THE SNAKE PIT: Blu-ray (2oth Century-Fox, 1948) Twilight Time
I am reminded of an old adage in Hollywood, where a director passionately informs his producer that the picture they are about to make will lend ‘prestige’ to the craft of film-making. “You know what prestige is, don’t you?” the director inquiries, to which the mogul leans back in his chair and adds, “Sure…pictures that don’t make any money!” An ‘important’ picture, if not a terribly prepossessing ‘entertainment’, further marred by its tacked-on optimistic finale, director, Anatol Litvak’s The Snake Pit (1948) is an oft’ harrowing interpretation of mental illness and the fateful institutionalization of those writhing in its debilitating aftershocks. The picture is loosely based on Mary Jane Ward's 1946 semi-autobiographical novel of the same name, and follows the exploits of young newlywed and schizophrenic, Virginia Cunningham (Olivia de Havilland) who attempts, with varying degrees of success, to navigate a journey through the inner labyrinth of her mind, as well as the multi-level maze of bureaucracy in this state-run hospital dedicated to her wellness. The Snake Pit affords de Havilland, yet another opportunity – post Warner Bros. – to chew up the scenery. She was, in fact, Oscar-nominated (losing to Jane Wyman in Johnny Belinda) for this rather over-the-top caricature of burgeoning insanity. De Havilland is one of the finest actresses of any generation. But The Snake Pit is not her finest hour, playing to a full breadth of histrionics that, at times, appear more hammy than genuine and do the part no favors. Nevertheless, The Snake Pit is de Havilland’s showcase. So, it is a little disheartening to find other, as notable actors present, as they remain woefully underutilized in the Frank Partos/Millen Brand (with an uncredited assist from Arthur Laurents) screenplay. Chief in these loses is Celeste Holm, whose post-Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) Oscar win and film career were – depending on the source – either insidiously sabotaged by 2oth Century-Fox studio mogul, Darryl F. Zanuck (after she rejected his amorous advances), or deliberately tempered by Holm herself, who preferred stagecraft to celluloid – appearing only sporadically in films thereafter, and usually always, as the gal on the side, in service to other stars.
The other unforgivable loss herein is Leo Genn, as the understanding psychiatrist, Dr. Mark H. Van Kensdelaerik (a.k.a. Dr. Kik). Genn, who appeared on film consistently, playing second string from 1935 to 1975, just three years shy of his death from pneumonia, was a familiar face, oft overlooked, except for that mellifluous voice. He will forever be known as Emperor Nero’s arbitrator of good taste, Polonius in the 1951 costume colossus, Quo Vadis – his finest performance. In The Snake Pit, Genn adds a note of benevolence and invested empathy in Virginia’s recovery, particularly after she suffers a hellish setback at the hands of Nurse Davis (Helen Craig). Could Craig’s stern and steely-eyed Davis have been the archetype for Louise Fletcher’s Nurse Ratchet in 1975’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest? But I digress. The Snake Pit also features such prominent character actors as Betsy Blair (Hester), Beulah Bondi (Mrs. Greer) and Lee Patrick (as an unnamed asylum inmate); intermittently presented as tragic, weird or casual figures of fun; a waxworks, whose particular mental perspicacity is skewed, and, in need of fine tuning. And finally, there is Mark Stevens as Virginia’s ever-loyal and bewildered husband, Robert Cunningham. As congenial eye candy, Stevens cannot hold his own against these heavy hitters – certainly, not de Havilland’s shrieking and terrorized martyr to whom his unsuspecting publisher is inexplicably drawn in a prolonged flashback that merely fills run time, but adds no ballast to the plot.
The Snake Pit meanders through its purposeful, but dull vignettes, some, in flashback, meant to Freudian-ize the hidden reasons for Virginia’s psychosis, while others, told in the present, telescopically zero in on psychoanalysis’ fundamentally flawed methods of progression as Dr. Kik and his staff force Virginia through nightmarish ‘experiments’ with drug and shock therapy, to unravel her subconscious and thus, discover the proverbial ‘key’ to her locked door memories. And so, we work this case study backwards, from Virginia and Robert’s ‘cute meet’. She is an aspiring author, He’s a publisher’s assistant. Their awkward romantic gestation is…well…strange to say the least, falling in love, but, after a brief separation in Chicago – and unexpected reunion in New York – culminating in a quickie marriage and all sorts of complications that cause Virginia to become inexplicably remote and thoroughly despondent. Other flashbacks regress the audience all the way back to Virginia’s childhood. As a precocious six-year-old, Virginia (Lora Lee Michel) is unloved by her rather aloof mother (Natalie Schafer), but doted on by her loving father (Damian O'Flynn) who, after taking her mother’s side in an argument, is tearfully wished to die by the child – and, even more ironically – does – from a heart attack, leaving Virginia’s mother to bitterly blame her daughter for the loss. We later learn, Mrs. Stuart remarried to a man who was not very nice to Virginia, thus compounding the girl’s youthful insecurities about men in general, and falling in love with any one man in particular. Like peeling away the layers of an onion, this TripTik through Virginia’s shattered psyche is supposed to ‘make sense’; hearing voices, losses of memory, prone to teetering bouts of mania and melancholia.
