Freud Review

Among the great Hollywood directors, John Huston's filmography seems like one of the ripest for full-on exploration and re-evaluation. His reputation hardly needs it, with beloved classics like The Maltese Falcon, Treasure of the Sierra Madre and The African Queen going quite a long way towards keeping the bronze shiny, but the richness and breadth of Huston's career has possibly been overlooked much too often. His pace was about a picture a year for the entirety of his directing career, a span lasting four and a half decades. That's a lot of films and, considering their maker, a good bit of alcohol. If we distill it down to the thirty-seven fiction features he put his name on, over half of those rarely enter the conversation. If the assumption is that these films don't merit anything further it's time to revisit such reasoning. If they're simply difficult to find and see that also should be remedied.

Freud, the 1962 biopic starring Montgomery Clift as the titular psychologist, is a pretty good picture. It shows Huston's typical reverence for the material, and never betrays the basic intelligence needed to effectively tell the story. Also helping greatly is the atmospheric black and white cinematography by Douglas Slocombe. There are several times when Freud feels like a transition film, existing somewhere between Hollywood and Europe and taking on aspects of two very different periods for the industry. It's rather thick, slow-paced drama carried by a genuine movie star in Clift and spiked with troubling dream sequences, dark themes, and an overriding sense of struggle and frustration. Those who saw David Cronenberg's A Dangerous Method will recognize several narrative similarities here, with Freud in a similar position as Carl Jung was in that film.

Jean-Paul Sartre, who rejected the very theories pertaining to the unconscious that are seen in Freud, was contacted by Huston to write the film's screenplay. Despite being a curious choice for the job, he did indeed submit both an early synopsis and a much longer script. He receives no credit in the finished picture - a shame since "Oscar nominee" would have been a fun addition to his list of honors - but Sartre's contribution apparently served as a point from which to work for Huston and the credited writers (Charles Kaufman and Wolfgang Reinhardt, who were indeed recognized by the Academy that year). A book of Sartre's attempt, simply entitled The Freud Scenario, was published and translated into English years later. If filmed in full, it would have resulted in something approximately seven hours in length.

This film was a reunion of sorts for Huston and Clift, who had worked together on The Misfits a year earlier. Clift's biographer claimed that Huston was quite harsh on the set to his lead actor. Regardless, it's a respectable performance of a character who must have been difficult to play. He's largely restrained throughout and injects physicality almost exclusively through the widening of his eyes. His gaunt face covered in a dark beard, Clift's portrayal relies largely on the repressed feelings key to the doctor's work and carries an emphasis on internalizing most of what occurs. Freud was basically the end for Clift. Universal claimed he was absent from the set so often as to have caused the production to go over budget and therefore withheld his salary. He sued, the studio countered, and the parties settled out of court in Clift's favor. The damage was done, though, both to his reputation and his body. It was four years before his next and last picture was released, a foreign production called The Defector. By the time it premiered Clift was dead, just forty-five years old but with a heart greatly damaged by years of dependency on drugs and alcohol.

The knock on Huston tends to be his lack of easily defined signatures, a nearly unforgivable quality for critics in love with auteurist tendencies. (Andrew Sarris put Huston in his "less than meets the eye" category in 1968 and nearly choked himself with bile-laden hyperbole in support.) There have been writers who seemingly revel in finding recognizable, repeated characteristics in bad films. Huston, no stranger to bad or at least erratic efforts, nonetheless provided little of this road map approach to critical watching. So when Huston failed he lacked the safety net of having at least made something obviously personal and in synch with his other work. There's little use in trying to connect all of his pictures as having been clearly directed by him. I'm not entirely sure why anyone would want to either try to analyze, for example, Annie against Fat City or read such an unnecessary stretch of creative intentions in the first place.

The interesting thing is that, taking the right films, it's not at all difficult to gather motifs and recurring themes across Huston's work. The degree of collective usefulness for these recurrences might be questionable but they're surely present. It simply takes some selective gleaning of his filmography and the recognition of how prominent cynical, tortured male protagonists in some sort of crisis or adventure are for Huston. Even if the artistic success of the picture is shaky, there was probably no better director to bring Moby Dick to the screen. Being frustrated when Huston swung and missed overlooks the fact that at least he swung. It also conveniently chooses to forget that his entire ethos, both onscreen and the offscreen which informed it, tended to play up the very realities which unfolded in the course of his directing career. There are failures, losers and men with unmet potential across Huston's résumé. That's part of why it's so interesting.

As for Freud, much of the film's appeal rests with how staid and sixties cerebral it allows itself to be. Huston builds the discovery and cultivation of Freud's famous theories on repression and the Oedipus Complex with dry, effective suspense. It's a breakthrough for the budding psychoanalyst and, to some degree, the audience as well. His colleagues deny him even the politest level of respect yet Freud retains his conviction. Larry Parks plays the only other doctor willing to explore hypnosis and these radical new ideas with Freud. His role is actually reminiscent of the Freud characterization by Viggo Mortensen in Cronenberg's film, with the similarities continuing somewhat between the patients played by Susannah York and Keira Knightley in the respective movies. The eras define many of the specific differences here, and A Dangerous Method is probably the superior picture, but they also play as companion pieces which both artfully explore that mysterious topic of the human subconscious.


The Disc

Freud, or Freud: The Secret Passion as it was known for its American release, comes to UK DVD from a new label called Transition Digital Media. IMDb indicates two different running times, one for a theatrical version and a second for a longer original version. This seems to be the latter, with a PAL-shortened runtime of approximately 134 minutes. The disc is single-layered.

Though Universal has yet to bring Freud to DVD in R1, there's been a disc available in Spain for a little while now. That release apparently features a non-anamorphic transfer, as does this edition. It would make sense for the sources of the Spanish and British discs to be the same. The image, in its proper 1.85:1 aspect ratio here looks completely serviceable but some minor damage still present indicates a lack of digital clean-up anywhere along the way. Blacks are quite deep, with detail falling by the wayside. The biggest issue might be that it's interlaced. Those just looking to check out the film are encouraged to do so with this release, particularly since studios have long since stopped issuing previously unavailable catalog titles on pressed discs, but it would be a good idea to keep expectations realistic.

The English mono audio is similarly of fair and acceptable quality. There are no nagging deficiencies to the track, with dialogue sounding audible and clean. It's a consistent, rather low in volume listen that makes decent use of Jerry Goldsmith's score (noticeably so at the onset of the film). Subtitles are unfortunately not offered.

There are no extra features included with this release.


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