Pit of Despair: “The Snake Pit”

I will preface this review with this comment: I did NOT like this movie. And that has absolutely nothing to do with the acting of Olivia de Havilland or any of the other stars in the movie. As a matter of fact, I wholly concur with the Academy that Olivia should have been given a nomination for Best Actress…and maybe even should have won. Having yet to see Johnny Belinda, I won’t comment on whether it was better than the winner, just that I was impressed.

No, what I didn’t like about the movie was how real it seemed. Which is a bonus for how well Anatole Litvak, de Haviland et. al. did in presenting the movie, to be sure. But it made me feel claustrophobic in it’s presentation. Maybe its because the character of Virginia reminded me of a woman in my past. There is something a little disturbing about Virginia, and even after the issues she has are resolved, I still felt vaguely unsettled by the character.

That and the film is listed as film noir, and my definition of film noir is rather more limited. I guess I went into it expecting some rather shady dealings to have been the cause of Virginia’s committal to the insane asylum (I watched this for the first time recently and only chose it because it had been listed as film noir). I learned one thing after watching, however; I need to be more open-minded about how I define movies.

The movie exposed a rather jaundiced eye on the situation in mental institutions of the time, according to the experts. And it experienced a bit of controversy as a result. Especially in England, where censors demanded a point to be made that all of the people in the movie were actors and that the situations portrayed therein were not indicative of the British mental institution system.

Several familiar faces appear in the film, including Natalie Schaefer (Mrs. Howell on Gilligan’s Island) as Virginia’s mother, Betsy Blair (Marty) as one of the inmates, Lee Patrick (Sam Spade’s secretary in The Maltese Falcon), and Glenn Langan (who was the titular The Amazing Colossal Man) as one of the doctors. As well, Ms. deHaviland’s main co-stars included Mark Stevens and Leo Genn as the two men in her life, her husband and her doctor respectively.

The Snake Pit (1948):

The movie was based on a book, written as a semi-autobiography by Mary Jane Ward which, I think, is sort of a composite of her own experiences in a mental institution as well as incorporated experiences of fellow inmates.

Virginia is a patient in the ward, a mental institution that only caters to women. Virginia herself is a bit schizophrenic. She hears voices and wonders exactly where she is. She has no concept of being in a mental institution and early on thinks she might actually be in a prison.

Over the course of the movie Virginia alternates from being lucid to being entirely in the depths of some fantasy world. She calls herself alternately Virginia Cunningham and Virginia Stuart (the first being her married name and the second being her maiden name). At times she admits to being married and at other times she insists that she is NOT married. This despite the fact that her husband, Robert (Mark Stevens) shows up to visit her.

Her main doctor at the facility is Dr. Van Kensdelaerik (Leo Genn), who, fortunately for us as well as his patients and colleagues, answers to the name Dr. Kik), is convinced he can help her and tries various methods, including some of the then acceptable treatments like electroshock therapy.

Over the course of the film we find out that Virginia has had some issues with men and that she blames herself for the death of two men in her life, her father and the fiancee she had before she eventually married Robert. It’s a long road to recovery. She first has to face the hidden psychological tremors of her past, and then has to accept them.

In the process she goes from the lucid part to the almost total insanity. At one point she is straitjacketed and sent to the ward for the worst of the patients (mentally). Every scene in this movie has some of the most believable characters. It’s hard to believe that Litvak didn’t incorporate a few actual patients in his film.

Olivia de Havilland made this movie work. It’s hard to think of anyone else who could have pulled it off so convincingly, but I noted that Gene Tierney had originally been cast but had to be replaced because she got pregnant before production started. Kudos to every one of the women who played patients in this film. Although most of them are unknown to us these days, they all stepped out of the comfort zone, in my opinion, and played parts that had no glamor or prestige. Still, as I stated before, even though I applaud the performances, it still made me feel extremely uncomfortable.

Jim Brymer, AKA Quiggy, runs the movie blog The Midnite Drive-In, check it out for more insights on other classic films.

  • Tita Beal

    My mother Helen Craig played the bad nurse. Friends have asked was she that mean to me? I had to reassure them that no, she’s just a great actress.