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It seems when they make a film about a mental hospital, you can be sure
it will be remarkable, and the lead performance will be Oscar Worthy.
Yes I,m comparing the Snake Pit to One Flew Over The Cuckokos Nest
again, but look at the similarities 26 years apart.
The average person spends very little time thinking about patients in mental hospitals, so a film like this, makes for fascinating viewing. And how can you lose with the Snake Pit? Miss De Havillad gives one of best performances in history. The patients themselves were harrowing. That must have taken some remarkable insight, to play the very sick ones. The treatment methods used such as cold baths, and electroshock, invite thought on the remarkable progress of psychotherapy. We are convinced men like Dr. Kik are responsible for this progress.
By and large this is one of the most important films of the 20th century. It is not only an achievement in cinema, but also in sociology.
Olivia DeHavilland gives another standout performance in "The Snake
Pit," also starring Leo Genn, Mark Stevens, and Celeste Holm. In line
with the interest in psychiatry after World War II, Darryl F. Zanuck,
always at the forefront of social issues, produced this film, directed
by Anatole Litvak.
DeHavilland plays a troubled, often disoriented woman with unexplained mood swings who winds up in a state mental hospital with no memory of her new husband (Mark Stevens). She becomes a patient of Dr. Kik (Genn) who patiently works with her to try and get to the core of her problem, and to do so, employs several rounds of electroshock therapy. Together they uncover suppressed memories.
One thing that's noticeable about the films of the golden age is their mastery of the art of the build-up, while today, screenwriters get to the point in the first 10 minutes of the film. "The Snake Pit" is very modern in this way, starting on a high note and working backwards into what brought this woman into the hospital. Given the story, it's very effective. It also keeps you guessing because the conditions at the mental institution, as well as the behavior of some of the staff and the patients makes one suspect something sinister is going on - kind of a "Shock Treatment" scenario. It takes a while to realize that Dr. Kik is on the level, a concerned and committed doctor.
The film is beautifully done, and who can forget the overhead "snake pit" shot toward the end of the film. The song "Going Home" sung by one of the patients at a dance is one of the best moments, as are the harrowing scenes of the electroshock therapy and the bath with the covering over it that DeHavilland is put into - the feeling of being trapped and having no control is pervasive throughout the film. With the advancement in medications today, one aches for the characters, trapped in illnesses often not understood or treatable.
Olivia DeHavilland is sympathetic and heart-wrenching as Virginia, a woman panicked by behavior she can't recall or can't control. When backed up against the wall, her voice changes and becomes harsh; she almost seems like a split personality. One believes every second of her torment. Leo Genn strikes the exact right note as Dr. Kik, a perfect combination of gentleness, concern, and professionalism. His scene at the dance and his final scene with DeHavilland are very touching and especially the last moments bring me to tears. Mark Stevens gives a sensitive performance as Virginia's handsome and loving husband who is loyal to her throughout her ordeal.
There has been much progress in mental disease and removal of much of the stigma. "The Snake Pit" reminds one of a more primitive time. Wonderful performances, direction, and a good story make this a true classic.
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 ***
After a two year hiatus from films, embroiled in a court battle against
Warner Brothers that would aid in the dismantling of the studio system
in Hollywood, Olivia de Havilland returned to the big screen with a
vengeance. Her first major success was TO EACH HIS OWN, which earned
her the Academy Award for Best Actress of 1946. She would later earn
another Best Actress Oscar for THE HEIRESS (1949). In between those two
wins came another victory, on screen if not with the Academy.
Much has been said on this site about the basic plot line of THE SNAKE PIT (1948). Other users have already provided several synopses, so I will assume that anyone reading this will know the basic plot points: a woman is in a state mental hospital, and she isn't quite sure why she is there. Really, that's just the jumping off point for this film.
As many other users have already mentioned, Olivia de Havilland is brilliant in the role of Virginia Stuart Cunningham, a woman grappling to come to terms with her situation in the proverbial "snake pit" of the state hospital system in 1940s America. The role of Virginia could have become a farce in the hands of a less-skilled performer, but de Havilland's sensitivity and intelligence aided her tremendously in this rendering. For instance, there are some scenes where Virginia's mood and emotions change several times in a matter of seconds. There are a couple of instances where these mood swings can come off as a little overdone, but in a role that could have easily become a stereotypical presentation of a mentally unstable woman, de Havilland's performance works. Her gift for creating a likable, sympathetic character (coupled with well-written, largely internalized dialogue) make de Havilland's performance more successful than not.
Cinematically, the true achievement of this film is that nothing is wasted in it. Every line and every scene has a purpose and is executed to near perfection. Each supporting character (the cast is rather large, with actors playing the parts of patients in the overcrowded hospital wards) has a very clear identity that is made known to the viewer. It is quite possible to walk away from this film wanting to know more about the lives and stories of the other women in the facility: What exactly happened to Miss Somerville? Why does the dancing girl dance around? What is the background of the woman who is rattling off legal jargon and trying to clear her name? While most films of this subject matter would glaze over the "extras," this one takes the time to make you feel like they are more than, well, snakes in some bottomless pit. They are there, and in a sense, they have as much purpose in telling the bigger story than the major characters in the film.
This film, as well as Mary Jane Ward's bestselling novel on which it is based, sets out to expose the public to the behind-the-scenes aspects of state mental facilities and treatment at the time. While production codes and censors would not allow all of the truths of the system to be exposed, what could be shown was shocking, especially by 1948 standards. This film was able to affect change within the system, and it helped start a dialogue about those who were being lost in the system.