Alas, attempting to tell the tale from the inside out, with externalized points of view from Dr. Kik and Robert, creates a bit of its own schizophrenic perspective. Which ‘interpretation’ is true? Certainly, the adult Virginia is steadfast that hers is the reality, even when reality itself intrudes upon her fantasy world to prove otherwise. Reality, as theorized by the men in Virginia’s life – has no first-hand knowledge of her roiling inner conflict. So again, it is only one piece of the puzzle we are getting. The Snake Pit opens with plain credits and an ominous overture composed by Fox’s resident composer, Alfred Newman. From here, we meet Virginia Cunningham, seated on a bench in the courtyard of Juniper Hill State Hospital – an exclusively women’s psychiatric facility. She is comforted by fellow inmate, Grace (Celeste Holm) who will turn up sporadically hereafter as something of Virginia’s sobering conscience. Led back indoors for treatment, we are hurriedly introduced to the other key players in Virginia’s mental saga; Dr. Kik and Robert - her husband. Each is devoted to curing Virginia in their own way. Virginia is, at first, so completely out of touch with reality she does not even recognize Robert.
Dr. Kik encourages Robert to reveal to him how he and Virginia first met. So, we get a backstory in flashback. Robert was working for a Chicago publisher when Virginia tried to get one of her stories published. Miserably failing to sell her story, Virginia instead sets her mind to win Robert’s heart. In no time at all, the two are inseparable, meeting for lunches at the cafeteria and attending concert hall performances of the philharmonic to indulge their mutual appreciation for classical music. Despite what appears to be a budding romance, Virginia abruptly vanishes after suffering what appears to be a bout of inexplicable anxiety. Uncannily, Robert and Virginia happen to move to Manhattan at approximately the same time. After providing Robert with the flimsiest of excuses for her absence (she just needed to ‘find herself’) the couple gets reacquainted over their love of music. Although Robert repeatedly proposes, Virginia acts thoroughly surprised at his last overture of love, insisting Robert has no intention of marrying her. Virginia frantically demands they tie the knot immediately. Three weeks later, they do at a Justice of the Peace. Alas, life with Virginia is never ‘just a bowl of cherries.’ Robert returns home from work to frequently find his wife gazing in a state of near catatonia on the balcony of their cramped apartment. She is unable to quantify what she has been doing with her time apart from him and becomes agitated when pressed on this point of query. Eventually, Robert has his wife checked into Juniper and placed under Dr. Kik’s care.
The rest of The Snake Pit charts a rather perilous journey toward recovery, examining Virginia’s progress as much as the asylum’s treatment of her and its other inmates. At Dr. Kik’s behest, Robert signs consent forms to put his wife through months of electro-shock therapy – Virginia’s resistance to this ghoulish experimentation, documented in a series of typed reports. In between each session, Dr. Kik tries to gingerly probe Virginia’s mind for clues to her past. He unearths a romantic dalliance with an older man, Gordon (Leif Erickson) that resulted in the man’s death in a horrendous car wreck after Gordon was distracted by Virginia’s sudden panic attack. Dr. Kik also begins to realize Virginia’s basically unhappy childhood has played a major role in her torturous adulthood. Because she had a terrible disagreement with her father as a little girl, Virginia blames herself for his sudden death from a heart attack – a belief, reinforced by her mother, who almost immediately distanced herself from Virginia and later, remarried. At Juniper, we find the hospital regimented under ‘levels’ of progress, distinguished by the floor where patients reside. The higher the floor number, the graver the prognosis. Under Dr. Kik’s care, Virginia gradually works her way downstairs to the First Floor – perceived as the final step in a full recovery. Robert suggests to Kik, perhaps his wife is well enough to be discharged and placed in the care of his mother. Regrettably, during a routine critical evaluation with Dr. Curtis (Howard Freeman), Virginia becomes belligerent and anxious.
Nevertheless, Kik proceeds to move his patient into a private room on the First Floor where Nurse Davis, jealous of all the attention Kik is lavishing on Virginia, taunts her into a hysteria from which she suffers a complete relapse. Locking herself in a private bathroom, Virginia is lied to by Davis and lured into the open; restrained in a straight-jacket and carted off to the 33rd Floor, a padded cell crudely referred to as ‘the snake pit’ and reserved for the most hardcore and incurable cases. Placed in Dr. Terry’s (Glenn Langan) care, Virginia meets several inmates whom she is able to acknowledge as being far worse off than she and likely never to recover from their maladies. This, seemingly, is Virginia’s first step toward a full recovery. Over time, under Terry and Kik’s combined care, and with proper treatment, Virginia steadily gains personal insight and self-awareness. The movie concludes, too optimistically, with Virginia’s complete mental recovery; departing Juniper with renewed confidence and Robert waiting to take her home.
