Like Indiana Jones, Judge George Hatch is terrified of snakes, but he'll go to any lengths to rescue the beautiful Olivia de Havilland.
"Sometimes I think I'm not as sick as the others. But they say, if you think you're well, then you're really sick. If I say I'm sick, maybe that means I'm well. The horrible thing is, I can't be sure of anything anymore."—Virginia Stuart Cunningham
The Snake Pit is based on Mary Jane Ward's fictionalized account of her personal experiences during the time she was institutionalized. The book was a scathing indictment of the squalid living conditions inmates were forced to endure, the staff's indifference, insensitivity, and frequent brutality, and the primitive methods used to cure the mentally ill. The Snake Pit was an instant bestseller, and, two years later, Anatole Litvak (Sorry, Wrong Number) brought this grim subject matter to the screen with surprisingly successful results. The Snake Pit was nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director (Litvak), and Best Actress, Olivia de Havilland (Gone with the Wind).
The film opens with a close-up of Virginia Cunningham (de Havilland), melancholy and confused, not knowing where she is. Grace (Celeste Holm, All About Eve) strikes up a friendly conversation on the park bench where they're sitting, and sadly advises Virginia that she'll soon be leaving her because she's is being moved to Ward 1 and is scheduled to go home. Both women return to Ward 6, the medium-security level at the sanitarium, where Grace must still gently remind and guide Virginia through the strict rules and routines that have already been part of her life for several months.
The chief psychiatrist, Dr. Kik (Leo Genn, Quo Vadis), believes Virginia's amnesia and dissociative disorders can be cured using psychotherapeutic techniques, including narcosynthesis and hypnosis. But the horrid environment of the asylum—the unsanitary overcrowding, the constant moans and wails of other inmates, and the screaming threats of sadistic nurses—hinder any breakthrough. When her husband, Robert Cunningham (Mark Stevens Objective, Burma!) attempts to get her released, Virginia's panicked responses to a panel of clinical interrogators land her in Ward 12, and from there to "the snake pit."
"Here I was, among all these strange people, and at the same time I felt as if I were looking down at them from someplace far away. The whole place seemed to me like a deep hole, and the people down in it were strange animals—snakes! And I'd been thrown into it, as though I were a snake, too."
The vivid depiction of ice baths, shock treatments, and inmates desperately wrestling inside of straitjackets were pretty shocking images for 1948, and many remain so today. When Virginia is moved to Ward 12, the horrific atmosphere is a predecessor of Richard Brooks's stage and screen adaptation of Peter Weiss's Marat/Sade and Frederick Wiseman's documentary Titicut Follies, both released in 1967. (The latter film, by the way, was considered so shocking and revelatory that the filmmaker was charged with "invasion of inmate privacy," and the Massachusetts Supreme Court ordered that it be immediately withdrawn from circulation.)
The Snake Pit also touches on the social and economic problems of running a sanitarium: "This space was originally designed for 312 patients. Six months ago there were 537, and today there are 718." Other members of the staff question Dr. Kik's ethics and apparent irresponsibility for singling out Virginia as one of his "special patient." Kik's response is that "preliminary tests often determine a patient's potential to heal, versus those who have no hope at all of recovering." Just as Grace had been moved to Ward 1, pending release, Kik sees the same qualities in Virginia, and he would rather concentrate on a dozen or so inmates rather than spread and diminish his treatments over 100 or more resulting in no progress at all.
Litvak and screenwriters Frank Partos and Millen Brand also add some surprising humor to offset the depressing storyline. When Virginia sits in the wrong chair at dinner, she's promptly advised to take her assigned position. She retorts, "Oh, I'm so sorry. I wasn't aware there were place cards." Later, another well-dressed inmate tells Virginia her rich husband gave her the Hope Diamond. Virginia says, "Well, I have the Hopeless Emerald—and it carries the Cunningham curse." Her play-on-word use of "hopeless," and citing a "curse," indicates she's desperately trying to fight her disability in every way possible, and this is one of the reasons Dr. Kik finds her such a promising patient.
Dr. Kik's determination proves true at the end of the film, when Virginia assumes the role of Grace—the inmate who helped her survive—by befriending the haunted and haunting Hester (Betsy Blair, Marty), who is too terrified to even speak, and lashes out at anyone who tries to touch her. The way Virginia breaks through Hester's emotional and psychological vulnerabilities and earns her trust is one of the most cathartic moments in cinema.
Toward the end of the film, inmates from the male and female quadrants of the sanitarium meet for a monthly get-together and dance, one that will further test their post-treatment social and interpersonal advancements. The last song played is "Goin' Home," an American folksong adapted from Dvorak's 9th Symphony. In The Snake Pit, it becomes an anthem about freedom. Cinematographer Leo Tover (The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Heiress) uses a slow back-dolly-crane shot, from a close-up of the singer's face that eventually encompass the entire crowded auditorium. Editor Dorothy Spencer (Cleopatra) intercut this extended sequence for maximum effect by cutting to quick close-ups of the characters most touched by the song, emphasizing both Virginia and Hester.
Like Billy Wilder's Lost Weekend (1945) and Elia Kazan's Gentlemen's Agreement (1947), The Snake Pit dealt daringly with a socially significant topic for its time. The film can be viewed as simple drama, but thanks to Olivia de Havilland's brilliant performance, it can also be seen as both a "women's weepie" and a horror film. Adding powerful effect to the latter are the montage sequences and special effects by Fred Sersen (Wilson) and Alfred Newman's score hits all the right chords.
Fox's transfer is excellent and easily on a par with their other "Studio Classics" releases, including The Grapes of Wrath, Desk Set, and The Three Faces of Eve. The Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono and Stereo allow for crisp and clear dialogue; and Newman's powerful score resonates in both. The extras include an informative commentary by film historian Aubrey Solomon, five Movietone News Clips, a gallery of stills, and the original theatrical trailer.
Not guilty! You'd have to be insane to miss this classic Hollywood gem.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Film Historian and Author Aubrey Solomon
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