John Huston Richard Whitehall

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Richard Whitehall

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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[One] of the most fashionable blood-sports seems to be baiting John Huston. The fury of disciples suddenly recognising false idols is not a pretty one…. [Because] Adrian Messenger and The Secret Passion [released in the United States as Freud] are bad films … then it also follows that The Maltese Falcon must have been a bad film. This is one of the sillier aspects of the 'Cahiers' school of criticism, which has spread to its British and American hangers on. Well, Maltese Falcon, Key Largo, Sierra Madre, still look pretty good. Huston's decline seems to date from his decision to enter the characterless international cinema with African Queen, which still looks pretty bad.

His films, as his more vituperative critics now claim, may always have been static, but the eloquence of his groupings and the precision and control with which his tableaux melted into each other stamp his early Americana (with the exception of Across the Pacific, but including In This Our Life) with a very definite Huston style. What happened to the style is anyone's guess, it was intermittently visible in The Unforgiven (the man-hunt in the dust storm) and The Misfits (the mustang hunt) but in [Adrian Messenger and The Secret Passion] it has been reduced to self caricature. Adrian Messenger had to coast along on its gimmick, and … The Secret Passion is packed with bewigged and bewhiskered actors who seem, at any moment, about to peel off their make-up just to show the disguise is only skin-deep.

The Secret Passion, like Moby Dick, like Moulin Rouge, is not a film one can take very seriously …, it is the inevitable result of a director who has increasingly let the literary take precedence over the visual in his work. This one is full of literary devices, the sort of thing analysed and applauded in the stodgier books on film appreciation…. In action, these devices just look clumsy….

[The Secret Passion] is twenty years out of date, a period piece in every sense of the word. The groupings are stiff, the compositions based on the careful arrangement of the players in static attitudes, like so many formal photographs from a family album. The style, indeed, seems to be less Huston than William Dieterle in his biographical period, for The Secret Passion looks and sounds exactly like a belated addition to the Warner waxworks (Louis Pasteur, Emile Zola, Juarez, Dr Erlich—the last two co-scripted by Huston) which had such unaccountable success in the late 'thirties.

Huston seems to have confused the dehumanisation of character with scientific detachment, just as his chilly studies in clinical analysis spill over into the antihumanist handling of the personal relationships…. Frigidity and lust are reduced to a passionless anonymity of emotion, and one remains unconvinced that a spirit of enquiry can exist in a dead world. Certainly the subject is full of dangers, which aren't always avoided (Freud's first encounter with the Oedipus complex and the following dream sequence is dramatised documentary at its most unconvincing, although there is one rather good, sustained, passage in which [Cecily Koertner] is twice taken through the details of her father's death until she is forced to admit that he died, not in a hospital, but in a brothel—'He died of lust!'). One would like to know how the film stands up against [G. W.] Pabst's essay into Freudian analysis, Secrets of a Soul, but it can't hold a candle to [Ingmar] Bergman's Wild Strawberries, which employs somewhat similar methods of character dissection. (p. 22)

[In The Secret Passion a] magnificent subject has been given the dimensions of a charade. (p. 23)

Richard Whitehall, "'Freud—The Secret Passion'" (© copyright Richard Whitehall 1963; reprinted with permission), in Films and Filming, Vol. 10, No. 1, October, 1963, pp. 22-3.