Mental illness in films once was treated as a rather romantic condition; people went mad as a byproduct of tragic love, and when they did, it was often a rather attractive madness. Bette Davis in Juarez did a lot of wild-eyed staring, and recited "crazy dialogue" that was more clever than that given her when sane.
The postwar years opened the doors for all kinds of subject matter considered too harsh for the screen. There was nothing funny about the inside of an alcoholic ward showed by Billy Wilder in 1945's The Lost Weekend. Instead of pink elephants on parade, Ray Milland saw visions of a bat biting into a mouse, with blood running down the walls. The Snake Pit (not capitalized on the movie title itself) is an attempt at visualizing the reality of a nervous breakdown, and even if the psychology is far too pat, it does an excellent job of showing the dehumanizing terror of an asylum. Olivia de Havilland's performance conveys all the horror of losing control over one's life, and one's mind.
The Snake Pit starts identically to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Virginia is first seen in the asylum garden, disoriented and frightened. 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 Snake Pit's depiction of life in an institution like this is more than illuminating. Put fifty nurses into a place where they have to act like prison guards to unpredictable and possibly dangerous women, and of course they're going to act like storm trooper disciplinarians. Already confused, Virginia finds it impossible to concentrate on the terse instructions she's given. Bitter, spiteful nurses 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. 1
Virginia's illness is realistically depicted. She's disoriented and big parts of her life are blotted out of her memory. She has a hard time believing she has a husband, even though she knows that she's married. Cause and effect have become disconnected and time no longer seems to exist.
Leo Genn (Starbuck in Moby Dick) is good as the doctor who sincerely tries to help Virginia. He has no desires besides curing her, and does what he can to soften the harshness of asylum life. For this attitude he's considered unproductive and a detriment to the smooth running of the place. His peers think he's spending too much time on pet patients, and the nurses resent not being in total control.
The professional response to mental illness is of course limited to 1948 practices, and Virginia's case is far too simplistic. When Dr. Kik finally gains her confidence, she conveniently spells out the exact traumatic situations in her childhood and past life (excellent flashback material with Natalie Schafer of Gilligan's Island as an unloving mother) that have caused her breakdown. It isn't the "instant cure" of laughable movies like Marnie or Spellbound, but it is more than a little oversimplified.
The most frightening part of The Snake Pit are the shock therapy sessions. Lobotomies aren't pictured, but even kindly Dr. Kik prescribes multiple 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. It's not commented upon but the clear implication is that cruelty and abuse in hospitals approaches the practices of Nazi medicine. I'm surprised that the medical and mental health professions didn't protest.
The best part of the movie is the talented cast of supporting players around Olivia de Havilland, especially those playing her fellow patients. Besides Celeste Holm, there's a young Betsy Blair (Marty) playing a silent, dangerous woman who tries to strangle anyone who touches her. We're used to seeing Blair as a mousy sweetheart, and here she's as dangerous as a coiled snake. Beulah Bondi plays a 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 is Katherine Locke as a particularly deluded inmate; her tortured face is well remembered from the bizarre and depressing film noir Try and Get Me!
The most unforgettable supporting player is Helen Craig, the 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. Craig achieved a kind of noir immortality the next year in Nicholas Ray's They Live By Night, as the black widow who informs on the luckless hero to free her own man from prison.
Leo Genn is like a less-handsome James Mason - a friendly, trusting soul with a reassuring voice. The supporting men are less memorable. Dull Mark Stevens is Virginia's husband and Glenn Langan (The Amazing Colossal Man) another doctor.
The classy Fox production maintains a realistic tension from the beginning when Alfred Newman's ominous chords are heard over the logo instead of the Fox fanfare. It is heard in one of the flashbacks when Virginia goes to a movie theater. The music score stays off to the side and only comes to the fore in the dreamlike terror scene, when Virginia finds herself in the midst of a 'snakepit' of screaming, lost women.
The Snake Pit has a potentially happy ending, a near-necessity in 1948. Marketed as a women's picture, word of mouth caught on for the film as it had for Mary Jane Ward's book, and Darryl Zanuck had another socially progressive hit on his hands. 2
Fox Home Video's DVD of The Snake Pit presents this top-notch thriller in excellent condition, in a sharp and detailed B&W print. The extras are good too. Aubrey Solomon's commentary contains a wealth of facts and background for the curious, with especially good information on the supporting cast and the medical procedures we see.
The rest of the extras are the expected trailer and still gallery, and a series of mostly repetitive newsreels that show Miss de Havilland mostly receiving awards. There is also a nice view of the New York premiere Marquee.
The audio has a choice of mono and stereo tracks. I don't know if the stereo is original or a modern augmentation. Studios experimented with stereo soundtracks through the forties and you never know when one will turn up.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Snake Pit rates:
1. I got a personal taste of
this in Tripler Army hospital at age 8, when I had my tonsils out. The nurses there were sick of unruly
Army brats and ruled their ward with threats and fear. I was shy and my frightenend silence was treated
as insolence. They took my books away from me. The nurses didn't like the fact that I wasn't
instantly obedient (I was terrified) and one practically beat me up when she gave me a bath. This was
1959, and about a dozen 10 year-olds and I were expected to play in a playroom meant for toddlers.
The kids acted up, so the nurse in charge tied us to chairs, while she watched American
Bandstand on TV. I was terrorized. When my mom showed up two days later, all I would do is
whisper, "Get me out of here." So far, I haven't fallen into an adult nervous breakdown because of
2. Michael Arick informs me that it is true that writer Arthur Laurents
did write uncredited on The Snake Pit: "Yes, Arthur 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 him to adapt
Anastasia for the screen. Laurents
was effectively blacklisted, but because Litvak liked him and the Ingrid Bergman film was being
shot in England, Litvak hired him again, breaking the blacklist."