Where Forgotten Films Dwell

Welcome to this site! It exists for one reason: to preserve the memory of films that have been forgotten about or under-appreciated throughout the ages. Take a seat, read an entry, leave a comment. You might discover your new favorite movie!

Saturday, August 28, 2010

The Snake Pit

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.



  1. I suspect that the implication that desire for independence from the patriarchal system 'causes mental illness' (i.e. that only those who accept social gender norms can be considered sane) is a huge and intentional part of the film---even going back to the ancient world it was believed that lack of male dominance and overabundance of sexuality made women crazy and "hysteria" just comes from the Greek word for womb.

  2. Perhaps. I don't think that the film was misogynistic, though. If anything, it was critiquing those mindsets along with the institutions that 'treated" them.

  3. I'm not even going to go into the artistic side of what this film means because I just don't get it. :D

    This looks like a good one! I completely agree with what you said, regarding the exploitation of the mentally ill in films. I liked the movie "Awakenings" because they didn't exploit the patients. I also like "Radio" for the same reason.

    Thanks for the review!

  4. Anytime!

    I feel that most movies exploit the mentally ill for laughs or cheap drama-fodder. I think I actually mentioned that in my article..........

    Anyway, I am reminded of the scene from "Tropic Thunder" where Robert Downey Jr. says, "You went full-retard. That's why you went home without an Oscar." And that's so true. Hollywood, and the majority of other film industries, don't want to depict the mentally ill unless they have some redeeming quirk like the Rain Man or Russel Crowe's character in "A Beautiful Life." Most of the mentally ill don't have the luxury of having such entertaining quirks. Does that mean that their stories aren't worth telling?

  5. I agree. There is hardly a film that convincingly treats mental illness, much less from the inside.Thanks for bringing these two movies, Snake Pit and Clean, Shaven to my notice and I'm going to watch them as soon as I can lay my hands. I really find this article most interesting.

  6. Hey, no problem. If I can get just one person to watch a great forgotten film, then my work is done.

    I'd love to know what you think of my other articles. Maybe we could exchange blog links?

  7. Let's. I will browse and surf through your writings by and by and I see a good number of familiar titles in your side bar. What a pleasure to share, even virtually.

  8. Indeed, what a pleasure. Be sure to leave comments!


  9. Just finished Clean, Shaven. The auditory hallucinations are well done and the best part is the compassionate, rather than voyeuristic or clinical viewpoint. I have to see it again because of the interest the topic holds. I'll be seeing snake pit and read your review in detail after that, as I usually do. Thanks.

  10. Do you understand what I mean by saying that every shot and sound is from HIS point of view?

    One of these days I'm going to write an entry on it. It deserves to be recognized.

  11. Saw it today. What was striking was the the primitiveness of the mental health system at the time portrayed. Whether on the wrong side of the law or the arbiters of sanity, one tends to become a thing. The psychoanalysis and recovery seemed very naive.

  12. Well remember, it was only reflecting the medical advancements and cures available at the time. I'm sure that things have gotten better since then. It still doesn't excuse them, though.

  13. One of the best things in the movie was the song--Goin' Home--. It really articulates deep forlornness, abandonment and despair. But one of the problem of the mentally sick is so called shallowness of affect, inability to feel things deeply. I remember a guy who dreaded nothing more than losing his emotions. It's a great movie about being on the wrong side of the counter for whatever reason. That bit where she is deceived into being captured and then thrown into the "pit" is quite terrifying, but the picture of the "pit" with all those bizarre types was more medieval than modern. But I guess it represents a reality which still exists. There seems to be an unfortunate tendency to treat the mentally sick as subhuman. How horrifying to be straitjacketed--it would be a shot nowadays. You have correctly observed that what takes away the power of the film is the happy ending, but that is what makes it bearable. As a picture of mental illness, it is vague, generalised, non-specific and shallow. Putting the garland of insanity around a glamorous glorifies something that is actually endlessly bleak and hopeless.

  14. I know exactly what you mean.

    But you need to understand, the mentally ill CAN feel things. What they feel and how they feel it are what makes them crazy. A sociopath may not feel anything if he kills 20 people in cold blood. But if his pet cat gets sick, it could throw him into a month long depression.

    All in all, it was a fantastic film. It may have seemed exploitative at times. But you need to remember that it was a reflection of how mental asylums actually were back then, even in a country as advanced as the United States of America.

    Wow.....look at all these beautiful comments.........

    Warms my heart......

  15. But if his pet cat gets sick, it could throw him into a month long depression..

    Remember Buffalo Bill in Silence of the Lambs..?

  16. I can never watch this film again.Though it is superb and it has a happy ending with moments of joy, the mood is really depressing! The audience is seeing how a system is brutally treating this person, and after a few moments of that, it can get sort of disturbing that it stays in your mind. Especially that mean nurse with the typewriter scene..... brr.
    By the way, what happened when the doctor discovered the nurse caused psychological abuse? It's never mentioned what happens to their relationship after the incident. Maybe he broke up with her causing her to become Mrs. Danvers.... :0
    Thanks for the review and keep up the good work!

    1. Well, I've found that most films involving mental hospitals aren't exactly feel-good flicks...

      But thanks!

  17. Great review, I think De Havilland is a criminally underrated actor actually!

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  19. A very thoughtful review of an unfairly overlooked
    film. Saw it a few days ago, and was highly impressed.
    Clearly a massive influence on "Shock Corridor" and
    "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest".

    Can't imagine what the audience of 1949 must have thought of it. Years ahead of its' time.
    It speaks volumes when Olivia said this was her
    favourite film, yet it is rarely shown on TV......