Friday, August 21, 2020

PSYCHE-59 1964

Submerged passions and mid-‘60s elan ooze from every impressionist frame of Psyche 59, a dreamily stylish, low-simmer psychological drama with an irresistible title. The second feature film from American director Alexander Singer (whose debut, 1961’s A Cold Wind in August, infused a pulpy May-December sexploitation melodrama with something resembling poignance), Psyche 59 is a British production starring Patricia Neal in her first role following her Best Supporting Actress Oscar win for her earthy performance in Hud (1963). Psyche 59 has Neal, in a return to the kind of sophisticated characters she played in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) and The Fountainhead (1949), trading in her A Face in the Crowd/Hud housedresses and Kentucky drawl for Paris couture and posh urban neurosis.

Neal plays Allison Crawford, a wealthy Londoner with a townhouse, two daughters, a live-in nanny, and a rakishly handsome industrialist husband named Eric (Curt Jurgens). Filling out Allison’s well-upholstered life is the extended-family-of-sorts represented by devoted friend and business associate Paul (Ian Bannen); her perceptive, astrology-ruled grandmother ( Beatrix Lehmann); and the return of the prodigal sibling...Allison’s vixenish baby sister Robin (Samantha Eggar), self-invited back into the family fold after a failed marriage in America. 

And one other little detail...five years ago, Allison was struck blind. 

Patricia Neal as Allison Crawford
Curt Jurgens as Eric
Samantha Eggar as Robin Crawford
Ian Bannen as Paul

It was five years ago, on the night her second child was born, Allison was stricken blind after she fell down a flight of stairs in her home. But doctors have determined that the loss of sight is not the result of an injury sustained in the fall, but rather—like the plight of the titular character of The Who’s 1969 rock-opera Tommy—a psychosomatic, shock-induced reaction to witnessing something traumatic. Alas, Allison can't remember a thing about that night except being awakened by labor pains, finding her husband missing from their bed, and leaving the bedroom to look for him. At this point, she draws a blank. All attempts to reconstruct the further events of that evening in her mind are met with piercing headaches and a subconscious resistance: “My brain won’t accept the images my eyes make.”

We viewers, however, face no such resistance. Both the source and content of Allison’s trauma becomes crystal clear the instant we lay eyes on baby sister Robin—a laser-eyed chaos agent on two very long and shapely legs—and see how angry and agitated (i.e., hot and bothered) Eric becomes at the mere thought of her re-insinuating herself into their lives. Although Allison remains clueless, the film doesn't waste time mounting false suspense over the question of "Did they, or didn't they?" (They did.) Rather, we're left to wonder if a woman as intelligent and sensitive as Allison can really be so oblivious to events blatantly happening directly under her nose and "right before her very eyes," or if, in causing her to lose both her sight and her memory of that night, is her mind shielding her or simply carrying out her will? 

Just how much Allison does know or doesn't know is the ambiguous tease and Freudian thrust of Psyche 59...an arthouse-influenced mood piece of deceit and self-deception among the literally and figuratively blind. A film about subjective honesty, emotional truth, and coming to terms with the fact that...at least in matters of the heart...insight is inarguably more eloquent than sight. 

Lady in the Dark
"I can tell you what the psychiatrist said. I'm afraid to see. There's something I'm afraid to look at."

I‘m not sure how it is I never heard of Psyche 59 until now, but this kind of erotically-charged domestic dysfunction psychodrama—to use an appropriately UK idiom—ticks all the right boxes for me. It certainly doesn’t hurt that the feel of the film is strictly European arthouse, but its premise—a wealthy woman driven hysterically blind by obsessive love—is pure studio-era Joan Crawford. The film’s photogenic cast, forming a kind of 4-character chamber ensemble, play disparate, desperate individuals caught up in a mating-dance roundelay of unrequited love and unreciprocated desire. The structure of their thorny interrelationships a psychological hall-of-mirrors where what most needs to be sad is never uttered and no two are ever in love unless it’s with the absolute wrong person at the worst possible time.

