The year is 1885 and Sigmund Freud (Montgomery Clift) is studying to be a doctor specialising in mental illnesses, specifically what is known as hysteria, a state of disturbance which affects women, though he thinks he sees it in men as well. Freud's ideas are growing too progressive for the Viennese physicians surrounding him, and he is having trouble formulating his theories, but believes he can draw together his thoughts to create a new way of treating the mentally ill. One of his tutors, Dr Meynert (Eric Portman), is of the opinion all hysteria is merely a put on by misguided patients: he is headed to clash with his student.
If you really wanted to learn about the psychoanalysis of Sigmund Freud, John Huston's biopic was not the best place to start, as the Hollywoodisation of his life offered a skewed version of both his theories and how he came to work them out. One of the main problems was that he did this over the course of many years, rewriting and changing his opinions to better achieve a greater understanding of the human mind, yet that didn't fit in with traditional movie melodrama, and what Huston devised was a very old fashioned story, so the script built up to a "Eureka!" moment rather than the more scientific formulation of case histories and research to scientifically bring about Freud's revolution in how we understood ourselves.
Of course, when this was made Freud was still highly thought of as a brilliant thinker, but as the years have gone by his ideas have been trivialised into mutterings about Oedipal complexes and sexual fixations and the results of a childhood trauma in making you the person you are today. So there are fewer people who popularly take him seriously since he has been cariciatured, yet in its way this film was part of that misdirection and making the complex banal, even though Huston and his team were entirely sincere in their attempts to pay tribute to the man and his work. Clift was either a curious choice for the role or all too appropriate considering his tumultuous mental state, but he did make for a more emotional Freud than he might have been otherwise.
Not because he has any big scenes where he starts yelling or crying or laughing, but merely due to the limpid pools of his eyes, the only indication of what is going on in Freud's head beneath that beard and Clift's features, which had been rendered largely immobile thanks to his car crash injuries of a few years before. Such is the soulful quality of the star's gaze that he overbalanced the dry theorising Sigmund was supposed to be engaging in, as if he felt every mental anguish his patients did with acute keenness, but then Huston did his bit to render this with far more turmoil for the psychiatrist than was necessary himself. Thus Freud suffers his own trauma, effectively becoming his own patient complete with heavily symbolic dream sequences.
If you applied this to other professions, this would be like saying a surgeon could only understand his work by going under the knife himself, not something which stood up to scrutiny. But Freud here is not only searching his own feelings and repression to put towards his research, as he has a patient or two to assist, firstly David McCallum's troubled individual who practically formulates the Oedipal concepts for Freud on his own, and secondly, more extensively, Susannah York's Cecily Koertner who is such a bundle of neuroses that not only does she place the female equivalent of overfondness for a parent in Freud's thoughts, but represents all the patients he would ever need. Obviously Cecily was intended to be a bunch of cases amalgamated together to save on complications, yet she's so extreme in her symptoms - she cannot walk, cannot drink water, hates her mother, obsesses over her father, and so on - that the film turns pretty hysterical itself. Huston obviously thought he was delivering something important here, but he fumbled it. Music by Jerry Goldsmith.