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