Psychiatry Films from AMHF: “The Secret Diary of Sigmund Freud” (1984)

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The Ultimate Patient for the Ultimate Analyst

Do you find the concept of a dreaming phrenologist at all funny? I didn’t think so. Once upon a time, psychoanalysis was viewed as nothing but a shabby cousin of phrenology. Freud and his followers changed all this, even though the tired gags of the usually brilliant Woody Allen might leave one to believe otherwise.

Of the twenty-one films in the AMHF series, this, number seventeen “on the couch” for analysis, is the only comedy (really a satire—see below) besides Don Juan De Marco and the romantic comedy Miracle on 34th Street. But it is not an easy-to-understand comedy. It is an offbeat look at the breakthroughs of Sigmund Freud.

“Supposedly focusing on the life of Sigmund Freud (Burt Cort) by means of a fictional secret diary, the great neurologist is portrayed as being too nauseated by blood and physical anatomy to make it through medical school. Because he misunderstands what practicing medicine is all about, Freud accidentally starts psychoanalyzing his patients. His Ultimate Patient (Dick Shawn) provides him with the theories that would make him famous.

“Presented as a series of vignettes, this story about the relationships between Freud and a nurse (Carol Kane), and his mother (Caroll Baker) and a doctor, are meant to be funny, but are not quite.” So in part summarizes Eleanor Mannikka Rovi in the New York Times.

The Dick Shawn character is an obvious prime element of nutty satire. As this series has already covered “the dream analysts” (pun intended—What pun?) such as the soon-to-retire Marlon Brando character opposite Johnny Depp in Don Juan… and the Claude Rains miracle-worker opposite Bette Davis’s repressed young woman in Now, Voyager, the viewer comes face to face with the ultimate patient. The whole thing has a Forrest Gump-like feel.

Issues of transference and countertransference are aired out for laughs, not terribly successfully in their crudeness. Yet, from the viewpoint of these AMHF blogs, there are some serious issues, like these as well as classic dream work, presented in satiric form—satire and comedy not quite being one and the same genre. The central gag may become tiresome, but it has its moments.

Of note among this unusual cast is Carroll Baker, one of the most interesting actors of The Method, particularly in Baby Doll, Harlow, and the rarely shown Something Wild, which features, as far as I know, the last musical work of Aaron Copland all within an unforgettably gritty Bronx and New York City setting.

It is healthy to be able to look at all sides of any subject, even a profession as overwhelming and serious as Sigmund Freud’s. I think he might have nodded in agreement had he seen this silly film.

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