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Hollywood Quarterly (1946) - The Screen Discovers Psychiatry




The Screen Discovers Psychiatry

FRANKLIN FEARING is Professor of Psychology in the University of California, Los Angeles campus, First Vice-Chairman of the Hollywood Writers' Mobilization, and one of the editors of the Hollywood Quarterly. He has published many articles and is a frequent reviewer in psychological journals.

MORBIDITY statistics are not available, but it is my guess that amnesia is a condition which actually occurs in clinical practice with considerable less frequency than, say, hydrocephalus, trichiniasis, or even smallpox. The current rash of films centering around the subject suggests, however, that it occurs about as often as toothache.

Parenthetically, and for the benefit of the small, unenlightened minority whose education in the field of psychopathology has been neglected, it should be said that amnesia is a condition in which there is loss of memory for a group of experiences centering around a particular event or occasion, or covering a particular span of time. The cause may be organic or functional. That is, the amnesia may be a result of brain injury, or it may be related to any group of emotionally toned experiences in which it functions, as much forgetting undoubtedly does, to protect the individual from painful memories.

The attitude of the layman toward these and other forms of abnormal behavior is a curious mixture of fascination and horror which seems to increase in inverse ratio with the actual frequency of occurrence of these conditions. The reasons for this are interesting but obscure and need not detain us here. But it does create a situation which is ideal for those plot mechanicians with a liking for the bizarre and in need of a gimmick.

Before discussing the current films it would seem to be in order to make some remarks regarding the uses of psychology and psychiatry in the writing and directing crafts, and the proper place of the phenomena of psychopathology in the plot structure of films. Those inappropriate forms of behavior which, when concentrated in a particular person at a particular time or place, are conventionally called abnormal, may be profitably studied by the professional student of human nature as well as all others who are concerned with human character. It has become trite to say that the difference between the abnormal and the normal individual is shadowy. But it cannot be too often emphasized that it is a difference in degree rather than in kind. The use of this material in melodrama, mystery thriller, character study, or any other fictional form requires a sound, almost professional insight into the phenomena themselves. There is no other type of material which puts the skill and subtlety of the writer and director to so severe a test. He uses it at his own risk, and he may not escape responsibility by employing the services of an expert. The expert may be useful and professionally unimpeachable, but someone must know how to utilize the data which the expert provides.

As I see it, there is but one primary legitimate use for these data. They are used not because they are concerned with amnesia or some other variety of clinical pathology, but because they are an intrinsic part of the dramatic situation and illumine human character and motivations in that situation. Their use is justifiable just because the abnormal differs in degree, not in kind, from the normal. The observer will then be aware of them not as titillating bits of pathology, but as a segment of reality which images himself.

Without a thorough grounding in psychology and allied social sciences as well as a mastery of the medium in which he works, the writer or director will almost certainly present this material as merely spectacular or as a device which enables him to escape from an impasse in the plot. There are doubtless a variety of ways in which people who really want to can acquire a professional understanding of human nature. Many people who think they know all about it — the "practical psychologists" — obviously don't. Psychology is a science and, like all science, has a body of tentative and quite unspectacular generalizations based on certain techniques of observation and experimentation. Most of them seem pretty abstract to the eager searcher after the "secrets of the mind." For the writer, the chief value of their systematic study lies not so much in a body of specific facts about people which he might acquire as in the perspective they would give him on the forces which make a human being out of a biological organism. Certainly the systematic study of social psychology, anthropology, and allied social sciences wouldn't hurt Hollywood writers and directors, and it might make them a bit surer of their judgments as to what was psychologically "right." They might then be in a position to make, on occasion, more discriminating use of psychopathological material for justifiable aesthetic, social or educational ends, and, at the same time create sound artful entertainment. The Hollywood studio spends much money to be certain that the paving stones in the medieval courtyard or the costume of the heroine are historically correct. Surely authenticity with respect to the structure of human personality and human motivations is as important as authenticity of settings. Human character is at least as complicated as an atomic bomb, and one does not acquire a fundamental understanding of either through inner revelation, intuition, "practical" experience, or astrology.

