Waiting For Sherlock: The Public Psychiatry Of The Obsessive Male
As we wait for Sherlock's next season, Morgaan Sinclair takes a closer look at some notable examples of male obsessives in classic cinema.
There he is, our favorite obsessive-compulsive, manic-depressive, high-functioning sociopath, Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch). With Calabash (brier, clay, or cherry wood) pipe, deerstalker hat, violin, 7% solution, and trusty sidekick—that’s Dr. John Watson (Martin Freeman)—he solves the most intricate of crimes. Our beloved net-tech comes complete with a smarter older brother, Mycroft (Mark Gatiss); the deliciously evil villain James Moriarty (Andrew Scott); an adorable housekeeper, Mrs. Hudson (Una Stubbs); and an adoring friend, forensic pathologist Dr. Molly Hooper (Louise Brealey). Bringing one impossible case after another is Inspector LeStrade (Rupert Graves), and in recent years, we’ve been treated to Watson’s secret agent / contract killer wife Mary Morstan (Amanda Abbington), who (spoiler alert) actually shoots Sherlock in one episode—be still my heart.
Last seen on January 15, 2017, Sherlock Holmes has gone missing. He has done this before, but he has always returned to 221B Baker Street eventually. Since the BBC One/Masterpiece series Sherlock debuted in 2010, its writers, Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat, have managed four seasons, with clusters of episodes appearing roughly a year and a half apart. However, the final episode of Season 4 played like a series end, dismaying Sherlockians. The specter emerged that perhaps Sherlock might have ended.
Intermittent news flashes claiming to possess a release date for a hypothetical Season 5 are always fake news, at least thus far. Moffat and Gatiss say that they are trying to schedule Cumberbatch and Freeman, whose careers have exploded since the series began, but that it’s going to be hard. Tossing us a proverbial crumb, Andrew Scott (Moriarty) hinted that there might be another set of riveting intellectual adventures in two years.
That’s two years.
Therefore, as a humanitarian act for my fellow crestfallen Holmes fans, I offer you three movies that will slake your thirst for bright, mentally sketchy guys, and I predict that you will be pleased. All three movies were made between 1957 and 1962 (with one fantastic remake in 1997), when films featuring this intelligent, unhinged male character type intermittently inhabited the theaters.
But first, a word from our friends, the Jungians.
The Mind Playing Out Upon a Screen
It’s been axiomatic for about 75 years now—since Carl Jung and his colleagues began to analyze film—that emanations of the collective unconscious (and perhaps the cultural unconscious, too) seep out through some of the movies we see. As psychologist Anthony Stevens points out, expressions of the deep psyche appear in four forms: archetypal events, figures (characters), motifs, and symbols.
Jungian academic Glen Slater notes that we may be as likely to get stereotypes as archetypes in film. But when we do get well-crafted archetypal images, they are immensely powerful. They can cast light into the darkest corners of the human psyche and engender profound wisdom about who we are – both the good and beautiful in us, and the dark and truly evil in us.
On the downside, a film like the infamous Birth of a Nation can teach a person a very great deal about true malevolence in less than two hours. Leni Riefenstahl’s propaganda films are splendidly crafted, but her brilliant use of symbolism (like a cross floating above German ground) was bent to the will of a mass-murdering failed painter who exterminated six million Jews, 11 million Poles, and 20 million Russians. That would be Hitler.
There are finer uses of cinema, to be sure. Appropriating the personal and civil rights of the great writer, director, actor, or actress, the Autonomous Creative Force (no kidding) “possesses” the genius mind and delivers a character, story, or spectacular artistic performance of such archetypal power that it is mesmerizing. Although the cinematic work of art is fiction, it is somehow more real than fact. It is archetypal—in and of and about all of us—and that is everything, everything. Films of deep archetypal inflection move us. They teach us, warn us, and awaken us. Sometimes they even heal us.
This, then, leads to a kind of public psychiatry in which a film may allow us to examine—safely, as, thank God, that’s not me up there!—bedrock neuroses that we can encounter in the people we meet out there (or, far more threateningly, within ourselves).
Of course, this can be fun. Sherlock Holmes (of the Cumberbatch batch) is the contemporary poster child for the virgin high-functioning sociopath who doesn’t give a damn if he hurts your feelings or not. His smarter older brother Mycroft, who secretly runs the British Empire, is Western civilization’s personification of OCD, obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Will they solve every crime? Of course! They’re smart! And obsessive (read: emotionally out-of-kilter). Am I certain? Well, no … but … balance of probability, my friends. Balance of probability.
That we work out our own neuroses while watching movies and TV is practically a state secret hiding in plain sight. We watch, in part, to explore the dark shadow contents—which eventually become light, if all goes well—that press themselves upward from the deep cauldron of trauma and destiny that is the unconscious mind. Flickering upon the screen are archetypal images of the good father (Zeus), the Aphrodite replicant (Marilyn Monroe), the Christ-figure of the self-archetype (Guillermo del Toro crafts many of these), and … the obsessive male.
