Directed by Anatole Litvak
The United States of America
Hollywood has always had a tenuous grasp of subjects dealing with mental illnesses. Sure, they herald those films that deal with the insane and disabled as ground-breaking and monumental. An old Hollywood joke is that the only guaranteed way to win an Oscar in to play a retard. And yet, Hollywood, and the world film community at large, never really seems to agree how mental illness should be depicted. Some films, like Sam Fuller’s Shock Corridor (1963) and François Truffaut’s The Story of Adele H (1975) operated under the fallacy that sufferers of mental illness could turn “the crazy” on and off as the plot saw fit. Other films, usually character studies like The Rain Man (1988) and A Beautiful Mind (2001), exploit their mentally challenged characters for laughs or tears. By and large, what most film-makers don’t realize is that the mentally ill do not, and cannot, comprehend the world the same way sane people do. It’s easier to examine mental patients from the outside looking in. So film-makers treat the mentally ill as spectacles to observe and study.
The best films about mental illness are those that model themselves after the characters that they portray. One of the greatest of these is Lodge Kerrigan’s Clean, Shaven (1994), a film that was shot from the perspective of a schizophrenic. Every shot, every angle, and every edit reinforced the idea that we were intruding into the schizophrenic’s world and seeing things the way that he did. But because it didn’t exploit its main character and instead tried to view things from an objective standpoint, it did not receive the acclaim that other films in its sub-genre did. In other words, it did not win any Oscars.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking that the public just were not ready for a film that dealt so objectively with mental illness. There have been other films to explore insanity in the same manner long before Clean, Shaven. One of the first, and one of the greatest, was Anatole Litvak’s The Snake Pit. Based off the novel by real life psychiatric patient Mary Jane Ward, The Snake Pit was a daring exploration of the depths of one woman’s madness and the cruelty of the system to which she had been committed.
We are introduced to a young married woman named Virginia Cunningham (Olivia de Havilland) who has been committed to a mental hospital after suffering a serious mental breakdown. We follow her as she attempts to regain her sanity and her memory from before the breakdown. At the start, she cannot even remember who she is, where she is, and even how she got there. She is forced to share accommodations with other, sicker, patients. Some are amiable and easy to get along with, like the old woman who lives under the delusion that she is a wealthy debutante. Others are more violent and terrifying, like the woman named Marty who strangles anyone who touches her.
Incredibly, none of the actresses in the film were real inmates. The patients were played by expert character actors who had studied real patients in mental institutions for a period of three months prior to filming. Nobody took their research more seriously than Havilland who sat in on lengthy therapy sessions, watched hydrotherapy and electric shock treatments, and attended social functions held for the patients. The effect in the film is so realistic that if not for the non-linear storytelling, The Snake Pit could almost be confused with a dramatized documentary. The effect was so powerful that during the film’s release in Britain, the local censors added a forward to the movie that guaranteed the audiences that everyone involved in the film were actors, not actual patients.
The censors were also quick to add that British mental hospitals were very different from the ones depicted in the film. After all, Virginia’s stay was not a pleasant one. Although her sessions with kind Dr. Mark Kik are helpful and soothing, she is always callously dismissed to return to the mercies of the attending nurses. Using the term “mercy” is too generous for the sadistic nurses of the asylum. Some take obvious pleasure in administering painful treatments to Virginia. In one devastating scene they lure her out of her cell with promises of seeing her husband only to ambush her and submit her to electroshock therapy (a treatment which, since its inception, was illegal to perform without the patient’s consent). But the worst punishment of all is the threat of the “snake pit,” an open room where the worst cases are corralled and left to their own devices. The idea behind the sinister treatment was the belief that just as a normal person could be shocked into insanity, an insane person can be shocked back into sanity if placed in an environment that was hostile enough…
Relief for Virginia comes in brief breaks between the dual nightmares of incarceration in the asylum and her own mind. As her therapy progresses, the source behind Virginia’s illness are revealed. When she was young she was involved in a car accident that killed her father, leaving her to be raised by her strict and virtually uncaring mother. Virginia feels great guilt over the accident because she was the one who asked her dad to take her for a drive. When she was approached by her boyfriend with a marriage proposal, her deep-seated grief and guilt drove her to madness. Only when she accepts her role as a mother and wife does her life regain some semblance of normalcy. Some would argue that the film’s subtext suggests that the root of Virginia’s insanity was the desire to be independent of dependency on a man. Therefore, the film makes a powerful statement that only those who act the way society wants us to can be considered sane. It’s a powerful interpretation. But remember that The Snake Pit was filmed in 1948 when psychiatric cures were still relatively crude. In that time, the film’s proposed cure would probably have been accepted as medically sound.
But the film isn’t concerned with the fine print of Virginia’s mental illness. Instead, it focuses on seeing things through Virginia’s eyes. The plot advances in fragments of non-linear flashbacks which provide exposition and character histories, reflecting the state of Virginia’s warped mind and perception of the outside world. In moments of pain or psychotic intensity, the camera becomes more violent and wild. The music reaches a fevered, blistering pace (the film’s only Oscar win was for Best Sound Recording). For instance, the scene when Virginia has a relapse and is cruelly thrust into the snake pit is a masterpiece of timing, editing, and shot construction. At first, the camera follows Virginia around as she weaves in and out of the deliriously insane, trying feebly to escape their torment. Slowly, as the sound becomes louder and more unbearable, the camera slowly starts to move up from the ground until it is suspended from above, giving the viewer a bird’s eye view of the room. As the camera pulls further back, the patients shrink until they are tiny dots ripping each other apart in an inescapable confinement. Without using a single special effect or trick shot, a room of living human beings is literally transformed into a snake pit.
Just as movies usually had to back in the Forties, there is a happy ending. Virginia is cured, reunited with her husband, and leaves the cursed institution. But the film’s story doesn’t end with the last shot. The film was such an eye-opener to the public that it launched reform movements to change conditions in mental hospitals in twenty-six states. Therein lays the testament to the film’s power. Using what knowledge they had available at the time, Anatole Litvak and his colleagues created a genre defining film that caused positive change throughout society. Few films have ever achieved an impact so pronounced. Maybe that is why it has fallen by the wayside over the years. After all, who wants to see the reality behind mental illness and its treatment? It’s much too unpleasant. It's more fun to watch Dustin Hoffman recite Who’s on First to a weary Tom Cruise.