Alex Brulov: “Women make the best psychoanalysts until they fall in love. After that they make the best patients.” [Michael Chekhov to Ingrid Bergman in “Spellbound” (1945)]
The psychiatric profession has been a fruitful area for film directors and Network TV to explore for a long time. It really came into prominence for motion pictures starting in the nineteen forties and later for television in the nineteen sixties. This was due to a lot of motion picture directors, executives, and actors seeing psychoanalysts themselves, so they were influenced into making films about the subject. It also might have been due to the horrors of WW II which brought the increased use of psychoanalysis into the forefront of the public conscience. This leads up to this month’s post where I will discuss the different ways, both good and bad, that the field of psychiatry and psychiatrists have been portrayed in films and on TV all the way up to the present day.
A number of film noirs in the nineteen forties had storylines where mentally unstable individuals committed murder. This allowed the field of psychiatry to be incorporated into the story to try and explain these individuals’ motivations/actions. Such films like “The High Wall” (1947) had war veteran Robert Taylor accused of murdering his wife treated by psychiatrist Audrey Totter to help him try to remember what actually happened, or “The Dark Mirror” (1946) with psychiatrist Lew Ayres trying to figure out which identical twin (both played by Olivia de Havilland) was a psychopathic killer, or “Spellbound” (1945) with psychiatrist Ingrid Bergman who, while trying to help amnesiac psychiatrist Gregory Peck, discovers that: (1) she is in love with him, (2) he is not really a psychiatrist, (3) he might be an insane killer, and (4) he didn’t pay for their dinner (maybe she should have just tried Match.com instead!). All of these films along with others made back then just had to always have the various shrinks falling in love with their patients. It got so bad that maybe Faberge should have marketed a scent labeled “Psychopathic Aphrodisia” for the public. You just always had to love those Nut Jobs!
At times you didn’t even need to have a psychiatrist explaining the motivations for a psychopath in these films. Instead, you now had your lead detective(s) spouting off some psycho-babble mumbo-jumbo about what were the psychological motivations for the maniac they were trying to apprehend. It was almost like they had a “Psychopath for Dummies” identification book in the lower drawer of their precinct desk right along with their cheap half pint of bourbon, a pack of Camels, and a comic book or two. Some of these movies back then were “White Heat” (1949), “Follow Me Quietly” (1949), and “Phantom Lady” (1944). Although “Follow Me Quietly” and “White Heat” (with James Cagney playing the greatest psycho with a Mom complex until Norman Bates came along) were both excellent, “Phantom Lady” was almost laugh out loud awful. Despite the fine direction by Robert Siodmak (“The Killers”), and incredible cinematography by Woody Bredell (also, “The Killers”), this stupid redundant tale of a loyal secretary (Ella Raines) secretly in love with her unhappily married boss (pretty boy non-actor Allan Curtis), and her efforts to later prove him innocent of his wife’s murder, it was adapted from a story by the always overrated trite noir writer, Cornell Woolrich. However, maybe the worst thing in the whole movie was the ridiculous performance by Franchot Tone as (Spoiler Alert) the real nut job killer. Every time he wants to secretly reveal his craziness to the viewing audience, he puts the flat part of his hand over his mouth while spreading his fingers wide open so his Goo-Goo-Googly eyes can bulge out between his fingers. That might have possibly been the worst ever attempt by someone to look nutty until it was finally topped 47 years later by Anthony Hopkins’ overrated semi-drooling/ham performance as Hannibal Lecter in “Silence of the Lambs.” Even with Raines (while undercover at a late-night club) gyrating and erotically dancing while simulating in closeup that she was having an orgasm (how did that one get by the censors), you couldn’t keep “Phantom Lady” from inanity!
Too often for movies and Network TV you had psychiatrists portrayed as all-knowing/wise problem solvers of the mind who resolved their patients’ mental problems just in time for the ending credits to appear! This also wouldn’t change until years later. For this stereotype you had both good and bad ones with such good ones as:
- “The Three Faces of Eve” (1957): True story with good shrink Lee J. Cobb helping to cure tour de force Oscar winner Joanne Woodward’s three-person multiple personality disorder.
- “Sybil” (1976): NBC Network film, which was also a true story, with Joanne Woodward now as the good shrink helping to cure mesmerizing Emmy winner Sally Field of her fourteen-person multiple personality disorder.
- “The Snake Pit” (1948): Good shrink Leo Genn helping to cure Oscar nominated Olivia de Havilland’s mental illness while also throwing light on how institutionalized patients were mistreated in mental institutions. This movie is dated but it is still powerful!
- “The Mark” (1961): Good shrink Rod Steiger helping former convicted child molester Stuart Whitman (Oscar nominated) to deal with his psychological demons upon his release.
- “I Never Promised You a Rose Garden” (1977): Semi-biographical story about good shrink Bibi Andersson helping Kathleen Quinlan (should have been Oscar nominated) in dealing with her mental illness. Despite numerous questionable film changes for the original character’s story, this is still a good film with fine performances.