While taking in the emotionally inarticulate fumblings of Psyche 59's passion-ruled characters, my mind kept flashing to the romantic entanglements in Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music, the 1973 Broadway musical version of Ingmar Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night (1955). There’s nothing light or farcical about Psyche 59's somber quartet, but once they all go traipsing off for an ill-fated holiday in the country, the memory of Sondheim's lyrics underscored every day's little death.

He assumes I lose my reason. And I do.

Men are stupid. Men are vain.

Love's disgusting. Love's insane.

A humiliating business.

Oh, how true!

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM

As I’ve mentioned, I think Psyche 59 is an absolutely fabulous title for a movie. It’s certainly evocative. Too much so, perhaps, as it initially had me anticipating a suspense thriller along the lines of Francis Ford Coppola’s Dementia 13 (1963). Psyche 59 is the title of the 1959 French novel by Françoise des Ligneris upon which Julian Halevy’s oblique screenplay is based. The title’s numerical significance appears to be linked to its contemporaneity: the 1963 English edition was titled Psyche 63. The film version never explains the title’s meaning, leaving us with the suggestion (set in London, 1964 and Allison & Eric’s second daughter looks to be about 5-years-old) that it applies to the year of Allison's psychological breakdown.

Beatrix Lehmann as Mrs. Crawford (Allison & Robin's grandmother)

The  ”Psyche” of the title has a bifurcated significance to the narrative, most explicitly as it pertains to the psyche of Freudian psychological theory. This is psyche defined as the housing of the human personality (the id, ego, and superego) as it relates to the conscious and subconscious mind.

Allison, a woman we come to learn was blind long before she lost the ability to see, allows her subconscious to erase what her conscious mind is unwilling to face. In the tradition of true Freudian symbolism, the warring components of Allison’s inner personality crisis manifest themselves externally in her relationships: Robin is the sexually impulsive id; the sincere and stable Paul, the ego; and her grandmother is the judgemental, guilt-tripping superego.

Who's in control, the rider or the horse?
Horses are both motif and symbol in Psyche 59, referencing a Freudian analogy comparing the id to a wild horse and the ego as the rider who must control and guide its path

But Psyche 59 is also a contemporary reworking of the Greek myth of Psyche, the goddess of the soul. The parallels abound. Aphrodite, the goddess of love, vows revenge on the mortal Psyche for stealing the attentions of men (Robin sees Allison as having stolen Eric from her). Psyche’s father abandons her on a mountaintop (Allison and Robin were abandoned by their father) where she is fated by the gods to marry a cruel and savage beast (that would be Eric), a beast whose hideous form Psyche is forbidden to gaze upon (psychosomatic blindness). Unable to see his form, Psyche falls in love with the man she imagines him to be. The beast is actually Eros the god of love and fertility (the virile Eric/Eros harbors a god-like image of himself). I won’t go into how further events play out, only adding that Greek myths are not generally known for their happy endings.
Eric and Paul represent the two combative 
  aspects of love...the physical & the emotional

PERFORMANCES

Effective as an ensemble, rising to the occasion when given their moments to shine in individual scenes, Psyche 59 may be sparsely populated, but its few roles are extremely well cast.  It's no surprise that the always-wonderful Patricia Neal gives a sensitive and compelling performance (even with her eyes shaded, there's no barrier to us knowing what her character is feeling). Like her subtextual namesake, she's the soul of this movie. This is the second film I've seen in which Samantha Eggar plays a femme fatale (my first was Return from the Ashes - 1965) and I've fallen in love. She may be the least-experienced member of the cast, but I think she gives a hell of a performance. More to my liking than her great work in The Collector (1965). 

Judging You
Beatrix Lehmann registers strongly in a small but pivotal role. 

I've seen talented character actor Ian Bannen is many things, but mostly from late in his career. I had no idea he was such a babe! Distractingly handsome appearance aside, his character is not showy, but in his quietude, he's fascinating to watch. Bannen's catalog of disdainful looks aimed at Curt Jurgen are a virtual lexicon of disgust. Jurgens, and actor who has heretofore never registered much on my radar because he always seemed to be cast as something officious and stern, caught me off guard in his ability to exude genuine dominating sex appeal of the sort that has little to do with looks, and all to do with attitude. If Neal is the soul of the film, Jurgens is the magnetism.

