“THE SNAKE PIT still pluckily holds court after seven decades have elapsed."
Touted as the first film explicitly recounting a patient’s baptism of fire in a mental institution, THE SNAKE PIT, directed byAnatole Litvak and starring a doughty Olivia de Havilland (102-year-old-young as of today) as our protagonist Virginia Cunningham, still pluckily holds court after seven decades have elapsed.
Litvak’s opening swiftly plunges audience together with Virginia in her wandering mental state in medias res, a woman discernibly suffers from amnesia and dogged by hallucination (the voice in her head), has no inking of her whereabouts and the impending revelation of being locked up inside a psychiatric hospital for women shocks her to the core and simultaneously piques our curiosity, what is wrong with her?
The puzzle will be solved by a meandering but ultimately satisfying and commendably less lurid approach, through the intermittent flashback fragments, first from Robert (Stevens, a carbon copy of Dennis Morgan, the star in Sam Woods’s KITTY FOYLE, 1940), her clueless but all-too-understanding foil hubby, and in time, by way of the radical therapies at the behest of Dr. Kik (Genn, exceptionally transmits a clinical yet personable poker-faced sensibility), through Virginia’s own endeavor, whichaccumulatively dredges up her subconsciously suppressed memories, and traces the root of her condition in her Electra complex at a very young age and ensuing guilt germinates after the death of her father and another father figure.
The script conscientiously shirks any shocking-value manipulation, and patiently unfolds Virginia’s tale-of-woe with a limpid sense of scientific correctness (electro-shock therapy, hypnotherapy, hydrotherapy and straitjacket, the whole package is here) and a winning consideration toward our heroine, whose taxing waxing-and-waning battle (the lowest point is to being thrown into the titular snake pit, a place for those who are beyond help, with an added figurative signification of the extreme means subjected to them, to treat insanity with insane action) against schizophrenia earns the auspicious ending over the long haul fair and square.
The story’s positive overlook on Virginia’s recuperation doesn’t necessarily overshadow Litvak’s unsparing depiction of an overpopulated institution, regulated by its own echelons and bureaucracy, yet, in presenting the often vilified hospital staff, he maintains a perspicacious mind, there are good apples and bad apples, but mostly they are just trying to do their overloaded job and occasionally are afflicted by career fatigue, even the most callous one, nurse Davis (quite a scene-stealer Helen Craig), turns out to be driven more by her self-seeking consciousness than sadistic vileness. Time and again, the filmproves that each head case is an entrancing thespian per se (great cameos from Celeste Holm, Beulah Bondi, Lee Patrick, Betsy Blair and then some), but a striking vibe of sororal unity points up Litvak and co.’s humane disposition that overpowers any attempt of caricature or exploitation.
A de-glamorized de Havilland pours herself all on her character, brilliantly alternates between Virginia’s manifold frames-of-mind, running the gamut from intense distress to heart-felt compassion, and makes the movie a compulsive viewing even just for the sake of her performance alone, whereas in those quieter moments, she can also make her marks in imparting Virginia’s transient displacement with nuances and bonafides, a sterling showcase for her acting chops, and a compelling case study that doesn’t relinquish its rapier-like perception for the sake of dramatization, more importantly and edifyingly, THE SNAKE PIT alerts us that it is not that rare for a person to go off the trolley, damage might have be done from the very start.
referential entries: Milos Forman’s ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST (1975, 7.9/10); Litvak’s ANASTASIA (1956, 6.2/10).