Psychiatry in Pselluloid

This is the second of two articles by NORMAN N. HOLLAND, film critic for educational station WGBH and assistant professor of English at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

It was bound to happen someday. First there was sound, then the wide, wide screen —someday psychoanalysis had to come to the movies, too. In the good old silent days, characters did not even have motives, let alone complexes and fixations. When Theda Bara’s tarnlike eyes turned on some swooning matinee idol, who cared about the weaning trauma then? We were watching a ritual as artificial and graceful as the arc of a custard pie. As in so many other cinematic matters, talk was the villain. After sound, it was no longer enough for the character merely to do something; he had to talk about it, too. Fortunately, script writers and directors being the simple folk they are, for a long time the talk remained as motiveless as the acts themselves.

This reprieve ended in 1941 with Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound, a film apparently designed to prove that psychoanalysis on their own time are entitled to be as crazy as anyone else. Our hero (Gregory Peck) suffers from amnesia and a curious tendency to take out after people with a straight razor whenever he sees a white surface with parallel lines on it. A good deal of brouhaha follows: Ingrid Bergman, Peck’s analyst, falls in love with him (not recommended therapeutic procedure); she tries to reconstruct a murder from his dreams (a doubtful procedure at best); she goes skiing with our hero (remember those parallel lines?); and she traps the real criminal, who also turns out to be an erring analyst. Finally, we discover that our hero’s problems all come from feelings of guilt: as a youth he had inadvertently impaled on an iron fence (parallel lines) a brother whom he had never liked very much anyway. Clinch and fade-out.

Oddly enough, this amiable balderdash marked a milestone, or at least a yardstick. It established the first great axiom of film psychology: Every serious mental illness is caused by a single dramatic incident in childhood (for example, the amnesia in Spellbound, schizophrenia in The Snake Pit, or split personality in The Three Faces of Eve). Therapy consists in ferreting out this trauma and making the patient re-enact it under highly dramatic circumstances. The patient will twitch, moan, and weep (according to the techniques of method acting); then he is cured.

But, as psychoanalysis passed via Broadway into the folklore of midcentury America — as the wide, wide screen demanded more talk and less action — it became clear to one and all that this first great axiom was not enough. The system was incomplete. Film psychologists could only treat drastic, dislocating mental illness. What about the commoner, milder troubles: debilitating shyness, enervating nervousness, tired blood, B.O., or (as we have since learned to call it) insecurity? These lesser ailments sometimes look very like the serious ones: alcoholism in The Lost Weekend, drug addiction in A Hatful of Rain, pyromania in The Long, Hot Summer, delinquency in Rebel Without a Cause or The Toting Stranger. They can, however, be infallibly distinguished from the really serious ailments by your watching for the classic symptom: someone says of the victim, “He’s not bad, just sick.”

Research in this new cinema psychology was slow, but the movies finally met the challenge with the second great axiom, even more firmly grounded in wishful thinking than the first: Every lesser mental illness is caused by the sustained misbehavior of one or more of the patient’s parents throughout his (the patient’s) childhood. Therapy in these cases consists in “talking it out.” That is, the patient screams accusations at the erring parent until both, seeing that a great wrong has been done, collapse in tears. Then the patient is cured.

With these two axioms, Hollywood is now in a position to handle the entire range of human behavior. Consider the depths involved in the recent Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. The hero’s wife had been in the midst of seducing the hero’s best friend, when she suddenly changed her mind. The young man in question, understandably somewhat frustrated, promptly popped himself out of a window. Since that time, the hero has been despondent, viewing his wife with suspicion and distaste as he pines away around a plentiful flow of bourbon. The hero’s father finally exhorts his son to “face up to the truth” about the late, lamented best friend, and after a suitable amount of yelling and storming around, the young man is apparently cured (Axiom 1). You would think that the picture ended there, but no, it is more subtle. A certain restlessness pervades the actors (and the audience) as it becomes apparent that the malignant psychic growth has not been fully exorcised. Finally, son confronts father in the cellarage (nicely symbolic that, for the fact is that now we are really getting deep in film psychology). After breakingup a good deal of the furniture stored in this basement, son finally comes out with what is still bothering him: father did not love him enough in his youth. Father tearfully agrees and both go back upstairs, cured (Axiom 2).

