For this month’s next review for Genre Grandeur – Films About Doctors, Nurses and Hospitals, here’s a review of The Snake Pit (1948) by David of BluePrint: Review.
Thanks again to J-Dub of Dubsism for choosing this month’s genre.
Next month’s genre has been chosen by James of Blogging By Cinemalight and we will be reviewing our favorite Films With Santa Claus or Santa Claus impersonators.
Please get me your submissions by the 25th of Dec by sending them to email@example.com
Try to think out of the box!
Let’s see what David thought of this movie:
The Snake Pit
Director: Anatole Litvak
Screenplay: Frank Partos, Millen Brand
Based on a Novel by: Mary Jane Ward
Starring: Olivia de Havilland, Mark Stevens, Leo Genn, Celeste Holm, Glenn Langan, Helen Craig
Running Time: 108 min
BBFC Certificate: 12
The Snake Pit is the earliest of the pair of films, being released in 1948, and was the most successful, earning rave reviews and making a decent amount of money at the box office. It was based on Mary Jane Ward’s semi-autobiographical account of her own time spent in a psychiatric institution and sees Olivia de Havilland play Virginia Stuart Cunningham. Virginia has been sent to an institution but lapses in memory mean she can’t remember how she got there and suffers under the harsh conditions and frightening surroundings. She was recently married before her breakdown, but doesn’t trust her husband Robert (Mark Stevens) when he comes to visit, so he struggles to help. The idealistic Dr. Kik (Leo Genn) believes there is hope though and perseveres in trying psychotherapy over traditional methods of treatment.
The Snake Pit was groundbreaking in its depiction of psychiatric institutions, which largely kept a closed-door approach back then, so the public wasn’t aware of poor standards of care. The film was so boundary-breaking in fact that it led to the widespread reform of institutions in the US (though this claim may have been hyped up by 20th Century Fox, the studio behind the film). It’s clear to see why it had such an impact too, as the depiction of life in the institution is fairly unflinching and tough for the time. Due to strict censorship, much of the book’s content had to be toned down for the screen, but it’s still quite disturbing at times, particularly the shock treatment scenes early on.
What stood out for me though, was that although it can be distressing, the film doesn’t entirely discredit the institution. The Dr. Kik character in particular clearly cares for Virginia’s health and does his best for her (other than finding a use for the aforementioned shock treatment). So it’s not a straight-up horror film depiction of life there and indeed there is a happy ending. That said, there are a couple of dark and powerfully impressionistic sequences, such as when the camera cranes up and the walls of the ward extend into jagged rock, turning it into the titular metaphorical ‘snake pit’. There’s also a poignant moment just before the film concludes that reminds us that a great many of the other inmates will never leave.
Also impressive is de Havilland’s powerhouse performance. She goes big at times, so might seem over the top by today’s standards, but it’s hard to deny her great ability to convey a range of emotions in sometimes a single shot. She certainly demands your attention and carries the film. Although Genn and Stevens are a little bland in comparison, many of the actors making up the minor and supporting roles are great too, helping the institution feel like a living breathing place (aided by some great, Oscar-winning sound design). Yes, there are some wild takes on mental illness on display, which probably wouldn’t pass muster in this more enlightened age, but to suggest all mentally ill people are quietly simmering with troubles under the surface would be false too.
The neat tying up of Virginia’s ‘mystery’ to heal her mind is simplistic and rather too focussed on male influence and relationships (all to make her a better wife in the end), but at the time it must have been quite complex to audiences and there’s only so much you can cover in a single feature film.
Overall then, although aspects of the film have dated, it’s still strikingly ahead of its time and (if you believe the press) helped usher in the more sensitive era of mental health care we’re now in. It’s not always subtle, but it’s more nuanced than most films back then on the subject. Driven by a brave and powerful central performance, it’s a fine film that’s worthy of revisiting these 70-odd years later.