Of course, you also had some real stinkers with an all-knowing/wise(ass) psychiatrist such as:
- “The Dark Past” (1949): Know it all shrink Lee J. Cobb while being held captive by murderous escapee Bill Holden and his gang takes less than an evening to cure of him of his psychological nightmares, his paralyzed hand, his murderous tendencies, and a bad case of dandruff making him into a new man (Of course there is still that little matter of him killing the prison warden earlier!). No problem! Cobb will take care of that one too before breakfast!
- “Lizzie” (1957): Vaudeville “Three Faces of Eve” rip-off with Eleanor Parker overacting worse than a high school play reject trying to portray someone with a multiple personality disorder. Also, with Richard (Palladin) Boone in a sleepwalking performance as her shrink!
- “Dressed to Kill” (1980): Maybe the worst of them all. Another Alfred Hitchcock rip-off film by Hack Director Brian De Palma. This time it’s “Psycho” with cheating Angie Dickinson in the Janet Leigh role, and Michael Caine as her therapist who’s trying to analyze(!!!) her while also getting in touch with his feminine side (You know, like Lizzie Borden!).
Later on, studios started to make film biographies of famous therapists, and surprisingly, a couple of them were actually quite good. Two that I want to mention are “Freud” (1962), and “A Dangerous Method” (2011). “Freud” was a straight biography of the therapist as a young doctor leading up to the development of his analytical concepts regarding dream interpretation, the subconscious, child sexuality, and the Oedipus complex. It had top notch talent behind it with Montgomery Cliff starring as Freud, Susannah York playing a composite of a number of his patients, a number of other fine English character actors, an original screenplay by playwright Jean Paul-Sartre, fine black and white cinematography by Douglas Slocombe, an Oscar nominated film score by Jerry Goldsmith, and direction by John Huston. However, despite all of that, it was a very troubled production. Sartre’s screenplay was too long (it would have resulted in an eight-hour movie), and Mega-Jerk Sartre had his name removed from the film rather than having his “masterpiece” screenplay altered in any way. Susannah York was also a royal pain in the ass to deal with too, so much so, that she was finally told to quit being a problem “or else”. And then there was Montgomery Cliff.
Marilyn Monroe once said of Cliff, “He’s the only person I know who is in even worse shape than I am.” (And folks, that means something if someone as screwed up as Marilyn Monroe says something like that!). This was Cliff’s next to last film, and besides his dealing with being gay, he was beset with numerous health problems accentuated by his long-time drug and alcohol dependency. It also didn’t help that Huston, who had a long track record of having sadistic tendencies during prior film productions, was continually abusive to Cliff during filming. The constant production delays due to both Cliff and Huston’s actions later resulted in Universal-International Studios trying to sue Cliff for the production delay costs. However, despite all of that, the film was a hit, and not only did the Studio lose the suit, they also had to pay Cliff a serious chunk of money. My own feelings on the matter are that Cliff, even early in his career, and Huston could both be arrogant royal Assholes, but together they still managed to make a fine film no matter what you think of Freud’s views and concepts. Huston brilliantly directs “Freud” almost like a film noir mystery of the mind with Cliff as a detective trying to solve why York and others portraying disturbed patients either say or act the way they do. Incorporated into this film are incredible dark black and white dream sequences which are the most riveting ones seen on film since Alfred Hitchcock’s “Spellbound” was made seventeen years before. Cliff’s performance is subtle, and both thoughtful and introspective. For all of his troubles, he was still able to deliver a capable performance with strong assistance provided by John Huston.
“A Dangerous Method” is another film drama about Sigmund Freud. However, it takes an entirely different approach to psychiatry. Here it is instead a drama about three eminent therapists: (1) Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender), (2) his patient Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley) who suffers from hysteria and ultimately becomes both his mistress and an eminent therapist in her own right, and (3) Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) and his interactions with both individuals. The film was directed by David Cronenberg with a screenplay by Christopher Hampton who adapted it from his own play. At first, I couldn’t see how Cronenberg could ever possibly be able to direct such a high brow film. He was known for a film genre known as “body horror” which too often were films containing scenes of extreme gore, violence, nudity, and sex (“A History of Violence”, “Eastern Promises”, etc.). However, in this case, I was wrong. He elicits fine performances from the three main characters (except whenever Knightley overacts while going into a hysterical fit). He also expertly incorporated the scenery, costumes, sets, and art direction into the film to beautifully convey the time that these individuals lived. Cronenberg crafts a movie that really forces you to think about the various opposing views of Jung and Freud along with what originally drew them both together first as friends and colleagues, but later tore them apart as their professional differences, especially pertaining to psychoanalytical concepts, proved unreconcilable. However, maybe the best part of the movie is his utilization of Hampton’s screenplay. It is complex, and he does not dumb down the differing concepts found in psychoanalysis for the viewer. That is what ultimately makes “A Dangerous Method” a great film.
