7 Films About Neuroses & Psychoses That Don’t Get Enough Attention

Inside Daisy Clover “We all go a little mad sometimes.”

It was chilling when Norman Bates said it in Psycho (1960), and it grew more chilling over time, as we came to understand the true scope of “a little mad.” Norman, or course, was crazy eight ways to Sunday and his line stands as one of the great understatements in cinema. Film history is jam-packed with neuroses, psychoses, and character disorders writ large and small. As Vivian Leigh and Dustin Hoffman and Javier Bardem and Natalie Portman can attest, having a DSM-5 condition can lead to an Oscar. Russell Crowe, in A Beautiful Mind, had to settle for a BAFTA.

The portrayal of mental health disorders on screen can be sensitive and nuanced or it can be grossly misanthropic. It can be played for tragedy or comedy or horror. It can be wholly contrived or dead-on accurate (I know mental health professionals who still wake up in a cold sweat years after seeing Bill Murray’s too-close-to-home portrait of Bob Wiley in the ostensible comedy What About Bob?, 1991).

When handled properly, onscreen breakdowns can tear at your emotions and stay with you long after the final credits role. Here are seven such on-screen breakdowns from movies that may be a little bit off the beaten path. Some feature outwardly normal characters getting pushed a little bit past their breaking points. Others show characters who walked onto the screen in a psychologically fragile condition. Whatever the diagnosis, chances are good you’ll remember the breakdown.

Torment (Alf Sjoberg, 1944)

Torment is generally known as Ingmar Bergman’s first entry into film – he wrote the screenplay for this psychological thriller. Sjoberg was a talented director, and this movie is significantly better than Bergman’s early directorial efforts. For me, what is most memorable is Stig Jarrel. He plays Caligula, the nickname given by students at the school where he teaches. He is a sadist of the first order, but he gets his comeuppance at the climax, and his breakdown actually can make you feel pity for the monster, in the manner of Peter Lorre’s famous confession in M.

Carnival of Souls (Herk Harvey, 1962)

If a movie like Let’s Scare Jessica to Death is too highbrow and high-budget for you, Harvey’s extended Twilight Zone micro-budget horror may be just your thing. Mary (Candace Hilligoss) dies in a car crash in the opening sequence. Or does she? After she emerges from a muddy river seemingly in tact, odd things begin to happen. She will be subjected to various terrors over the ensuing 70 minutes as her mental condition deteriorates. Though very amateurish, Harvey used both sound (organ music in particular) and silence very effectively to chronicle Mary’s breakdown.

Repulsion (Roman Polanski, 1965)

Sexual abuse, sexual inhibition, sexual frustration – in all its unhealthy forms, sexual disorders have been at the root of many an onscreen breakdown. Actresses, in particular, are often asked to play various shades of grey when it comes to sex. Rarely has it been done with such potency or horror as Catherine Deneuve manages as Carol, a shy young woman whose beauty constantly draws the male gaze. When her sister leaves for a vacation, Carol is left alone, and Carol’s demons begin to overtake her. French actresses have been particularly successful in playing these types. Think Delphine Seyrig in Jeanne Dielman or Isabelle Huppert in – well, take your pick. I’ll go with The Piano Teacher.

Inside Daisy Clover (Robert Mullligan, 1965)

What was it about 1965? Julie Andrews may have been winning the Oscar for The Sound of Music, but over at Warner Brothers, Natalie Wood was having a breakdown as the manufactured sweetheart Daisy Clover. It might be because the 27 year-old Wood was asked to play the 15 year-old Daisy, but onscreen it had more to do with the exploitation of older men like the flighty Robert Redford and the control-freak Christopher Plummer. Whatever the reason, Daisy’s breakdown in a recording booth as she loops her voice for a sprightly song, is a tour de force. Daisy Clover gets bonus points for Katharine Bard’s over-the-top breakdown as Plummer’s wife and Redford’s jilted lover.

The Cow (Dariush Mehrjui, 1969)

The Cow should be better known than it is. Though often considered the forerunner of an Iranian brand of neo-realism, Mehrjui creates something diverse and astonishing in this tale of a grumpy farmer who is so smitten with his cow that he begins to adopt her persona after the cow’s death. Ezzatolah Entezami’s breakdown, climaxing in a magnificent rain-soaked landscape, is one for the ages.

The Station-Agent (Thomas McCarthy, 2003)

Long before he was Tyrion Lannister, Peter Dinklage was Finbar McBride, a quiet, unassuming man who wanted to be left alone to walk the rails of his favourite train tracks. But his short stature and curious hobby would always provoke attention and at one point in this underrated character drama, Fin snaps. It is one of the most emotionally painful moments in 21st century American film. I suspect Alexander Payne had this scene in mind when he crafted a very similar moment for Paul Giamatti in Sideways the following year.

