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Anatole Litvak 's interest in madness didn't begin with "the snake pit"
In one of his thirties French movies,"Coeur de Lilas" ,one sequence
depicted a person gone crazy and it was already impressive.
Some will say times have changed and the hospital which Litvak depicts is a thing of the past.Sure it is.But what could he have done?Just have a look at the scenes in an insane asylum in Mankiewicz ' s "Suddenly last Summer"(1959) or those in Georges Franju's "La Tete Contre les Murs"(1960)?A decade later ,mentally ill people were still regarded as monsters.That scene in "Suddenly..." where Elizabeth Taylor accidentally ends up with the raving mad women and which is not in the original Tennessee Williams' play was certainly influenced by "the snake pit" .Some will say the Freudian methods are childish and simplistic .They are for sure.But have a look at Gregory Peck's treatment in "Spellbound" (1945) or De Havilland's in "Dark Mirror" (1946).And I love all those movies I mention.60 years on.Think of it.People will not argue when they watch a school or a prison of long ago.That's why I do not understand the "It has not worn well" which too many critics (mostly European) use when they talk about Litvak's 1948 film.
One thing which has worn well is De Havilland's performance.After being Erroll Flynn's fiancée in (excellent) movies by Walsh or Curtiz ,she tackled much more ambitious parts after the war.She was never afraid to make herself ugly
or old ("the heiress" "hold back the dawn"),she and her peer Bette Davis were actresses ahead of their time ,not just pretty faces as too many contemporary actresses are today.It's no wonder if Davis named Meryl Streep "her successor" .
In "snake pit" De Havilland's acting should be studied by future actresses .She can express everything ,and the moments when she becomes a human wreck down in a "snake pit" (the snakes might be all those arms and hands)are the most impressive.
I saw this movie for the first time this morning on AMC. What an
outstanding movie. I'm somewhat embarrassed to confess that I have not
seen or heard of this movie prior to this time. I can't wait to rent it
and see it without editing or commercial interruptions.
I was so impressed that I had to find out more about the history behind the movie. In the process of doing so, I read the reviews and noticed quite a few comments about the poignant song in the movie and referred to as "Going Home".
As I was listening to the song, I knew I heard it somewhere before.
It's on the CD "Beyond Imagination" by "Opera Babes" under the title, "There's a Place". I bought this CD last year at Wal-Mart; hopefully, it's still available.
The beginning of this movie has Virginia Cunningham sitting on bench but her not knowing where she is. She soon finds out that she is in a mental hospital. She doesn't know why she's there. She doesn't even know her husband when he appears. The only allegiance she can form is with Dr.Kik,who she trusts. This is a time when mental patients were treated horribly. May 6th seems to be the underlying problem with her mental condition. Everyone she lost seems to revolve around this date, and on the out side, she gets completely paranoid when she knows this date is coming. Through Dr. Kik's compassion and shock treatments & psychotherapy, she gets to understand why she became ill. But,that's the beginning and end of the picture. What happens in the middle(all contained in the hospital) is a memorable performance given by Olvia DeHavilland, the treatment she gets, the other patients, the nurses,the darkness of the hospital all add up to, I think one of the best movies made.
Despite it's rather misleading title "the Snake Pit" offers a rare look into the world of mental illness and it's treatment modalities.Of course the state hospital system is nearly obsolite in America today.But in 1948 it was a stark reality!This film offers a view from all angles:the confused and frightened patient,her concerned and loving husband,the dedicated and determined doctor,and the hospital system itself.With it's overcrowding population,the bars and locks,the straight-jackets and shock treatments,and even the moments of humor and humanity!This movie takes you on a journey in only 2 hours which seems like a mini-series. The central character is the young and terrified Virginia Cunningham Stuart.For reasons that are never fully revealed she has a "nervous breakdown" and becomes a patient at the local state hospital.She suffers from memory lapses,mood swings,suspicious delusions,and is very frightened!The wards in which she lives are often filled with old and chronically mentally ill women.Her concerned psychiatrist Dr."Kik" believes that Virginia can be reached and helped to face her troubles.This is accomplished via shock treatments and deep psychotherapy ( remember this was before psychotropic meds!) But the world of the state hospital and her husband's attempt to rescue her prove to be larger obstacles!But Virginia does manage to overcome those obstacles and eventually become "well" enough to return "home" ( remember this was long before half-way houses and day-treatment centers!) From the harrowing and unforgettable portrayals to the expert cinematography "the Snake Pit" remains a true gem for moviegoers of any era!!