Film psychology has succeeded when the characters give up doing anything, so as to devote themselves wholly to worrying their psyches. You would think that according to this criterion the lowly Western could never achieve much in cinema psychology: it relies unrelentingly on hard riding, straight shooting, and, in general, derring-do. But even now, recent Westerns have begun the trend. Take The Law and Jake Wade, for example. One of the villains is sort of odd. Between his intermittent attempts to ravish the heroine, she asks him, “How did you ever get to be this way?” Proudly, even a little smugly, he explains that his Paw was a real Bible reader and after revival meetings would come home full of glory and beat the livingdaylights out of the boy. You can just hear the phrase “repressed sadist” clicking in the minds of script writer and audience alike. “Paw was the first man ah killed,” the villain disdainfully concludes. In The Big Country, one of the younger villains of the piece is shot by his own father, who is fed up with his ungentlemanly attempts to shoot the hero in the back. As the boy dies, he gasps out his testament in his father’s arms. “Yew was always after me, Paw, to grow up and be a big tough man like yew. Why couldn’t yew just love me, Paw?” The grizzled old man brushes aside a tear and goes out gunning for his archenemy, knowing there is nothing left for him to do but die.

Nevertheless, in these Westerns people are still getting shot at, maidens are still held captive, and the West is not yet safe for women and children. Clearly, the boys out West have not gone as far as they can in replacing action by talk. But about 1965, say, the final walkdown will probably look like this:

(Long shot as Blackie rides slowly down the center of the main street of Sike’s Bend. Pedestrians, on seeing him, scatter; mothers pull their small boys into stores. He ties up his horse and pushes through the swinging doors of the Paradise Café.

Inside the Paradise Café, we see Blackie sauntering along the bar, past the large ink blot which replaces the traditional nude. At the opposite end of the room, we see Wyatt lying on a couch talking softly, Doc Halliday at the head of it, notebook open, taking notes as Wyatt talks.)

BLACKIE: Ah don’t care if yore hour ain’t up yit, Wyatt. Ah been waitin’ too long fer this.

(Blackie turns on his heel and stalks out. Wyatt gets up, takes a book held out to him by Halliday, and slowly walks through the doors. Halliday remains behind putting the finishing touches on his notes.

In the street, Wyatt and Blackie face each other at opposite ends of the wide, wide screen. Blackie’s gun hangs menacingly at his side. Wyatt is armed only with Volume VI of the standard edition of Freud.)

WYATT (casually): Wal, Blackie, how’s yore maw?

BLACKIE (suspiciously): Maw’s all right. Whut’s she got to do with it? Draw!

WYATT (still casual): And all them other siblings?

BLACKIE (indignantly): They don’t count where me and Maw’s concerned. Come on, Wyatt, draw!

WYATT: Don’t they? Tell me, Blackie, was yore maw pleased when you missed the stagecoach with the silver shipment?

BLACKIE (whining now): Whut’re yew tryin’ to do, Wyatt? Why won’t yew draw like we always used to?

WYATT: Your failure to get the silver shipment caused her to treat yew like a child again and reopen the whole Oedipus conflict. The situation was aggravated because it was yore older brother, whom yore maw admires and respects and who has always been a repressive fathersubstitute to yew — it was him as pointed out yore failure. Then yore maw told yew that yew was never the man yore paw was.

BLACKIE (raging): Why, yew . . . (He draws his gun and leaps behind a mother-shaped barrel. His attempt to shift the discussion to the level of action shows he has lost already.)

WYATT (calmly, contemptuously): Put down that there narcissistically overvalued symbol. (Blackie wavers; Wyatt drives the final nail.) Yew won’t get over yore castration fears thataway.

(Blacke’s face blanches. The gun slips from his nerveless fingers. Townspeople rush up, pin his arms, and lead him, crushed and shivering, off to jail. From the Paradise Café runs Libby Doe; Doc Holliday follows, taking notes on what has been happening. Libby throws her arms around Wyatt.)

LIBBY DOE (looking up at him): Wyatt, honey, yew were wonderful. But how did yew know?

WYATT: It was easy. When ah told Blackie it was a silver shipment, ah knew he couldn’t take it. Y’see, silver is a mother symbol for Blackie, and that meant the stagecoach was surrounded with all the taboos of the Oedipus situation. When his maw and his brother (who is a repressive father-substitute) lit into him, ah knew that either he would crack or else he would suffer a hypercathexis of the superego and come a-gunnin’ fer me. Once he come into town, all all had to do was show him the gun was a phallic symbol and he was through.

LIBBY DOE: Oh, Wyatt, ah was so scairt . . . (Clinch. Come in big closeup to Doc Holliday beaming in the background as he finishes his notes. He shuts his notebook, looks out at the audience, and slowly winks. Fade-out.)


Freud was smart. He confined his moviegoing to Charlie Chaplin silents.