Thursday, September 3, 2009

The Snake Pit (1948)

Spanish poster (transl. Nest of Vipers).

Director: Anatole Litvak
USA 1948
108 min

See it on YouTube here.

The Snake Pit is a film adaption of the novel by Mary Jane Ward, who told the self-experienced story about her time in an insane asylum.

Virgina (de Havilland) finds herself in a psychiatric hospital, and can't remember how she got there. Already in the first scene, sitting on a park bench in the asylum's garden, we see her talking to herself, imagining a man asking her questions and suspecting a fellow inmate (Holm) of being the man in disguise.

The story folds out in time, and we learn that Virginia has suffered a nervous breakdown. She is married to Robert (Stevens, an actor I fell in love with after watching him in the film noir The Dark Corner, 1946), but she can't remember him and gets frightened when he visits her. With the help of shock therapy Virginia gets contact with the real world, and Dr. Kik (the charming British actor Genn) is able to start digging in her past to find out what caused her mental illness.

Ward's novel, published in 1946, caused a great controversy upon its release for its deption of the brutal treatment of mentally ill patients. Of course, it became a bestseller.
Dr. Kik (based on the real life person Dr. Gerard Chrzanowski, who told the patients to simply call him "Dr. Kik" due to his complicated last name) was something out of the ordinary in that time, almost solely treating his patients with psychotherapy.
There is one scene in particular, where his different point of view is made obvious. Dr. Kik is in a meeting with the other doctors, complaining about the overcrowded mental asylums in the country. They want to send Virginia home due to the hospital being overcrowded, while Dr. Kik doesn't think she is ready for it, and likely will become more ill if she is sent away. One Dr. Curtis starts reading statistics about how many patients they have, and how many the hospitals are intended for, and concludes:
"The trouble is that for you, each case is the one, and for us it's one of thousands."
Dr. Kik responds:
"Yes, Curtis, one of thousands - even millions. But only by trying making each case the one can we really help the patient."
And there we have the problem with the treatment of mental illness in a nutshell. Even though the situation is much better today, everyone who has at least a little bit of experience from that area can recognize the hardened nurses and ignorant doctors, and probably feel a bit sick when realizing how much of it is still there 60 years later.
(Now, don't think that I'm a total weirdo, but I've had my little share of the mental institutions and their staff, and that's quite enough for me.)

Scene: Virginia has been moved to the worst department in the asylum, where she makes the connection to being in a snake pit.

I can't help but connecting The Snake Pit with Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar from 1963. Quite frightening reading with almost brutal black humour.

Now to the title of the film. It's explained in the film itself, but if you haven't seen it the choice of the title is really interesting. It is derived from a way of treating mentally ill long ago, where they through the sick people into snake pits. The thought was that such a thing would drive a sane person insane, and that it also should work vice versa. Oh, the inventiveness of man.

I always liked Olivia de Havilland before, but now I think she is making it to the top five of my favorite actresses. Her performance in this film is inconveniently real, and I found myself not being able to sit still while watching her most tragic freakouts. My favourite part of her characterization is when she slowly becomes better. Even though it's obvious to all the people around, she is so worried that maybe feeling better is a sign of really becoming insane. (Been there, done that.)

I believe that those who will appreciate this film the most are people who have had mental illness in their life, whether it has affected yourself or someone close to you.

The Snake Pit only won an Academy Award for Best Sound, Recording, but it was nominated to a bunch of them. De Havilland was nominated for Best Actress (but was robbed by Jane Wyman for Johnny Belinda) and Anatole Litvak was nominated for Best Director (won by John Huston, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre). The other nominations were for Best Picture (won by Olivier's Hamlet), Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture (The Red Shoes) and Best Writing, Screenplay (again, John Huston and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre).

But we can comfort ourselves with the fact that de Havilland won the Best Actress Oscar in 1947 for To Each His Own (1946), and again in 1950 for The Heiress (1949).

All in all - see this movie if you haven't! It's an order!

The beautiful and amazing Olivia de Havilland.


Rupert Alistair said...

It has been sooo long since I saw this film. Thanks for ordering me to watch it again ;)

Maggie said...

We watched this in my sophomore year psychology class in high school. What a great film.
Ginger says in her book that she turned down this role.

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

Olivia DeHavilland is marvelous in this as she was in THE HEIRESS...I've never seen TO EACH HIS OWN though. Have you? Is It any good?

Lolita said...

Rupert Alistair:
Hehe, you're welcome!

Yes, she did! She also turned down the lead in To Each His Own, because she didn't want to play the mother of a 20-year old. De Havilland accepted the role and won an Oscar. Ginger said that De Havilland obviously had a better eye for good material than she did!

Actually, I haven't seen either of them yet! I look forward to it, though.

Elsie said...

A good but scary film. Reminded me of reading the biography on Frances Farmer; after I finished it, I was never so happy to be safe and warm in my own bed!

Sorcha said...

Hi! I saw this movie once and I was so saddened by it I can never see it again. Not much has changed in all these yrs since patients were treated that way. I think it will be a very long time before it does. I like your blog.