Scott’s TCM Fest Dispatch, Part Three: Psychology

It’s not exactly remarkable that cinema has been around long enough to chart the rise of modern psychology. The first century of film covers society’s entire 20th, a hundred-year span rife with innovation in a great many fields. But as art is keen on investigating the psyche, it’s little surprise that cinema would try to keep pace in some way with the study and expression of it. From the psychological thriller to the psychodrama to most horror films, the study of the mind onscreen sometimes unfolds perfectly naturally, and other times feels like a stiff lecture from somebody who read a really fascinating article in TIME the month before. Look no further than Psycho for an example of both, but look to three films that played at the TCM Classic Film Festival for some pretty wild takes.

Based on a novel by a prominent psychologist (once president of the American Institute for Psychoanalysis), Frank Perry’s David and Lisa has a touch of the physicians manual to it. Set in a residential psychiatric treatment center for teenagers, Keir Dullea stars as David, whose undiagnosed illness causes him to fear being touched and leaves him resistant to most ordinary social niceties. He is able to befriend Lisa (Janet Margolin), largely because he sees in her a challenge. She suffers from a disorder that saddles her with two personalities – Lisa can only speak in rhyme, while Muriel cannot speak at all, only write (and poorly, at that). David notices how much trouble the doctors have getting through to her, and seeks to succeed where they have not; not in any effort to help Lisa, just to maintain his certainty that he’s smarter than everyone else.

Somewhat inevitably, he comes to truly care for Lisa, and through her, open up to his doctors. I’m not entirely sure Perry (and screenwriter Eleanor Perry, his wife) fully earn the transformation. It comes about as the result of some family trauma, which David has experienced plenty of in the past, and while it makes sense that he should warm to the school, it starts to heal him at such an accelerated rate that we lose touch with the rude, prideful, caustic David we’d come to know. Especially considering how successfully the Perrys would come to mine drama in unusual ways in films like The Swimmer, Last Summer, and Diary of a Mad Housewife, David and Lisa seems considerably tamer, but their evocation of the discomfort of living in such an environment is potent enough, and Dullea and Margolin (along with Howard da Silva as David’s doctor) give pretty magnificent performances.

Black Narcissus doesn’t directly concern psychology the way David and Lisa and the next film we’ll talk about do, but it does deal with sexual repression among a group of women living in isolation; it’d be equally a stretch to say it doesn’t deal with psychology at all. Based on a 1939 novel by Rumer Godden, and adapted for the screen by its producers and directors – Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger – at the peak of their creative and commercial powers, it’s a stone cold cinematic classic, as great as just about anything made in the 1940s.

Deborah Kerr stars as a young nun in way over her head trying to establish a school and hospital in the remote Himalayas. They are well funded and accommodated for, but there’s a lack of enthusiasm amongst the locals and the nuns have intense difficulty adjusting to life so far removed from what they knew. Even if an English convent is quite isolated, there they have a common culture and familiar climate. In India, everything seems out to get them, including, before long, one another. While Sister Clodagh (Kerr) may admire Mr. Dean (David Farrar), their local contact and guide, Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron) flat out lusts after him, and the dramatic arc hinges on just how far she’ll take her obsession.

What stood out to me in watching it this time was just how long it takes to build to that, and how much tension Powell and Pressburger build into ordinary nun activities. The whole beginning of the film, as Sister Clodagh is receiving her mission from her Mother Superior, has a hint of the energy that Kubrick would crank up in The Shining – everything reasonably pleasant, but as though the air has been sucked out of the room.

The film was one of four shown at TCM Fest from a nitrate print, a type of film stock that is highly flammable but also extraordinarily gorgeous, discontinued in the early 1950s due to safety concerns, but increasingly sought after among repertory enthusiasts. I’d only seen Black Narcissus on Blu-ray before, and while the digital copy certain offers a cleaner experience, it’s immediately clear once Deborah Kerr appears onscreen that the nitrate print contains a certain feeling that one simply cannot get any other way. Notably, later on in the film, when Kerr rushes into the darkness, one really senses an inky fog is enveloping her, and not simply the absence of light.

Another film in the nitrate series, the final film of the festival, was completely unknown to me before the schedule was posted, yet emerged as one of the very best I saw all weekend. Mitchell Leisen’s Lady in the Dark was adapted from a Broadway musical that boasted the unusual collaboration of Kurt Weill (The Threepenny Opera) on music, Ira Gershwin (“I Got Rhythm”) on lyrics, and Moss Hart (You Can’t Take It With You) writing the book, inspired by his own experiences in psychoanalysis. The film jettisons most of the songs, but there’s a strong musical undercurrent to this extremely odd tale of ambition, anxiety, gender roles, and fashion. And oh, what fashion.

Ginger Rogers stars as Liza Elliott, editor-in-chief of a successful fashion magazine. She admits that she got the job because the publisher has a crush on her, a crush she’s heretofore successfully avoided fully consummating as he is also a married man. She dresses in business suits and wears an unflattering hairdo, but if she’s doing it to keep men away, it isn’t working. Even Randy Curtis (Jon Hall), the current heartthrob movie star, can’t resist her. Only Charley Johnson (Ray Milland), her publicity and advertising manager, seems to openly loathe her, but only in such a way that suggests he might carry a torch for her, too. But Liza isn’t happy with any of it. She’s plagued by nightmares and is paralyzed by what seem like panic attacks. Finally she sees a psychiatrist, who suggests she may be working to avoid her feminine side, which deeply needs indulging.

Now then. I’m not going to sit her and tell you the film could not be more “woke”. I’m not going to say there are secret feminist machinations at work. I will say that, as someone with almost no career ambition, the idea that somebody – man or woman – could chase a career, be left completely unsatisfied by it, and long for romantic intimacy does not inherently seem misogynist or anything of the sort to me. I will also say that the film is sometimes more than a little clunky in deciphering Liza’s dreams, which don’t exactly have the one-to-one correlation of Hitchcock’s thoroughly dull Spellbound (which came out the following year), but which sort of gradually and persistently come back to the notion that Liza wishes she could be more glamorous but withholds that side of herself. It’s a simple psychological read, and a little hokey, but where would Hollywood be without the hokey? There’s something so achingly human in the way Liza resists the simplest interpretation, echoing our desire for the answer to be anything else. And yet, by the end, the solution to her problems is far from simple, far from a purely patriarchal brow-beating, and more in the spirit of the true partnership of marriage.

Those dreams, by the way, are completely insane and stunning. As Rose McGowan said in her introduction, they must have used all the dry ice in town blanketing the sets in fog, but it was worth it. They’re surreal and uncomfortable and sometimes quite unnerving. Even more remarkable, they seem like natural extensions of everything else in the film, which is drowned in turquoise and blue-ish tones, a sea of dissatisfaction and queasiness in a glamorous industry. The mix of dream and reality further bleeds into the way scenes transition from one to the next, sometimes skipping past major decisions in order to better the flow. I’ve been fond of Leisen for several years, but I really wouldn’t have expected something this formally ornate and unusual from him. It’s extremely rare that I’m left as baffled by a film that I am absolutely certain is great.

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