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The Snake Pit

by Glenn Erickson Jun 01, 2019

Hollywood takes a hard look at the mundane horrors of mental asylums, and Olivia de Havilland scores another career high with her portrayal of a housewife experiencing a nervous breakdown. Some people found the show scary and a few felt it was tasteless, but Ms. de Havilland’s performance is riveting, 71 years later. Anatole Litvak’s intense direction makes good use of expressionistic visual devices, without veering into dippy Salvador Dalí psycho-surrealism.


The Snake Pit
Region B Blu-ray
Powerhouse Indicator
1948 / B&W / 1:37 Academy / 108 min. / Street Date April 22, 2019 / available from Powerhouse Films UK / £15.99
Starring: Olivia de Havilland, Mark Stevens, Leo Genn, Celeste Holm, Glenn Langan, Helen Craig, Leif Erickson, Beulah Bondi, Lee Patrick, Natalie Schafer, Ruth Donnelly, Katherine Locke, Minna Gombell, Ann Doran, Jacqueline deWit, Betsy Blair, Queenie Smith, Virginia Brissac, Marie Blake, Isabel Jewell, Celia Lovsky, Mae Marsh, Doro Merande, Mary Newton, Inez Palange, Mary Treen, Minerva Urecal.
Cinematography: Leo Tover
Film Editor: Dorothy Spencer
Original Music: Alfred Newman
Written by Millen Brand, Frank Partos from the novel by Mary Jane Ward
Produced by Robert Bassler, Anatole Litvak, Darryl F. Zanuck
Directed by
Anatole Litvak

As Ms. Olivia DeHavilland advances gracefully into her second century, we’re happy to appreciate the fine work she did in so many movies. Her legal challenges freed actors from Hollywood’s harsh labor policies, and she used that freedom to choose fine roles in worthy pictures. The 1948 The Snake Pit belongs to the postwar ‘socially conscious’ school of thinking, that chipped away at injustices ingrained in the social fabric.

Mental illness is a terrible tragedy, and one of the most shameful things about America is our abandonment of public mental hospital systems. Movies once ignored the realities of mental illness, and presented it as a romantic condition, often a byproduct of tragic love. When leading ladies went mad, it was often an attractive, glamorous madness. Bette Davis did a lot of wild-eyed staring as Empress Carlota in the admittedly over-emotional Juarez, and recited ‘crazy talk’ dialogue more poetic than what she spoke when sane.

 

The end-of-innocence war years opened the door for subject matter once considered too harsh for the screen. There was nothing funny about the inside of the Bellevue alcoholic ward in Billy Wilder’s 1945 The Lost Weekend. Instead of pink elephants on parade, Ray Milland saw a vision of a bat biting into a mouse, with blood running down the walls. Anatole Litvak’s The Snake Pit (not capitalized on the movie title itself) attempts to visualize the experience of a nervous breakdown, and even if the psychology on tap is far too pat, he does an excellent job of showing the dehumanizing terror of an asylum. Olivia de Havilland had just previously made a gimmicky one-twin-is-a-psychopath noir thriller called The Dark Mirror; it’s child’s stuff compared to this film’s penetrating look at what mental incarceration is like. Her performance here conveys all the horror of losing control over one’s life, and one’s mind. In fact, The Snake Pit could easily be classified as a non-Gothic horror film. It’s the modern equivalent of Val Lewton’s Bedlam. Whatever you do, never volunteer for psychological observation (unless you’re dangerously nuts, in which case please stop reading and pack a bag).

When we meet our leading lady, she has already been committed to a mental hospital. Virginia Cunningham (de Havilland) was brought in soon after her marriage to Robert Cunningham (Mark Stevens), who cannot understand her unmotivated panic and hysteria. Sensitive doctor Mark Kik (Leo Genn) tries to help Virginia find the key that precipitated her mental breakdown, but almost everything about the asylum militates against his kind efforts. The building may as well be a prison and the top staff are more concerned with processing the patients than curing them. The overworked nurses, some in supervisory positions, abuse the inmates with unreasonable punishment and sadistic retribution. When Robert tries to get Virginia released too early, she’s sent to the worst ward in the hospital.