The Snake Pit will always be remembered for Olivia de Havilland's
outstanding performance as the confused Virginia Cunningham of Mary
Jane Ward's best-selling novel. The story depicts various stages of her
illness, setbacks and all, as seen from her viewpoint.
Others in the cast register strongly--Mark Stevens as her loyal husband, Leo Genn as a compassionate doctor, Celeste Holm as her good friend (whose ultimate lapse into a straight-jacket was cut from the finished film) and Howard Freeman as an overzealous examiner. Other bits are wonderfully played--Glenn Langan, Betsy Blair, Beulah Bondi, Natalie Schaefer, Ruth Donnelly and Jacqueline DeWitt. And of course, Helen Craig as a jealous nurse in love with Dr. Kik (Leo Genn).
Under Anatole Litvak's superb direction, it emerges as the most intelligent study of insanity Hollywood has ever attempted. De Havilland received the N.Y. Film Critics Award as Best Actress but lost the Oscar to Jane Wyman of Johnny Belinda. If ever there was a year when the winner should have been a tie, it was 1948! Both actresses were superb.
Summing up: Great film is enhanced by Alfred Newman's starkly dramatic Oscar-nominated background score which adds dimension to an already engrossing story that was a brave step forward in film-making, especially during the 1940s.
Trivia note: The DVD includes some insightful, very interesting commentary by film historian and author, Aubrey Solomon. Surprisingly, though, he omits the fact that Celeste Holm's part was cut so that she only appears at the beginning of the film in a few scenes. Later on, her character (Grace) was supposed to have a relapse and a scene was cut showing her in a straight-jacket at a time when Virginia (de Havilland) was in much better shape. Reason given was that the audience had already been through enough regression with Olivia and needed no more reminders of setbacks.
The title of this movie is taken from the practice, apparently common in >some ancient cultures, of placing people thought insane into a pit full >of snakes! Those cultures knew virtually nothing of the forms of >mental illness documented in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Even less did they know of psychotherapy. >This picture is remarkable for taking us right into a mental hospital and immersing us in the nightmare world of mental illness. Olivia de >Havilland's stunning performance in the lead role carries the entire >picture. The characters who surround her, however, are no less com- pelling. They remind one of the "street people" that one can see >roaming about in any large city. They are certainly just as pathetic >and arouse one's compassion just as strongly. >If there is a small complaint that I have with this movie, it's that the >Freudian perspective is a bit overdone. It is not necessary for us to see a picture of Freud above the patient's head, nor a cigar smoking psychiatrist! The movie does do a good job of showing just how rare >true psychotherapy is in these institutions, as well as the transformation that can result from it. It screams for--and deserves--all four stars!!!
In answer to another reviewer's recent question, the song "Going Home" is
derived from the slow movement of the "New World" Symphony by Antonin
Dvorak. I don't know where the recording of the theme song with words is,
but if you'd like to listen to the melody, get a CD of that
I was young when I saw this movie on TV, and it both terrified and moved me. How powerful it was, and how relieved I am to hear that it was not a twisted and contrived interpretation of the conditions inside mental institutions at that time. I am so glad that, since it is a true story, the woman improved and went on to lead a functional life--even to write a book about her experience!
Olivia DeHavilland did a stunning, well-considered, profound portrayal of the woman at the heart of this wrenching story. It was courageous as well as smart of her to take this role.