THE STUFF OF DREAMS

Though they can sometimes prove grueling, I have a soft spot for self-serious dramas about neurotic women in stylish hats agonizing over louche husbands (a la The Pumpkin Eater – 1963). Especially if every frame of their suffering looks as though it were shot by Richard Avedon. And looks do count for a great deal in Psyche 59, a Gallic-flavored psycho-sexual soufflé about sight that I feel intentionally emphasizes the visual in its storytelling (the viewer is encouraged to not just look, but see) as a means of underscoring Allison’s inability/unwillingness to open her eyes. The striking cinematography is by Walter Lassalley (Oscar winner for Zorba the Greek - 1964) and is the real name-above-the-title star of Psyche 59. Frequently, the intensity of Lassalley's gorgeous high-contrast B&W cinematography achieves an intensity that is heart-achingly moving.

I love this shot. It's from a lovely scene where Allison & Robin allow their affection for one another to show. Allison, unable to see, reaches out to touch Robin, and in the effort, winds up shielding her eyes from the sun. Robin's move to guide her sister's hand ultimately turns into a caress. Hands and the sense of touch are another recurring visual motif in the film, touch being the only means by which Psyche was initially able to "see" Eros in the myth.

Because I dote on movies about character conflict, Psyche 59 practically qualifies as an action movie for me. But I fully understand how a leisurely-paced film such as this might call to mind for some another A Little Night Music lyric: “So inactive that one has to lie down.”

I'm Your Venus
Robin, reassuring herself of her power to allure, assumes an "armless"
de Milo-esque pose in a department store changing room

I can’t help but recognize that some of the major factors contributing to my finding Psyche 59 so utterly fascinating are its similarities to Mike Nichols’ trilogy of marital dysfunction: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), Carnal Knowledge (1970), and Closer (2004); three films that speak to love’s vulnerability to willful self-deception. Psyche 59 is a worthy addition to my collection, not a masterpiece, but a film so pleasingly guarded with its intentions, yet so self-assured (like Eric), it allows itself to be misunderstood. 

Copyright © Ken Anderson 2009 - 2020

13 comments:

  1. Thank you for the insightful review of a film I haven't seen, or even thought about, for decades. Reading your post is like déjà vu. I am also amused that you mentioned a favorite of mine from that era, The Pumpkin Eater. Like yourself, I expected Psyche 59 to be a horror-thriller, but wasn't disappointed, as it was certainly twisted. This is one I'm going to have to revisit.

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    1. Being as I'd never heard a peep of this film until it cropped up on TCM a couple of years ago, I'm impressed that your familiarity with it (and having actually seen it!) extends decades. Makes me think you are perhaps not writing from the US? The comment following yours is from a fellow blogger in the UK who watched The Pumpkin Eater as I was writing this piece on "Psyche 59"- bringing to mind their similarities. If one could stay awake, I think the two films would make an excellent double-feature.
      Anyhow, my suspicion is that perhaps PSYCHE 59 is more well-known in the UK. I grew up watching movies on The Late Late Show on TV growing up, and I don't recall PSYCHE 59 ever having a US TV broadcast. Maybe it was deemed "too mature"...as you say, it's certainly twisted.
      Thanks for reading this and commenting, and I'm happy if this piece inspires you to revisit PSYCHE 59. The Blue-ray release is just gorgeous.

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  2. Someone tweeted something about Psyche 59 a while ago and it looked so intriguing it prompted me to do some Googling! So glad you’ve written about it. Apparently, it’s cropped-up in the past on Talking Pictures (the weird TV station here in the UK that specializes in curios, oddities and long-forgotten films). I hope it crops up again. It looks fascinating.

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  3. Hi Bitter69uk
    Back when you told me you'd just seen "The Pumpkin Eater" I was going to ask if you'd ever watched or heard of PSYCHE 59, but due to this magical thing that happens when I'm writing about a movie, I held my tongue (when I start talking or tweeting about it, I instantly lose all interest in putting those thoughts down on virtual paper).
    I don't have your gift for sensing what films might appeal to others, but I think at the very least you'd find PSYCHE 59 an interesting British take on '60s arthouse aesthetic. I liked it a great deal, and the performances are uniformly terrific. Here's hoping it pops up on UK TV soon! Thanks for commenting!