This last one is a dangerous creature, most especially to himself. Our man is utterly the prey of his inability to relativize his cravings for the very things that will destroy him.
He usually dies, but long before that he’ll be well and truly pestled to a paste. Well, not always, but the three obsessive males which I now call from the ethers all wind up on a slab, one of them just a little later than the others. All three are so entrancing that we marvel at the writers who crafted them, stand amazed at the actors who performed them, and bow before the directors who brought them to life.
So, while you’re waiting for Sherlock, I offer you:
Alec Guinness as Lt. Colonel Nicholson (The Bridge on the River Kwai, 1957)
Directed by David Lean. Oscars (7): Best Picture, Director (Lean), Actor (Guinness), Screenplay, Cinematography, Music, Editing. With brilliant performances by Sessue Hayakawa and William Holden. Rotten Tomatoes: 94%. AFI 100 #13.
Lt. Colonel Nicholson is the epitome of the stiff-upper-lipped British officer. He finds himself responsible for maintaining the morale and discipline of a group of British soldiers in a hell-on-earth World War II Japanese prison camp along the River Kwai in Burma. The one remaining gap in a Japanese military supply route, the Kwai must be bridged, and the Japanese keep failing at it.
To shore up his men’s spirits, Nicholson takes over construction, and he and the inmates—who are now running the asylum—design and build a stunning span. Obsessed with perfection and taking a fatally misguided pride in the project, Nicholson entirely loses sight of his principal duty.
While the light colonel builds a bridge, an Allied team moves overland through heavy jungle to destroy it. As the team lays explosive charges, they find Nicholson defending a bridge he’s built for the enemy, rather than fighting for the future of Western civilization. Only in the moment before he dies does Nicholson awaken from his obsessional coma and attempt to help.
Gorgeous cinematography, a poignant performance by Sessue Hayakawa, and an unforgettably brilliant, brave, blind, and quintessentially self-deluded military character—all these elements make this film an incredible journey of insight.
Peter O’Toole as T. E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia, 1962)
Directed by David Lean. Oscars (7): Best Picture, Director (Lean, again), Cinematography, Set Decoration, Sound, Editing, Music. Rotten Tomatoes: 97%. AFI 100 #5.
Despite the fact that Peter O’Toole didn’t win a Best Actor Oscar for his performance in this role—the statue went to Gregory Peck for his Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird—Premiere Magazine calls Peter O’Toole’s performance as T. E. Lawrence the best achievement by an actor or actress in film history.
T. E. Lawrence wasn’t universally loved. His critics called him the “Wild Ass of the Desert” … and that he certainly was. A polymathic genius without a day’s combat training, Lawrence wrested Arabia from the internecine squabbles of tribal warlords and won World War I in the Middle East, driving as far as Damascus. In the process, he shaped the future of Arabia and the contemporary Near East.
He also went mad. Captured, beaten to a bloody pulp, and sexually assaulted by the Ottomans, Lawrence, whose masochism showed early in life after beatings by his mother, became both obsessively masochistic and sadistically vengeful during his sojourn in the desert. He suffered psychological disfigurement for the rest of his life. The scene in which Lawrence professes pleasure at the deaths of others is one of the most emotionally wrenching ones ever filmed.
When Lawrence died in a motorcycle accident at 46, Sir Winston Churchill grieved aloud that the British Empire was “impoverished” by his passing. Robert Bolt’s extraordinary screenplay and deeply insightful characterization of this mad genius made him immortal. Also starring the Rub’ al Khali, the largest contiguous sand desert on earth, it was a cinematographer’s greatest dream and worst nightmare.
James Mason as Humbert Humbert (Lolita, 1962)
Directed by Stanley Kubrick. Oscars: Zip. Rotten Tomatoes: 95%.
The brilliant Vladimir Nabokov wrote both the book and the screenplay, and Stanley Kubrick made another all-but-perfect film. Coming in the same year as Lawrence of Arabia, however, Lolita didn’t stand a chance. James Mason’s performance as a stolid academic consumed, body and soul, by a 12-year-old nymphet named Lolita (Sue Lyon) is a sobering portrayal of sexual obsession—and one of the most remarkable literary characterizations of a pathological mental state ever penned. This man sells his soul to the Devil for this girl.
This is carnal knowledge dragged to its most debased depths. It shocked film audiences in the early 1960s, on the eve of the Sexual Revolution and the Women’s Liberation Movement, for in those times a Valium-laced, kaffeeklatch mentality still held sway. As it was, censors straitjacketed Kubrick, severely limiting what he could show. Had he known how bad they’d get, he said, he’d never have tried to make the film.
Given the climate at the time, Academy balloters might have been run out of town on the thinnest of rails had they honored Mason and Kubrick. The Academy did have the courage to nominate Nabokov for his brutal characterization of male disintegration, a sexual obsession branded on Humbert’s psyche by loss and grief in early adolescence. What eventuates is the corpuscle-by-corpuscle destruction of every shred of this man’s dignity.