One of my relatives spent time in a mental institution, albeit a private, renowned hospital. I always worried about her, because although the institution portrayed in Snake Pit was a state hospital, seeing that movie was my first impression of mental health treatment. I know state hospitals, cash-strapped as they are, can have horrible conditions. Thank heavens the stigma attached to mental illness has faded.
Being the first Hollywood film to deal with the difficult subject
matter of the treatments of mental illnesses, THE SNAKE PIT is a
milestoneboth in cinematic and in medical history. In fact, the film
was so influential that it caused a change in the administration of
such hospitals in 26 different American states. Gone is the
sugarcoated, glamorized treatment of mental illnesses in previous films
like RANDOM HARVEST (1942) and SPELLBOUND (1945)here we see the
nightmarish, disturbing experiences of such a place as told by Olivia
de Havilland, starring as a guilt-ridden mental patient.
Olivia de Havilland offers a superb performance here, proving that she is undoubtedly one of the greatest cinematic actresses of all time. Her Oscar-nominated portrayal of patient Virginia Cunningham (nee Stuart) is one of the most poignant and sympathetic performances I've ever seenher gradual transition from insane to ultimately sane is completely believable here. As in THE HEIRESS (1949), Olivia sacrifices her beauty from such films like CAPTAIN BLOOD (1935) and DODGE CITY (1940) to give way to haggard, drawn eyes to reflect the anguish and unhappiness that Virginia has experienced throughout the months. I can't praise her performance highly enough, so I can't find any more words to comment on her performance. But I should leave room for the other performersincluding Leo Genn as a gentle doctor and Mark Stevens as Virginia's patient, loving husbandwho are also excellent in their roles.
As with the other masterpiece ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST (1975), this is not exactly an easy film for some to watchbut the film is so intelligently and sensitively directed by Anatole Litvak that it's really a fascinating film. The black-and-white cinematography, by Leo Tover (who also did THE HEIRESS), is astonishing. The editing, by Dorothy Spencer, is also first-rate and imaginative. Litvak was a master in these two departmentswatch SORRY, WRONG NUMBER (1948) and you'll see what I mean.
My complaints are minor: as much as I love Alfred Newman's other works as a film composer, I felt that his music score here was not as effective as I hoped it would bejust too melodramatic for my tastes. I felt the same when Miklos Rozsa, another favorite of mine, decided to use melodramatic music for another groundbreaking 1940s film, THE LOST WEEKEND (1945). For me, it just doesn't work to combine theatrical music in a realistic film. My second and last complaint is Virginia's childhood flashback sequenceit would've worked better if it were only a monologue, in my opinion, so that we could get an even better taste of Ms. de Havilland's incomparable acting skills.
One minor thing that really appealed to me was the use of classical music throughout the filmin the opening flashback scenes we hear the overture to Wagner's "Tanhausser" and an excerpt of Brahms' Symphony No. 1. Chopin's "Minute Waltz" makes an appearance here, too. Near the end of the film we experience a poignant rendition of the second movement of Dvorak's Symphony No. 9, here sung as "Going Home." Seeing the emotion on Virginia's face, as well as on the faces of the other inmates, in that scene is unforgettable.
All in all, this is a groundbreaking cinematic testament of a difficult subject matter and how someone experienced and ultimately survived through such a thing.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This is actually a very touching and disturbing film. Oliva D. turns in a spectacular performance teetering on the edge of insanity. You actually care for her character Virginia, rooting that she'll make a full recovery (of course she does) despite all the set backs she experiences. The electric shock treatment scene is very uneasy to watch. It's one of those scenes where you almost feel like you are going to be strapped down too. The supporting cast is quite good but the actors who make up the other "patients' are outstanding. These fine character actors gives this movie a sense of quiet dignity. The "Go'in Home" scene will bring you to tears. When was the last time a modern film engrossed you so much?
This film is one of those rare films which doesn't bore me for a second. It has lots of twists into mental illness, yet seems very believable. Great acting throughout.
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