Lost Classic: Freud (John Huston 1962)

Freud

My psychiatrist recently asked me to pinpoint the thing in my life that most annoys me. After considering the Go Compare! advertising campaign, people with trolley suitcases and the widespread habit among teens of always ending their sentences on a rising diphthong, I finally decided: it really annoys me when the films of master directors fail to get a DVD release.

Squirming on the couch, I tried to think of an example. And then it came to me. John Huston’s Freud (1962). At this my psychiatrist put down his Rorschach ink-blot cards and started to pay attention. How could a pet project of one of Hollywood’s greatest filmmakers somehow go unreleased? Not just in the UK mind you, you won’t find it available stateside either. The best you can hope for currently is some kind person’s semi-permanent ten minute chunks of the film on a popular video sharing website.

Turns out the rights to release are locked away in the TCM vaults. What does this say about Ted Turner? That his mother never loved him? The film’s non-release aside, there’s a fascinating story to be told about its making. Some time in 1958 John Huston, then living in County Galway, hit upon the idea of making a film about Sigmund Freud, and, having already directed Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit on Broadway, he approached the Frenchman to write a script.

Sartre wrote the first synopsis of some 95 typed pages. No, you’re not reading that wrong. This was just the synopsis. By Sartre’s own admission, the finished script would have had a running time of some seven or eight hours. Huston invited Sartre to his castle in Galway to work on a rewrite. Somehow, this revision came out even longer than the original. ‘One can make a film lasting four hours if it’s about Ben Hur,’ Sartre  bleated, ‘but the Texas public will not put up with four hours of complexes!’

To cut a long story short, so to speak, the two didn’t work well together. ‘There was no such thing as a conversation with him,’ Huston later recalled. ‘He talked incessantly, and there was no interrupting him. You’d wait for him to catch his breath, but he wouldn’t.’ Meanwhile Sartre, in his letters to Simone de Beauvoir, described Huston as ‘perfectly vacant, literally incapable of speaking to those whom he has invited.’

And then there’s the anecdote about Sartre’s toothache. Finding himself in pain, Sartre refused to go to Dublin, as Huston suggested, to get it treated. Huston didn’t know any local dentists, but Sartre found one, from whose surgery he emerged in a matter of minutes, having had his tooth extracted. Huston wondered at Sartre’s casual attitude to his teeth, but concluded that ‘a tooth more or less made no difference in Sartre’s cosmos.’

In the end Huston ended up hiring a new screenwriter but traces of Sartre remain in the finished article. However, with a final original running time of 140 minutes it’s clear that a lot of shoe-horning and concertinaing has gone on. The story compresses the years it took Freud to develop his psychoanalytic theories into what seems like a few months. All-too conveniently, nearly every neurotic symptom imaginable manifests itself in a single patient. She is sexually repressed, hysterical, and fixated on her father. ‘Enough material for an entire conference’, to quote the psychiatrist staying at Fawlty Towers.

Huston’s idea was to portray Freud as ‘an adventurer, the explorer of his own unconscious.’ Think Indiana Jones with an Oedipus Complex. Despite the scripting tribulations and an even more cut-down theatrical version with the sexed-up subtitle The Secret Passion which Huston partly disowned, the film succeeded in not only popularizing psychoanalysis but imbuing Freud’s findings with the impact they deserve. There’s also a superb performance by Montgomery Clift in the winter of his career, plus a not-at-all-bad dream sequence.

I just hope TCM relent soon and give the film the commercial release that it deserves. These therapist bills are getting to be astronomical.


Jez Conolly

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