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  4. Alexander Singer is shaping up to be an interesting overlooked director! I know virtually nothing about him, but I love both A Cold Wind in August and the ultra-lurid Lana Turner melodrama Love Has Many Faces, and this one sounds great too. From what I can gather, he directs with real style and verve and is strong at directing female leads.

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    1. I'm thinking the same. Like you, I know nothing about him, but based on A COLD WIND IN AUGUST and especially PSYCHE 59, he is indeed a director who seems to work miracles with actresses (I don't think I’ve seen Samantha Eggar better) and his work certainly has a strong emphasis on visual style.
      I've yet to see LOVE HAS MANY FACES even after reading your terrific piece on the movie (beefcake and camp-level Lana Turner & Ruth Roman may not be enough for me to be able to deal with Cliff Robertson AND Hugh O'Brian in the same movie) but after seeing PSYCHE 59 I might have to check it out. If only to see if any of the brilliance evinced in Singer’s early films carries over to a bigger budget and color.

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  5. Thanks, Ken, for bringing this forgotten film to my attention. I really like many of the British-set psychological thrillers of the 1960s: The Third Secret, Repulsion, Bunny Lake is Missing, etc. Psyche 59 also reminded me of the sophisticated manipulation-dramas of Joseph Losey and Harold Pinter from this period.

    It occurred to me while watching this that Samantha Eggar is sort of British Lee Remick; they had similar looks and were largely known for "nice" roles (I usually think of Eggar's very proper Emma Fairfax from Doctor Dolittle when I'm reminded of her), but both are able to turn on the sexy. (Think of Remick in Anatomy of a Murder and Hard Contract.)

    Ian Bannen is a favorite actor of mine. He was Oscar-nominated the following year for his performance as the snarking wiseass of the stranded group of The Flight of the Phoenix.

    A nice use of fades and dissolves and overlapping images in Psyche 59; a really lovely sense of nostalgia when Patricia Neal is wandering around grandmother's home, reacquainting herself.

    Also thank you for your Freudian and classical Greek references in your review. They add depth to the experience of this quietly devastating film. I was also amused at your shout-out to Tommy. I was half-expecting the two in the flashback to start screaming, "You didn't see it!!" to Neal, lol!

    I wonder if Fellini saw this when it was new: The final shot of Neal walking amongst the sunny idyll of trees and skies is how Juliet of the Spirits ends too, with a similar sense of freedom from an oppressive existence.

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  6. Hi Mark
    While writing this I was stumped trying to come up with the names of other '60s films similar in style to PSYCHE 59--you managed to list several! (The Third Secret being an especially obscure one for me.)
    I love your Lee Remick/Samantha Eggar comparison...it's so apt! I first became aware of Eggar in her "nice" roles, so I was doubly impressed to see how effectively she can ratchet up the sex appeal. I think Remick is a stronger actress, but as someone once described her as "The thinking man's sex symbol" I would have to agree. I'm currently watching Remick in the film version of Joe Orton's LOOT and it's such a departure...like when Eggar played the ditsy starlet in the movie THE UNCANNY.
    Like you, I found the use of fades, dissolves, and overlapping images in PSYCHE 59 lent the film a dreamlike, hallucinatory quality. It's a movie I could watch with the sound off. It's that gorgeous.

    I too felt the screenplay to this film had a very Pinteresque quality, and that the somewhat vague approach to its story was reminiscent of Losey. Another area where our imaginations merge is in picturing one of Neal's memories as that trauma scene from TOMMY!
    Very much appreciate your reading this post and sharing your thoughts on this film. Your first sentence sounds like this was your first time seeing PSYCHE 59, but perhaps you are among those who were aware of it long before it came to my attention. Either way, I'm happy you further contributed to the dialogue about this movie! Cheers!

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    1. Aside from seeing a photo from this film in one of my old Screen World books this is not a movie I had been aware of before your column. It just goes to show how bottomless a cinema legacy we have out there! Despite the embarrassingly large numbers of films I've already seen there are still loads out there I need to experience.