There is, perhaps, another reason for presenting human psychopathology on the screen. In spite of educational programs of mental hygiene societies, courses in psychology in colleges and universities, and many other elaborate attempts at public education, the average layman, even the educated layman, still regards all forms of mental disorder with superstition and horror. For him any kind of mental disorder, whether it is called "insanity" or "psychoneurosis," simply can't be viewed in the same manner as pneumonia or backache. These attitudes greatly retard ameliorative and preventive measures. In a society in which all forms of personality disturbances are likely to increase rather than decrease, these attitudes constitute as serious a problem as the disturbances themselves. Filmsgood, sound, entertaining, films — might be made which would show the delicate balance of forces in the individual and his social environment which ultimately shape him in the direction of "normality" or "abnormality." "Abnormality" would become intelligible and less horrible. Something of this sort was done in the film Blind Alley. Although it boggled at times, this film gave us a reasonably accurate picture of the forces which made a gangster a gangster, and, incidentally, an "abnormal" person. The worst boggle was an utterly unconvincing "professor of abnormal psychology" who was superimposed on the plot and who behaved with that godlike detachment which professors practically never have, apparently for the purpose of assisting the audience in disentangling the gangster's complexes. I should add that the film was also exciting melodrama.

Two current examples of the screen's preoccupation with psychopathology are Spellbound and Love Letters. The former is not only concerned with psychopathology; its scene is a mental hospital, and its principal characters are psychiatrists, psychopaths, or both. There is an interesting parallelism in these two films. The theme of both is amnesia. In both, the amnesia is of the so-called functional type. That is, it is precipitated by emotional shock and the forgotten material deals with experiences which, if remembered, would cause the subject unbearable pain and anxiety. In both, the forgotten experiences were concerned with a crime which the subject did not commit but in which he was implicated. In both, it becomes the object of a lover to aid the loved one to recall the forgotten experiences in order that he or she may be cleared of the crime. In each film the chief dramatic suspense develops around the unraveling and reconstruction of the forgotten material. In both, a secondary character who has much the best lines in the script advises and pungently satirizes the lover in his or her frantic search for clues. It is a minor difference that the sex of the amnesic victim is different in the two stories.

There is, however, a fundamental and striking difference between the films. In Spellbound the lover, who frantically searches for clues in the tangled corridors of the victim's mind in order to establish his innocence of crime, is at one and the same time a professional psychiatrist, a beautiful woman, a psychoanalyst, and an amateur detective of no mean attainments. In Love Letters the amnesic's problem is solved without benefit of psychiatry; nor, I am informed, were the services of a professional consultant used in the preparation of the picture.

Stripped of its psychiatric overlay, I should say that Spellbound is a good B-plus mystery thriller. For this reviewer it has some beautifully directed scenes. In particular, the last scene, in which Murchison is forced by the Beautiful Psychiatrist to admit his guilt, and she by a shrewd play on his vanity and intelligence, prevents him from shooting her with the revolver that he gently caresses as she slowly walks from the room, is hair-raising. This scene is one of the few in the picture in which the psychiatrist behaves like a psychiatrist who really understood human character mechanisms. The layman will undoubtedly say she "used psychology," and the layman will be right. It is important to add that I liked the musical score. But the film is concerned with psychiatry as much as it is with murder; indeed, as much as it is with amnesia. It is not only psychiatry, but the Freudian variant of psychiatric theory, which furnishes the basic framework for the plot. An introductory statement, in fact, informs us that modern science — that is, psychoanalysis — has discovered the keys whereby the problems of the unhinged mind may be solved.

Since the film is thus formally committed to a particular psychological theory, one is tempted to evaluate it solely in the light of that theory. That theory is highly controversial. Many psychologists and some psychiatrists reject Freudian theory in toto or in part. This is not, incidentally, because they don't "believe in" it, but because some, though by no means all, of its basic hypotheses have been subject to rigorous tests, and not all of those so tested have been verified. In other words, the Freudian hypotheses are not necessarily true because Freud advanced them, or because people suffering from mental disturbances have been "cured" or improved by psychoanalytic therapy, or because some psychiatrists use this method. It is misleading, or at least confusing, to imply, as the preliminary statement in the film does, that Freudian psychoanalysis has been validated by "modern science."

