Jean-Paul Sartre Writes a Script for John Huston’s Film on Freud (1958)

In 1958, leg­endary direc­tor John Hus­ton decid­ed to make a film about the life of Sig­mund Freud. Hav­ing met Jean-Paul Sarte in 1952 dur­ing the film­ing of Moulin Rouge, Hus­ton felt the philoso­pher would be the ide­al per­son to script the Freud film, since Sartre knew Freud’s work so well and since Hus­ton sur­mised that he would have “an objec­tive and log­i­cal approach.” Despite Sartre’s obvi­ous tal­ents, this still seems like an odd choice on its face, giv­en the spe­cif­ic demands of screen­writ­ing ver­sus philo­soph­i­cal or lit­er­ary work. But Sartre had some expe­ri­ence writ­ing for the screen by that time—like most lit­er­ary screen­writ­ers, he’d most­ly done it for the mon­ey and dis­avowed most of this work in hindsight–and he loved the movies and respect­ed Hus­ton. The direc­tor and the exis­ten­tial­ist philoso­pher also had very sim­i­lar views of their bio­graph­i­cal sub­ject:

Iron­i­cal­ly both Sartre and Hus­ton con­sid­ered them­selves anti-Freud for large­ly the same rea­son: Sartre because as a Com­mu­nist he believed the role of the psy­cho­an­a­lyst was lim­it­ed and of lit­tle social impor­tance.  For his part Hus­ton felt that psy­cho­analy­sis was an indul­gence for bored house wives and the prob­lem chil­dren of the rich while the “movers and shak­ers”’ were too busy for it and those that most need­ed it could­n’t afford it.

Hus­ton and Sartre’s treat­ment of Freud promised to be crit­i­cal, but the part­ner­ship soon soured due to Sartre’s inabil­i­ty to keep his script at fea­ture length. First, he deliv­ered a mod­est 95-page treat­ment. This, how­ev­er, became a 300-page draft in 1959 that Hus­ton cal­cu­lat­ed would pro­duce an unac­cept­able five-hour-long film (see an image from Sartre’s draft screen­play below, and click it to read it in a larg­er for­mat).

When Hus­ton and Sartre met in per­son in Gal­way to find a way to cut the screen­play down to a rea­son­able length, their work­ing rela­tion­ship was less than cor­dial. In Huston’s rec­ol­lec­tion, Sartre nev­er stopped talk­ing long enough for any­one else to get a word in. The direc­tor also remem­bered that Sartre was “as ugly as a human being can be.” Sartre’s remem­brance is hard­ly more flat­ter­ing of Hus­ton, if some­what more com­ic; he described the direc­tor in a let­ter to his wife Simone de Beau­voir as a pre­ten­tious, thought­less char­ac­ter.…

…in moments of child­ish van­i­ty, when he puts on a red din­ner jack­et or rides a horse (not very well) or counts his paint­ings or tells work­men what to do. Impos­si­ble to hold his atten­tion five min­utes: he can no longer work, he runs away from think­ing.

After their Gal­way meet­ing, dur­ing which Hus­ton tried and failed to hyp­no­tize Sartre, the philoso­pher attempt­ed anoth­er revi­sion, but this time, he sent Hus­ton an even longer draft, for an eight-hour film. At this point, Hus­ton gave up on Sartre and sal­vaged what he could, even­tu­al­ly enlist­ing the help of Ger­man screen­writer Wolf­gang Rein­hardt to fin­ish the script. Hus­ton final­ly made his Freud film, released in 1962 as Freud: The Secret Pas­sion, with Mont­gomery Clift as the doc­tor (see the trail­er for the film above).

Unsur­pris­ing­ly, Sartre had his name removed from the final film. For a fuller account of the meet­ing of Hus­ton and Sartre, see the sec­ond chap­ter of Eliz­a­beth Roudinesco’s Phi­los­o­phy in Tur­bu­lent Times, where you’ll find oth­er fas­ci­nat­ing details like Sartre’s desire to cast Mar­i­lyn Mon­roe as Anna O and Huston’s bemuse­ment at Sartre’s den­tal hygiene.

Josh Jones is a doc­tor­al can­di­date in Eng­lish at Ford­ham Uni­ver­si­ty and a co-founder and for­mer man­ag­ing edi­tor of Guer­ni­ca / A Mag­a­zine of Arts and Pol­i­tics.


by | Permalink | Comments (4) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (4)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
  • Christoph says:

    I would say that although it may seem strange for Sartre to be a screen­writer. Do not also for­get that he was a play­wright already with his infa­mous, No Exit, amongst oth­ers (and actu­al­ly the intel­lec­tu­al basis for many con­tem­po­rary films that can be con­sid­ered in the “hell is oth­er peo­ple” genre).

  • Lucero says:

    For my con­sid­er­a­tion, I think that Sartre was not going to give an objec­tive aspect of Freud. Maybe he want­ed to crit­i­cize him, but he could­n’t do it in less than 300 pages. Maybe he real­ized that Freud ideas were so good that he couldn´t accept it and didn´t want to do the script.

  • felonius screwtape says:

    point of fact: sartre and beau­voir were nev­er, in any way, “mar­ried” and in fact opposed mar­riage as a bour­geois insti­tu­tion that oppressed women, so refer­ring to her as his “wife” is real­ly unac­cept­able and betrays an igno­rance of their lives, work, and rela­tion­ship.

  • Mary says:

    Why is this film not avail­able on DVD?

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.