Fascination with psychoanalysis, used in the treatment of returning soldiers after WWI (who suffered from what is today known as PSD) became a something of a pastime with the rich throughout the 1930’s. It was 'suddenly fashionable' to be in psychoanalysis – the cure-all for even the most commonplace woes. In the mid-1940’s this trickle-down ambition of the profession - to unlock and analyze the secrets of the human mind – hit movie screens like a sledgehammer. Whether coating the proverbial ‘pill’ in a faux caper, as in Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945) or the trappings of a frothy romance (Random Harvest, 1942), or even exploiting mental disease to explain away criminal activity (Crime Doctor, 1943), The Snake Pit falls right in the middle of a period rife with interest in the psychiatric profession. In hindsight, it just may be Hollywood’s first genuine aim at legitimizing mental illness and the scientific methodologies ascribed to combat its devastating aftereffects. Ironically, Fox contract beauty, Gene Tierney was first slated to star in the picture. Given Tierney’s later mental decline, had she appeared in The Snake Pit, it would have served as bizarre foreshadowing. A stickler for detail, director, Anatole Litvak amassed a wealth of research before embarking upon this movie, mandating that his cast and crew attend him at various mental institutions and lectures given by leading psychiatrists to fully comprehend their undertaking.
For her part, Olivia de Havilland immersed herself in case studies and observed with considerable investment, the ‘in vogue’ therapies of the time, attending actual patients undergoing treatment. 2oth Century-Fox, one of the first studios to shoot movies extensively on location, took its cast and crew to California’s Camarillo State Mental Hospital for crucial sequences in The Snake Pit. And Litvak, herein, needs to be commended for his documentary-like authenticity, illustrating, not only the process by which a patient’s mental wellness might be restored, but also, in exposing the bungled bureaucratic regimentation of institutions that allowed the race for a cure to occasionally slip through the cracks – never again to be found. Ironically, it is in this latter pursuit where The Snake Pit stumbles. Litvak’s movie is too much a work of fiction to be held up as a truthful testament. Employing the gritty style of one of Fox’s vintage police procedural melodramas (albeit, without the chiaroscuro lighting), The Snake Pit is too literal in its impressions, setting aside entertainment value to deliver its message.
Pointedly, there is too much truth in the fiction, and too much fiction in the truth – this tug o’ war in bi-polar opposition, creating a disjointed viewing experience that, even more ironically, falls flat and can seem, at times, rather tedious. The idealized ending where, having waged war on Virginia Cunningham’s psyche, both from within and without, the patient now emerges psychologically fit and able to return to a normal life without fear of a relapse, is too immediate and much too promising. Perhaps, upon viewing the rushes, Litvak realized what he had created was a far more insidious portrait of mental illness than audiences would prefer to see. At its bleakest moments, The Snake Pit is uncannily disturbing; the most terrifying of its vignettes, perceived from Virginia’s vantage when, locked in the large padded cell on the 33rd Floor with inmates, plagued by a vast assortment of mental diseases, left to meander, shriek and yowl in their collectively dark and chaotic despair, we are afforded a bird’s eye view of ‘the pit’: truly, rock bottom and a hopeless tomb from which our heroine may never emerge. To simply do an about face from this absolutely undiluted moment of despair and present Virginia as cured, smacks of insincerity, both for her condition and the psychiatric profession – the latter, perceived as mentalist/magicians, conjuring medical slights of hand to mesmerize the mind into restored competency.
The Snake Pit arrives on Blu-ray via Twilight Time, interestingly, within a month of U.K. third-party distributor, Indicator/Powerhouse’s competing Blu-ray edition. While Indicator’s Blu-ray is region B locked, Twilight Time’s is ‘region free’ – meaning, it will play anywhere in the world. Not owning the Indicator/Powerhouse disc, TT’s is nevertheless, something of a letdown. While Indicator has advertised their disc as having been sourced from a 4K remaster, TT makes no such claim. TT’s Blu-ray is virtually free of age-related debris and artifacts. But contrast levels appear artificially boosted, bleaching out fine details and depriving the image of any solid, mid-range grays; also, no deep blacks. Most everything registers in a mid-tonal gray; Leo Tover’s cinematography, looking very anemic. Film grain is consistently rendered and indigenous to its source. TT compliments this disc with an isolated score, showing off Alfred Newman’s compositions to their best advantage. We also get an audio commentary by film historian, Aubrey Solomon, Fox Movietone Newsreels and two vintage radio broadcasts, plus, the original theatrical trailer. Indicator advertises the same Solomon commentary. Thereafter, their extras diverge, to include a brief critical analysis of de Havilland’s career by film historian, Pamela Hutchinson, and Under Analysis – a 31 min. appreciation by Neil Sinyard, produced exclusively for Indicator’s Blu-ray, plus, an image gallery and a 36-page booklet, chalked full of being-the-scenes info, surely to delight the collector. TT’s features a thin insert with liner notes by Julie Kirgo. Bottom line: The Snake Pit is not a movie you will want to watch over and over again, despite some quality acting on display. TT’s Blu is a minor upgrade from Fox’s defunct ‘studio classics’ DVD; a tad sharper, without being artificially sharpened. It still looks tired, though. Regrets.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)