Eddie Izzard once called James Mason’s pipes the Voice of God. His indestructible aura of dignity and famously silvery voice make his expression of a man shredded by the most heartless of muses all the more memorable.
Mason’s performance is a classic. Peter Sellers does some remarkable shape shifting. And Sue Lyon (Lolita), who celebrated her fifteenth birthday during principal photography, holds her own with Mason, Sellers, and Shelley Winters—no small feat.
Nabokov’s screenplay, however, suffers from a grave mistake: the writer excised both the incidence of unbearable loss in Humbert’s adolescence, an agony that branded the scholar’s psyche with hebephilia, and the death of Lolita in childbirth at the age of 17—the two elements that gave the book such tremendous dimension. These crucial scene sets provided both the context of Humbert’s possession and the final, fatal loss that ultimately kills the professor. Nabokov’s script, which salvaged the black comedy of his original work, robs Humbert of his desperation, ecstasy, and fear—and his poetic voice. This is not an error the writer and director of the 1997 remake would make.
Jeremy Irons as Humbert Humbert (Lolita, 1997)
Screenplay by Stephen Schiff from the novel by Vladimir Nabokov. Directed by Adrian Lyne. With performances by Jeremy Irons, Dominique Swain, Melanie Griffith and Frank Langella.
Offering the opinion that this is a better film than the original is blasphemous: people you don’t even know start scurrying about collecting twigs, limbs, tins of fire-starter, and boxes of safety matches. But it is a better film: the performance by Jeremy Irons is haunting and gorgeously modulated; Dominique Swain is half a dozen characters simultaneously, a beautiful, taunting, seductive, manipulative, and damaged sexually precocious child-woman. Her desperation shows in the cache of money she hoards for an escape and in an instance of sobbing after she makes love to Humbert.
Nabokov’s own screenplay is flawed by more than its critical omissions. The brilliant, but distracting, scenes that showcase the chameleonic genius of Peter Sellers, as Lolita’s true crush Clare Quilty, derail its primary plot.
The original’s worst crime, however, is that so little of the poetry that Nabokov gave the erudite Humbert in the book made it into his screenplay. Schiff graces his Humbert with the language of a poetic soul. By doing so, he provides Humbert with a character arc of traumatic imbalance leading to obsessional behavior leading to profound regret—and a strange, short-lived healing.
Schiff is almost perfectly true to Nabokov’s written words in Humbert’s last encounter with the teenager whose life he broke. He is a man whose perverted lust grew to contain at least a modicum of love:
HUMBERT: I looked and looked at her, and I knew, as clearly as I know that I will die, that I loved her more than anything I had seen or imagined on earth. She was only the dead-leaf echo of the nymphet from long ago – but I loved her, this Lolita, pale and polluted and big with another man’s child. She could fade and wither – I didn’t care. I would still go mad with tenderness at the mere sight of her face.
Humbert becomes a man who deeply regrets what he has done. As he waits upon a hill to be arrested for the brutal murder of Clare Quilty, he muses at the sounds coming from the mining town below him.
HUMBERT: What I heard then was the melody of children at play, nothing but that. And I knew that the hopelessly poignant thing was not Lolita’s absence from my side, but the absence of her voice from that chorus.
This is a quintessential cinematic demonstration of Jung’s point that an archetype—and every truly archetypal character—is always, but always, both positive and negative simultaneously: Humbert was once a decent human being. Though tormented by the most agonizing of internal pressures, he remained a good man for a very long time. In Lolita’s presence, his will failed, and his psyche descended into his darker nature. He ends as a manipulator, statutory rapist, liar and killer. Still, he has the goodness to feel regret, to experience the impact he has had on her life. For her part, she has destroyed him in equal measure.
In the end, Humbert believes that the story he writes in prison will be the only immortality he and Lolita will ever know. And he is right, for the rest, as Nabokov would say, is “rust and stardust.”
Perhaps the strangest honor for a book or film is to be banned. Esther Lombari of ThoughtCo assembled a list of the ten most often banned classic novels. It includes Ulysses by James Joyce, The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger, The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, The Color Purple by Alice Walker, Beloved by Toni Morrison, Lord of the Flies by William Golding, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, and 1984 by George Orwell. And the last? Lolita.
Read the book. Then see both films. Then wonder, for a very long time, how Nabokov ever came by the insight to write such characters as these.
Waiting for Sherlock
So, while those of us who are addicted to the public psychiatry of the obsessive male await our next opportunity to be “Sherlocked,” there is entertainment to be had in this flickering of films from the late 1950s and early 1960s—the same era that gave us the fabulous Don Draper and his menagerie of corporate beasties.
Am I sure you’ll be amused? Of course! Amused, moved, shocked, and perhaps, most of all, enlightened. “How do I know?” you ask.
Balance of probability, my friends. Balance of probability.
Do you know of any other examples of the obsessive male archetype in cinema? Let us know in the comments below!
“The clock has run out on sexual assault, harassment and inequality in the workplace. It’s time to do something about it.” Read the Letter of Solidarity here. Make a donation to the legal fund here.