As time went by, another change in film portrayals of the psychiatric profession was in their focus shifting from not just a therapist’s treatment of patients, but also how a therapist was personally affected for better or worse. Unfortunately, too often this resulted in soap opera storylines that almost came across like Peyton Place on a couch. For movies you had such winners as “The Cobweb” (1955) with Richard Widmark, Charles Boyer, Lauren Bacall, Gloria Graham, Paul Stewart, Lillian Gish, and others consisting of shrinks and staff at a mental institution more busy drinking, cheating, back stabbing, etc. than actually treating patients. If that wasn’t bad enough, the grating nail across a blackboard film score by bad film composer Leonard Rosenman was enough to drive anyone batty. Next up you had the campy and overwrought “The Caretakers” (1963) with Robert Stack (right after he finished playing Elliott Ness) now reduced to cleaning up a psych ward rather than the crime infested Chicago of the nineteen thirties. However, here he had a nemesis that was even worse than Al Capone…JOAN CRAWFORD! As the head shrink, he believes in group therapy. As the head nurse, she believes in strait-jackets, and padded cells (and also maybe the rack and branding irons which was probably how you maintained discipline in your own home! Right, Joannie!). By the end of this mess, I was hoping that Ness…I mean, Stack would have just whipped out that old Thompson submachine gun and blasted all of the Pepsi-Cola advertisements that Crawford had deliberately placed in this movie (she was on their board of directors at the time) along with Crawford, to smithereens. Lastly, you had “Captain Newman, M.D.” (1963) with Gregory Peck as the aforementioned “Newman” who is head of the neuro-psychiatric ward at the Colfax Army Air Field military hospital in the Arizona desert treating numerous airmen suffering from various emotional and psychological combat trauma in 1944. This one, at least, mixed in some comedy with the hard drama (sort of like a much lesser “M*A*S*H”) with Tony Curtis and Larry Storch providing the comedy, and Angie Dickinson (way before she was fricasseed in “Dressed to Kill”) as his head nurse/love interest. This one wasn’t so bad as much as just being pedestrian/soap opera bland. It wasn’t till much, much later that something far better came along and that one wasn’t even a film.
Network TV tried a few times to specifically produce a few shows about the psychiatric profession. However, all of these like “The Eleventh Hour” (1962-64), “Breaking Point” (1963), and “The Hothouse” (1988) were rating failures. Basically, Network TV too often just incorporated stories relating to the psychiatric profession into their regular TV medical shows every once in a while, from Dr. Kildare/Ben Casey’s time all the way up to “ER” and “House”. Maybe this was because the public preferred watching their doctors operating on people rather than analyzing them. Who knows! Anyway, finally one cable series came along which focused on a therapist not only psychoanalyzing patients, but also focusing on his all too fallible personal life. That series was “In Treatment” (2008-10) starring Gabriel Byrne as Dr. Paul Weston.
“In Treatment” was an unusual series in that it was originally based on the Israeli series “Be Tipul” (“In Therapy”) which won a ton of awards there. An American adaption was made using some of the same storylines and even some of the music from the original Israeli series. HBO Europe reached a deal with other countries mostly in Europe along with a few others in the world to develop their own versions which have continued long after the American version ended in 2010, although a new version has returned this year with Uzo Aduba (“Orange Is the New Black”) as the new therapist. The format of the original American series consisted of five, thirty-minute episodes shown weekly one per night where Weston, in a separate office at his home, conducted individual sessions with his patient(s). However, that was only for the first four episodes out of the five. The fifth episode every week consisted of Weston going to the home of his former friend and colleague Gina (Dianne Wiest) who psychoanalyzed him.
As Weston, Byrne is terrific as is Wiest along with all of the rest of the cast. He is neither all knowing nor even wise at times. He makes mistakes, sometimes “big” ones. He gets too involved in his patients’ lives which causes a strain on his marriage with his wife Kate (Michelle Forbes), his children, and his own sense of self. He can also be an arrogant and temperamental ass as well as acting curt, rude, and judgmental with everyone around him including Gina. However, he is also a keenly insightful and skilled therapist, an extremely feeling individual, and too often most critical of himself. In other words, he is a believably real “human being.” “In Treatment” does have some major flaws. Some of the angry, nasty, and inappropriate outbursts towards him during some of his sessions I cannot believe any analyst would possibly tolerate for long including his own nasty outbursts at times with Gina. Also, two patient storylines of (1) Laura (Melissa George) being erotically attracted to him and he to her, and (2) Mia (Hope Davis), an old ex-girlfriend who he accepted as a patient even though it was obvious from the start that she still had major unresolved issues with him after all of these years misdirect the series into ludicrous soap opera territory at times. However, even with these flaws, “In Treatment” is the only series that shows how therapy sessions actually somewhat work, and how hard it is for even gradual progress to be made if any progress is to be made at all. For a series about people who mostly sit around talking to each other, “In Treatment” is both suspenseful and illuminating!
Well, that sums up another Blog Post. I hope that it was interesting and informative for you! However, if it was not, or if I provoked any anger or annoyance, well…
“MAYBE YOU HAVE SOME UNEXPLORED ISSUES THAT WE MIGHT NEED TO FURTHER DISCUSS…”