 

Although never classified as horror, The Snake Pit begins identically to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari: Virginia is first seen sitting on a bench in the asylum garden, frightened and disoriented. She’s been in the hospital for weeks, but suddenly doesn’t know where she is or how she got there. Sympathetic co-inmate Grace (Celeste Holm) tries to calm her. And then we realize that Virginia’s loss of memory is a defense mechanism – the hospital is so oppressive that her mind tries to blot out the locked doors, unhappy women and cruel guards.

The depiction of life in a traumatic institution is more than illuminating. Task fifty nurses to act like prison guards for unpredictable and possibly dangerous women, and of course they will become storm trooper disciplinarians. Already confused, Virginia finds it impossible to concentrate on the terse instructions she’s given. Bitter, spiteful overseers like Nurse Davis (Helen Craig) are all too eager to take her lack of instant obedience as a personal insult. The angels of mercy behave more like inquisitors.

Virginia’s illness is realistically depicted. She’s disoriented, and big parts of her life are blotted out of her memory. Cause and effect have become disconnected and time no longer seems to exist. She knows that she’s married, but has difficulty believing she has a husband. Olivia de Havilland has a firm grip on this aspect of the picture — glamour-wise, Virginia is a complete mess, reportedly without makeup. Many actresses, not just your Joan Crawford types, would shrink from this idea, but Olivia makes herself fairly ‘ordinary’ even in the flashbacks. The image to the left must be meant as an engagement photo.

Leo Genn (Starbuck in Moby Dick) is good as the doctor who sincerely tries to help. He has no designs on Virginia other than helping her, and he does what he can to soften the harshness of asylum life. For this attitude he’s considered unproductive, a detriment. Kik’s peers think he’s spending too much time on pet patients, and the nurses resent losing control over ‘their’ charges.

The professional response to mental illness is of course limited to 1948 practices, and Virginia’s case is far too simplistic. Dr. Kik doesn’t effect the instant cure of laughable movies like Hitchcock’s Marnie and Spellbound, but his process is more than a little oversimplified. When he finally gains Virginia’s confidence, she conveniently spells out the exact traumatic situations in her childhood and past life that have caused her breakdown. The flashback material is excellent, with Natalie Schafer of Gilligan’s Island as Virginia’s unloving mother. Mark Stevens’ uncomprehending spouse isn’t a total dolt, like Kent Smith in Cat People, but his main desire seems to be to get her firmly back into harness as a domestic housewife.

 

The most frightening part of The Snake Pit are the shock therapy sessions. Lobotomies aren’t pictured, but even kindly Dr. Kik prescribes serial shock therapy as a way of cutting corners and getting the subject to respond to treatment – mainly, to answer when spoken to. The nurses, especially the sadistic Nurse Davis, seem to love the power of administering these jolts of electricity (seen off-camera) to the helpless patients. Our impression is that asylums use procedures that can be compared to the practices of Nazi medicine. I’m surprised that the medical and mental health professions didn’t protest. They eventually employed a galaxy of drugs to dose patients into docile manageability.

Helping enormously are the many talented supporting players surrounding Olivia de Havilland, especially those playing her fellow patients. Besides Celeste Holm, there’s a young Betsy Blair (Marty) as a silent, dangerous woman who tries to strangle anyone who touches her. We’re accustomed to seeing Blair as a mousy sweetheart, and here she’s as dangerous as a coiled snake. Beulah Bondi is frightening as another demented matron, and ’30s comedienne Ruth Donnelly, familiar from a long list of sexy pre-Code movies, is a friendly associate. Also on view are Minna Gombell, Virginia Brissac (Rebel without a Cause, Monsieur Verdoux), Ann Doran, and Isabel Jewell from Lost Horizon and The Seventh Victim. Of special note as a particularly deluded inmate is Katherine Locke; her tortured, pleading face is well remembered from the disturbing film noir ordeal Try and Get Me!

