Film & Television

Filming the Mind: Mental Illness in the Movies

All this is very hokey psychology, and way below the level that Hitchcock displays in some of his other films, but it made for a great horror movie. In another film dealing directly with mental illness, Marnie (1964), Tippi Hedrin is a kleptomaniac and pathological liar, and Sean Connery plays her boss who marries her in spite of this, determined to get to the root of her pathology. Connery’s character, like a combination sleuth/psychoanalyst  eventually uncovers a history of traumatic exposure to scenes of her mother’s life as a prostitute and her repression of the memories of violence she has witnessed as a child.

Repression is a constant theme in Hitchcock films and he has much better results in some of his earlier movies. Vertigo (1958), which many consider his best, stars James Stewart as a man with a serious phobia — a fear of high places (though he can’t remember why) who finds himself drawn to a woman who uncannily resembles someone he lost. All of this is resolved in a thrilling conclusion, which shows Hitch’s talents at their “height” while using psychological conflict to enhance and enrich the story line.

Hitchcock often repeats his favorite themes. Two of his best films, Rebecca (1940), and Suspicion (1941) center on pathological doubt, and Rebecca is further enriched by a blistering case of envy. Of course, Hitchcock was also interested in the mind of the psychopath. Two of his films, Strangers on a Train (1951), and Dial M for Murder (1954) are about men who coolly arrange for others to kill their wives, without emotion or remorse. Rope (1948), examines psychopathy head-on, in a film, shot entirely in one take, inspired loosely by the Leopold and Loeb murder case from the 1920s. These were two highly intelligent University of Chicago students who decided to kill a young boy solely for the purpose of demonstrating they could pull off the “perfect crime.” In Rope, a highly intellectual young man and his friend kill someone, hide his body in a trunk then give a dinner party with the trunk as the room’s centerpiece.

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One old Hitchcock film, while perhaps not his greatest, takes on the profession of psychoanalysis directly: Spellbound (1945). Here, Gregory Peck shows up to take over as the new director at a psychiatric clinic, joining colleagues played by Ingrid Bergman and Leo G. Carroll. It soon turns out that he gets really nervous whenever he sees parallel lines. What repressed memories is he trying to contain? Can Ingrid Bergman help him? Who is he really? Complete with dream sequences designed by Salvador Dali attempting to simulate the magic of dream logic, Spellbound was Hitchcock’s attempt to pay homage to the special language of psychoanalysis, and though it is vastly oversimplified it makes for a fairly good thriller/romance, 40s style, of course, and does no damage to the concepts he is trying to illuminate.

On the whole, however, mental states are very difficult to put on film for obvious reasons, and it takes very good writing and even better acting to do it well. Furthermore, it’s hard to understand mental illness from the outside and Hollywood’s need to oversimplify things for dramatic reasons can have negative consequences. A Beautiful Mind (2001), for example, shows how anti-psychotic meds dulled the creativity of a brilliant man, but for many people suffering the frightening and life-altering effects of hallucinations, the side effects of the drugs may be worth tolerating. Last year’s Infinitely Polar Bear earned Mark Ruffalo high praise for his performance as a bipolar parent whose refusal to take his medication regularly causes his family a lot of problems but makes for good times and an entertaining movie. Likewise Silver Linings Playbook (2012), also about a bipolar man, is a romcom that makes it look a bit easier than it is, despite some early scenes when it seems like Pat (Bradley Cooper), who has just spent eight months in an institution, is having a hard time. It’s good when filmmakers try to shed light on these issues, especially when they get it right, and as you can see, that isn’t easy.


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  • Mickey February 25, 2016 at 11:53 am

    As Good As It Gets? Anyone? Although it was funny in some ways, not funny in others. And the gay man. More mental illness caused by traumatic experiences. Lots of great movies to remember and some I would like to view. Thank you.

  • Carol Arrington February 25, 2016 at 10:46 am

    Great article. I wanted to make one comment because I believe Olivia deHavilland was the actress in Snake Pit.

  • Cecilia Ford February 25, 2016 at 9:53 am

    yes…anyone who hasn’t seen “Ordinary People” should give it a try. Mary Tyler Moore is amazing playing “against type” as a narcissistic mother and Elizabeth McGovern’s fresh, unselfconscious performance is also wonderful. Timothy Hutton won best supporting actor, Redford best director, and it also won best picture and screenplay. The novel, by Judith Guest, is also great.

  • Andrea February 25, 2016 at 7:49 am

    Ordinary people and infinitely polar bear are 2 amazing movies that address this issue so beautifully! Great article Cecilia!