Escape From Tomorrow (Randy Moore, 2013)

Moore’s film is better known for its audacity than for its quality. Filmed in Disney World, it follows a regular guy, Jim (Roy Abramson) as a combination of professional misfortune and destructive imagery inspired by the happiest place on Earth, conspire to drive him mad. The narrative is less coherent, the cinematography less intoxicating, and the character study less nuanced than the similarly-themed Force Majeur, but as sheer psychological breakdowns go Moore and Abramson have got it nailed.

Now, as a bonus, here are seven great psychologically disturbed characters from lesser known films. They don’t necessarily have a great breakdown sequence, but that’s just because they are off-the-charts from page one.

Geraldine Fitzgerald as the ultra-possessive Lettie Quincey in Robert Siodmak’s The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry

Laird Cregar (in his final film) as George Harvey Bone in John Brahm’s Hangover Square

Hume Cronin as the sadistic Captain Munsey in Jules Dassin’s Brute Force

Michael Higgins’ truly creepy Richard Barrie in Irving Lerner’s Edge of Fury

Lou Castel’s seductive/destructive Ale in Marco Bellocchio’s Fists in the Pocket

Joseph Cotten, still fighting the Civil War as Colonel Jonas in Sergio Corbucci’s Hellbenders, and

Anthony Perkins, still going a little mad, this time as Dennis Pitt in Noel Black’s Pretty Poison

Jonathan Eig has taught Screenwriting and Film History at Montgomery College (MD) for the past ten years. In that capacity, he has hosted the popular Montgomery College Film Series at the American Film Institute in Silver Spring, MD. He has been a regular contributor on Huffington Post and his writing about film can be found at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jon-eig/.

17 thoughts on “7 Films About Neuroses & Psychoses That Don’t Get Enough Attention

    • All worthy choices. I’ve always thought Single White Female and Pacific Heights are two of the most underrated psychological thrillers from the early ’90s.

  1. Great post, thanks. Mental health is one of the undercurrents of many films, and it’s interesting that it’s usually invoked as a breakdown often with a catharsis, rather than a grim adaptation to life, which is what most people with poor mental health experience. I haven’t seen many of these films. Like Cinematoonist81 I think I may be afraid of watching Repulsion. I thought Alexsei Serebryakov’s performance as Kolya in Leviatan was pretty affecting. And what about Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game or Ralph Fiennes in Spider?

    • Thanks Ed. Serebryakov and Cumberbatch were both excellent. I know a lot of knowledgeable people really admired Fiennes, though I have to admit, I found Spider virtually unwatchable. Maybe that one was a little too painfully real for me.

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  3. Interesting article, Jon. I still haven’t seen Repulsion, for some reason–I think I’m afraid of it, though I know it’s good. I’d like to add another film that has gotten short shrift in recent years despite strong performances and credible depictions of mental illness: David and Lisa. Back in the day, this was strong stuff; today, it’s little seen. But a very fine film.

    • I agree about David and Lisa, Simon. It’s an underrated character drama. Repulsion is difficult material. It’s pretty astonishing to think that in the space of a few years, Deneuve filmed Umbrellas of Cherbourg and Young Girls of Rochefort, as well as Belle de Jour and Repulsion. I think for a lot of viewers, her extraordinary beauty may have covered up her equally extraordinary range.

  4. Great choices. Repulsion remains one of those films I have seen only once. So disturbing and painful to watch.
    Another one of my favorites is Samuel Fuller’s The Naked Kiss. Many multi-layered characters allowed their humanity despite acts of depravity. A truly haunting film.

      • I’ve always wondered if Bigger Than Life was an inspiration for Breaking bad. I have trouble buying James Mason as a put-upon American school teacher, but God, can the guy hit the high notes required for the movie.

    • Naked Kiss has one of the best opening scenes I’ve ever seen. I think it’s my favorite Sam Fuller scene. And I’ve always thought that Polanski’s first three features are as good a first three as anyone has ever done.

  5. Thanks for the look back at the gorgeous Ms Deneuve in ‘Repulsion’ Jon.
    The ‘Station Agent’ is one of my favourite modern films, and I have never really understood why it doesn’t get a lot more acclaim. A few I haven’t seen as well, I must get busy watching some of them.
    Best wishes from England. Pete.

    • Thanks Pete. Quiet character studies like The Station Agent have a hard time getting oxygen in the age of super hero spectacles. And even though several of the cast members have gone on to become well-known, I don’t think any of them were particularly known back 2003. I really like this, as well as McCarthy’s second movie, The Visitor, with Richard Jenkins. I’m curious to see his newest, Spotlight, which has a big-name cast and is about a hot button issue. I don’t think he’s made a movie like that before.

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