I should not evaluate the film on the grounds that it rests on a questionable, or at least controversial, theory of human nature. At least it has that consistency of viewpoint which adherence to any theory confers. Nor am I primarily concerned because the film seems a little more occupied with psychiatry and psychiatrists than with human beings. The professional psychiatrist whose services are acknowledged in the screen credits (probably for the first time in history) was unquestionably competent. Hence, I am certain she must have cringed a little when the script called for the psychoanalyst to fall in love with her patient,[1] and she could not have approved of the quite unscientific distinction so beloved by the layman, made several times in the film, between "mind" (read: intelligence) and "heart" — even psychosomatic medicine endeavors to avoid that trap, — particularly in the climactic scene in which the Beautiful Psychiatrist insists that her lover is innocent because her "heart" tells her he is. And it is perhaps kinder not to discuss a psychoanalysis which contains no reference to the patient's sex life.

These are niggling and esoteric criticisms. As an attempt to present certain phases of human psychopathology the film fails — in my opinion — mainly because it has not used this material for its proper psychological and dramatic values. The psychopathological material is not organically related to the total situation in a manner to illuminate and interpret human character, nor is it presented so that an intelligent understanding may be had of the basis and development of the abnormal material itself. Rather, this material seems to be exploited for its spectacular and bizarre character, as something superimposed on the plot. This is enhanced by the Dali dream sequences — incidentally, the dream material in Blind Alley was pictorially more satisfactory — and by the labored adherence to psychoanalytic mechanisms. The effect is rather like that made by a story written for a sensational tabloid by a reporter who had had a course in psychoanalysis. It would seem pretty exciting, but one couldn't quite imagine actually knowing such people inhabiting such a place as "Green Manors."

Perhaps the most serious psychological omission is the failure to show the social backgrounds and the characterological structure of the kind of individual who develops amnesia. Why should this particular person have developed this strange disorder? He had a shock in childhood. He developed a guilt complex as a result. An additional series of stresses in adult life precipitated the amnesia. But many people have shocks in childhood, and many persons are subjected to stress in adult life, but do not develop amnesia.

The fact is, of course, that these rare types of hysterical phenomena such as amnesia and related forms of dissociation appear in individuals with a particular type of personality structure and with characteristic life histories. This is not shown in the picture. The impression is made that, given a childhood shock, one might expect amnesia to develop in almost anybody.

From this point of view it seems to me that Love Letters, in spite of its poorer direction and general mawkishness, is psychologically an honester and more believable picture. It is done without the pseudo-scientific validation of psychiatry and psychoanalysis, and it presents a sounder picture of how and why amnesia develops in a particular personality. Comparisons are odious, as everyone knows, but to this psychologist the clinical picture of the amnesia in Love Letters was as accurate as that in Spellbound, and Love Letters presented a pretty convincing argument that amnesia could be cleared up without a psychiatrist, beautiful or otherwise.[2]

Neither of these pictures realizes the full values of the uses of psychopathological forms of behavior. Neither film, in the opinion of this reviewer, even approximates the subtlety in the use of such material that was demonstrated, for example, in such films as The Lodger or Hangover Square. It may be questioned, of course, whether there can ever be sound reasons for making a film about amnesia except for specific educational purposes. Films in which amnesia occurs as an organic part of character or plot is another matter.

It is a pity that when psychiatry came to Hollywood with panoply and fanfare there was not added a feeling for human character, its organic relation to life, and its unique dependence on human social organization. It is human beings with whom we are concerned, not psychiatrists or psychiatry.


Love Letters. Hal Wallis Prod., Par., 1944. Director, William Dieterle. Novel, Chris Massie. Screen play, Ayn Rand.

Spellbound. Vanguard, UA, 1944. Director, Alfred Hitchcock. Novel, The House of Dr. Edwardes, by Hilary St. George Saunders and John Palmer ("Francis Breeding"). Screen play, Ben Hecht.


Blind Alley. Col., 1939. Director, Charles Vidor. Play, James Warwick. Screen play, Philip MacDonald, Michael Blankfort, and Albert Duffy.

Hangover Square. Fox, 1944. Director, John Brahm. Novel, Patrick Hamilton. Screen play, Barre Lyndon.

The Lodger. Fox, 1943. Director, John Brahm. Novel, Mrs. Marie Belloc Lowndes. Screen play, Barre Lyndon.


  1. That she did so before he was a patient does not make it less a violation of psychoanalytic procedure. The point is, she was analyzing a patient with whom she was in love.
  2. It could be that this verisimilitude was quite accidental. As a matter of fact, of all psychopathological phenomena, amnesia is perhaps the simplest to present in its superficial aspects. This may account for its popularity in Hollywood films.