The most striking supporting actress is Helen Craig, an icy head nurse who makes Miss Ratched from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest seem like Florence Nightingale. Ms. Craig carries something cold in her face, as if she herself had undergone some terrible trauma in her past. She achieved noir immortality the next year in Nicholas Ray’s They Live By Night, as a black widow who informs on the luckless hero to free her own man from prison.

Leo Genn is a less-handsome James Mason, a friendly, trusting soul with a reassuring voice. The supporting males are less memorable. Dull Mark Stevens is Virginia’s husband and Glenn Langan (Dragonwyck, Forever Amber, The Amazing Colossal Man) is another doctor.

The classy Fox production imparts a realistic tension from the beginning, when Alfred Newman’s ominous chords replace the Fox fanfare over the opening logo — a cue instead heard in a flashback when Virginia goes to a movie theater. The music score stays mostly off to the side, coming to the fore in the dreamlike terror scene, when she finds herself in the midst of a ‘snakepit’ of screaming, lost women. Nightmares of drowning in the ocean, with a nurse prying Virginia’s fingers from a cliff, come right out of the German Expressionism playbook.

 

The ending is a potentially happy one, a near-necessity in 1948. Seen today, Virginia Cunningham already seems definitely disturbed in her husband’s flashbacks; when she cracks up after her marriage, her actions could be interpreted as a reaction to the absurd social role she’s found herself in… we already know that she was trying to write a book, and marriage seems to have obliterated that ambition. It feels slightly disturbing that both her doctor and her husband basically want to return Virginia to her society-determined role. In a way they want her to stop rocking the boat, just as do the disciplinarian nurses.

Marketed as a women’s picture, word of mouth caught on for The Snake Pit as it had for Mary Jane Ward’s book. Darryl Zanuck had another socially progressive hit on his hands, and Olivia de Havilland scored with another role that made her the envy of the film industry. The picture has indeed held up extremely well.

Michael Arick informs me that it is true that writer Arthur Laurents did write for The Snake Pit, uncredited:

“Laurents was effectively blacklisted, so could receive no credit. He talks at length about adapting the material into a screenplay, directly for Anatole Litvak. There’s a long section in his autobiography about it… it was on the strength of this that Litvak later asked Laurents to adapt Anastasia for the screen. Because the Ingrid Bergman film was being shot in England, Litvak hired him again, breaking the blacklist.”


Powerhouse Indicator’s Region B Blu-ray of The Snake Pit is a pristine encoding of this powerful drama, reportedly given a full 4K remaster. The image is excellent and the mono audio strong — Alfred Newman’s music is almost scary. Between Newman and Bernard Herrmann, Fox could really conjure up some great film scores. Powerhouse Indicator is UK-based, and releases many All-Region discs, but not this one. To play it requires a Region B or an All-Region Blu-ray player. Twilight Time has released a Region Free Blu-ray recently, with some of the same extras.

The Aubrey Solomon commentary comes from the 2004 Fox DVD. PI gives us Pamela Hutchinson paying tribute to the independent minded, dynamic Olivia de Havilland, especially her successful fight with Warners over contracts that literally turned stars into indentured workers whose servitude could extended indefinitely if they didn’t accept whatever assignments they were given. Hutchinson makes no mention of the fact that Bette Davis very publicly lost a similar court battle years before. Davis’s lawyers weren’t prepared with a good case, and the outcome made Jack Warner and the studios feel invincible.

Neil Sinyard offers another fine analysis of the movie, recounting Anatole Litvak’s faith in the material and going over the accuracy of Virginia Cunningham’s subjective ordeal. Yes, the show simplifies the psychology of its heroine’s illness, but not the intensity of her experience.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


The Snake Pit
Region B Blu-ray rates:
Movie:
Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Audio commentary with Aubrey Solomon; The Battles of Olivia de Havilland (2019): critic and film historian Pamela Hutchinson discusses the revered actor’s illustrious career; Neil Sinyard on ‘The Snake Pit’ (2019): A new appreciation; trailer, Image gallery. Illustrated booklet with an essay by Lindsay Hallam and an overview of contemporary critical responses.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed:
May 30, 2019
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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.