On the very basic level, this is a compelling psychological drama. It has a main character with whom the viewer can sympathize / empathize, and there are other riveting characters who can elicit laughter and tears from the viewer. On a whole different level, however, this film is a true classic. It is well-done cinematically and has proved to be influential in the social arena. When a film can have a social conscience and still be so personal, it's really hard to go wrong.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Anatole Litvak's "The Snake Pit" charts the atypical view of
psychoanalysis prevalent in most classic films a.k.a - everything is
linked to one's childhood trauma, repression and guilt. That
shortcoming aside, "The Snake Pit" is a stark, often disturbing,
melodrama about life inside a mental asylum. It charts the dementia of
Virginia (Olivia de Havilland), a woman suffering from an emerging
psychosis. De Havilland certainly delivers a stellar and shockingly
dramatic performance in this apocalyptic vision of insanity under
horrendous conditions. Leo Genn plays the sympathetic psychiatrist to
whom Virginia's mental health is entrusted. Although it is through his
care and patience that Virginia's psychosis is finally laid to rest,
the film remains a sobering and critical view of the inner mental
anguish that, more often than not, is incurable and debilitating.
THE TRANSFER: Troublesome. The gray scale is presented at a well balanced level. Blacks are generally solid. But age related artifacts are sometimes glaringly present. Film grain, as well as edge enhancement and pixelization are present for an image quality that is rarely smooth and only moderately easy on the eyes. The audio has been cleaned up and is nicely presented.
EXTRAS: Fox Studio Line is about as skimpy on extras as is the rest of their output of classic films on DVD. One wonders why the distinction is made between "Studio" titles and just regular releases. Here we get a sparse audio commentary, some stills and theatrical trailers. Big deal!
Bottom Line: I recommend this film for its performances. The DVD is not up to reference quality or anywhere near what it should be looking like.
*** 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.
The first time I saw "Snake Pit" I was a little boy. The movie was as terrifying and intriguing to me then as it is now. Unlike the insipid and mundane Melanie from "Gone With the Wind", de Havilland gives an award winning performance as one of the thousands of mentally ill patients in a NYS mental institution. Helen Craig gives a bone chilling interpretation as Nurse Davis. She's a great example of someone in authority abusing their position. Watch for "Gilligan's Island" favorite, Mrs. Howell as Virginia's cold-hearted mother in the flash back scenes, and look out isn't that Celeste Holm playing one of the patients? All in all put this one on your must see list, and get ready for some fine acting.
Having been institutionalized myself, I know how shocking mental hospitals
can be. And this film and the performances are very true to form.
(Unfortunately most mental health care workers are not as gorgeous and sympathetic as, for example, Ingrid Bergman's character in Spellbound.)
The Snake Pit is directed by Anatole Litvak and adapted to screenplay
by Frank Partos, Millen Brand and Arthur Laurents from the novel
written by Mary Jane Ward. It stars Olivia de Havilland, Mark Stevens,
Leo Genn, Celeste Holm, Glenn Langan, Helen Craig, Leif Erickson and
Beulah Bondi. Music is by Alfred Newman and cinematography by Leo
Olivia de Havilland plays Virginia Stuart Cunningham, and film chronicles Virgina's time and treatment in the Juniper Hill Mental Institution.
"It was strange, here I was among all those people, and at the same time I felt as if I were looking at them from some place far away, the whole place seemed to me like a deep hole and the people down in it like strange animals, like... like snakes, and I've been thrown into it... yes... as though... as though I were in a snake pit..."
It's still today one of the most potent and important screen explorations of mental illness and its treatment. Backed by an astonishing performance by de Havilland, Litvak and an initially sceptical Darryl F. Zanuck (20th Century Fox supremo), led the way in bringing to the masses the subject and to treat it with stark realism. Quite often it's harrowing as entertainment, with Virgina's fractured mind laid bare under duress of treatments now seen as antiquated.
It's true enough to say that some of the story features simplistic motives and means, these come as a product of the time the picture was made. But with Litvak (Sorry, Wrong Number) and his principal crew members researching the subject thoroughly, the end result is an incredible blend of dramatic heartfelt suspense and rays of humanistic hope. As Virginia weaves her way through this maze of psychological discord, with flashbacks constantly adding layers to the character's make up, Litvak presents a fascinating portrait of asylum life and the people who resided there, both as patients and staff.
Some scenes are brilliantly crafted, either as visual expansions of the story or as shards of light in a dark world. One sequence sees Litvak track "dancing" silhouettes on a wall, and to then do a pull away shot upwards to reveal Virginia in the snake pit, the impact is stark in its magnificence. Another sequence takes place at a dance for the patients, where a rendition of Antonín Dvorák's "Goin' Home" turns into something quite beautiful, a unison of profound optimism that strikes the heart like the calm after a storm.
Leo Tover's (The Day The Earth Stood Still) crisp black and white photography is perfectly in sync with the material, and Newman's (Wuthering Heights) magnificent score bounces around the institution like a spectral observer. With de Havilland doing her tour de force, it could be easy to forget the great work of Genn and Stevens, the former is a bastion of assured calmness as Dr. Mark Kik, the latter as Virgina's husband Robert underplays it to perfection and he gives us a character to root for wholesale.
It has to be viewed in the context of the era it was made, but its influence on future movies and awareness of mental health treatments in the real world should not be understated. A brilliant production that demands to be seen. 9/10
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