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  7. Hi Ken! Thanks for this terrific review (I do love your writing!). I don't recall ever seeing this film but I definitely have added it to my must-see list. Intriguing cast - I don't know much of Curt Jurgens (though his partial filmography on Wikipedia is extremely extensive) or Ian Bannen, but I have always been a huge admirer of Pat Neal and I adore Samantha Eggar. I have always thought that Eggar was one of those actresses who was born too late - she would have been a big star in studio hands, I am sure! She certainly had the talent and beauty. Though a sissy boy, I always developed serious crushes on certain actresses (okay, and actors...lol) as an impressionable lad and she was one of my biggest! She probably came to my attention in that bloated Doctor Dolittle film which I know I probably saw a half-dozen times at my local movie house when I was nine-years-old. Then, I saw her in Walk, Don't Run for which I fell head over heels for her again - or was that over Jim Hutton and Cary Grant?...I digress. And of course, her work in The Collector was so wonderful, but I was not prepared for such a depressing turn of events, as my only real experience of her, when I caught that film a few years later, was in the aforementioned fluff...

    Her move into the horror genre in the 70s and 80s proved that she was at an age where there were few roles for actresses of her age - and talent! Still, she was so good in Cronenberg's The Brood, in spite of the tragic character she portrayed. And then there was the pretty good, shoulda-been-great Curtains, a troubled Canadian slasher film, also an interesting role for her (though she did chew the scenery a bit...tee-hee). But the worst/best is Demonoid: Messenger of Death. What a hoot! She must have really needed the $ for that one!

    Thanks again, my friend, for allowing me to reminisce and ramble - I can't wait to view Psyche 59!

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    1. Hello
      I’m so glad you enjoyed this piece enough to be inspired to check the film out. As a fan of Samantha Eggar, I think you will like her performance a great deal. I think she’s awfully good here, holding her own against such veterans as Neal and Jurgens.
      I can imagine a lot of boys and girls having grown up with a crush on Eggar. I know I had a minor one, since, unlike you, I failed to see Doctor Doolittle on the big screen (Six times, yet! That's one long movie...you spent a sizable part of your youth watching that thing!) But we are alike in having discovered her in her lighter roles first. Indeed, I found THE COLLECTOR so disturbing (especially after reading the book) i haven’t seen it since the first time.

      But I think she’s an actress of considerable appeal and works well within a certain range. That observation you made about her being a type well-suited to the studio system is an astute one. I agree. You’ve seen many more of her films than I have. I’m a big fan of THE BROOD, but I’m unfamiliar with the rest of the movies you mentioned.

      Reading about your long-term crush on Eggar puts your interest in this film in an entertaining context. I hope you enjoy seeing her early in her career before those horror films and slasher came-a-calling.
      Thanks for reading this post and sharing of your movie past with us. Hope you stop by again. Cheers!

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  8. Hello Ken,

    thank you for the great review of this very interesting film. The acting was fine throughout, and the direction by the underrated Alexander Singer likewise. I agree with you about Samantha Eggar, she was excellent, loved Patricia Neal too. I saw THE WALKIND STICK recently where she was also great. I find this film and GLASS HOUSES Alexander Singer's most fascinating works, the concentration on female characters was well done. A moody but well-crafted piece! Thank you again for the review.

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  9. Hello, Athanasios! (You win the most gorgeous first and last name combination sweepstakes.)
    Thank you for reading this! Glad to hear you're familiar with PSYCHE 59 and also appreciate Samantha Eggar's performance (I've never see THE WALKING STICK...another to put on my must-see list).
    I'm in accord with your finding Alexander Singer to be an underrated director with a maddeningly slim feature film resume. I just finished reading your terrific piece on his film GLASS HOUSES which I've yet to see.
    For just being his second film, PSYCHE 59 is such an accomplished work I look forward to seeing what he does with a film delving further into relationships and familial dysfunction. In my narrow exposure to his work, the attention paid to the female characters has been a draw for me, as well.
    Much appreciate your considered personal comments and kind words about this blog. Thanks again for contributing to the comments!

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