Release Date(s)1948 (April 16, 2019)
Studio(s)20th Century Fox (Twilight Time)
- Film/Program Grade: B+
- Video Grade: B
- Audio Grade: B
- Extras Grade: B
The Snake Pit, based on the best-selling novel by Mary Jane Ward, is a dramatic look at the treatment of patients in mental institutions in the 1940s. Virginia Cunningham (Olivia de Havilland) is suddenly exhibiting erratic behavior and mood swings from happy and cheerful to morose and paranoid. Her loving husband, Robert (Mark Stevens), realizes that she needs more help than he can give her and places her in an asylum. There, those who are supposed to look out for the welfare of the patients range from compassionate to disrespectful to authoritarian. The patients are at the mercy of their caretakers, good and bad.
The kind, thoughtful Dr. Mark Kik (Leo Genn) takes a special interest in Virginia’s case and devotes considerable time to her, despite overcrowding and understaffing. His tenderness is a balm, since other workers treat her as one in a herd of crazies to be told what to do and when to do it. Dr. Kik’s attention helps Virginia cope with the impersonalization of the institution and its rigid rules.
Ms. de Havilland delivers a superb performance as the confused Virginia. Director Anatole Litvak ordered that she be filmed without make-up and de-glamorized as much as possible. When we first see her sitting on a bench, staring blankly, it’s something of a shock. Her hair is disheveled, there’s a wide run in one of her stockings, and a gaping hole in the sleeve of her sweater. This is not the way female stars of the era were usually presented. With an expression that changes from sweet to volatile, she conveys inner turmoil through a distressed look that combines fogginess with pathos. Flashbacks to Virginia’s life before she was sent to the mental hospital show the actress’ ability to portray both a normal, happy young woman and a deeply troubled soul.
In one sequence, an abusive nurse tries to undermine Virginia because she resents the attention Dr. Kik is giving her. By taunting her until she responds with an outburst, the nurse manufactures a rationale for having her straitjacketed and relegated to the “snake pit,” where patients beyond help are sent. This confrontation is gripping, but even more intense scenes follow as Virginia undergoes hydrotherapy in ice water baths and electroshock therapy, both standard treatments of the period.
Most people in the 1940s were unaware of what goes on in mental hospitals. This film was their first exposure to what a state mental institution was like, and it was instrumental in motivating reforms in many states. Still powerful today, the movie has the feel of real-life horror as the viewer takes a dark physical and mental journey with Virginia. Her condition is never spelled out, perhaps so as not to bog down the movie with medical jargon.
The screenplay by Frank Partos and Millen Brand uses first-person narrative. With steadfast determination, Virginia struggles to regain her mental health but faces challenges posed by the very institution that’s supposed to cure her. The film was nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actress, and Best Director.
The region-free Blu-ray release, featuring 1080p High Definition resolution, is presented in the aspect ratio of 1.3:1. Visual quality of the black-and-white feature is sharp throughout, with no noticeable imperfections in the print. Leo Tover’s cinematography often has the feel of film noir with its ominous shadows, low-angle shots of patients behind bars staring blankly, barred windows, and dark corridors. The electroshock montage sequence has the look and sound of a horror movie as disoriented Virginia is subjected to several treatments and a loud piercing musical cue simulating a human scream accompanies the shots of the doctor’s hand turning on the current. By contrast, the flashback scenes are sunny, Virginia is wearing stylish clothing and make-up and frequently smiles. One of the best scenes lasts only a few seconds but its visual impact is memorable. By combining inventive camera work with special effects, director Litvak presents a visual metaphor of Virginia’s bewilderment. As she stands in the midst of a crowded room full of confused patients, the camera pulls back and upward, farther and farther, as Virginia’s off-screen narration tells that she felt like she was in a snake pit. The edges of a hole are optically combined with the ever smaller patients, making them look insignificant and more animal-like than human. It’s a powerful composition.
Soundtrack is English 2.0 DTS-High Definition Master Audio. English subtitles are available for the deaf and hard of hearing. Sound is distinct throughout, with dialogue dominating. During exterior scenes, dialogue can be heard well, with ambient street noise properly balanced. The incoherent babbling of various patients emphasizes the bizarre world into which Virginia has been thrust. She looks for meaning in what she hears and observes, but her inner turmoil only adds to her disorientation.
The unrated 108-minute Blu-ray release is presented as a Limited Edition of 3,000 units. Bonus materials include an audio commentary, Fox Movietone newsreel excerpts, two vintage radio shows, an isolated music track, the original theatrical trailer, and a booklet with a critical essay and photos.
Audio commentary – Film historian Aubrey Solomon notes that Mary Jane Ward, author of the 1946 novel The Snake Pit, spent 8 1/2 months in a mental institution and, though the book is not autobiographical, it is based on situations that existed or that she observed. Anatole Litvak, a friend of the publisher, bought the property when still in galleys and convinced Darryl F. Zanuck at 20th Century Fox to produce it. A brief overview of Olivia de Havilland’s film career before The Snake Pit is provided, and her 1947 Oscar for To Each His Own is noted. To research the role, she visited mental institutions and spoke to psychiatrists. Her scenes in the hospital were filmed without make-up. The actress “switches her mood so quickly and convincingly, it’s remarkable. She goes from lucidity to confusion, from elation to suspicion, back and forth so many times.” In story conferences with the writers, Zanuck “would rattle off ideas with machine-gun pace.” The Snake Pit was Fox’s second-most expensive movie of the year, after the $4.5 million extravaganza Captain From Castile, but The Snake Pit made more money, earning $5.7 million, the fourth-highest earning film of the year. At the time of its release, the public had no idea what went on in mental institutions. In one of the film’s “trademark scenes,” a crane pulls high up from a close-up of Virginia to make it appear that she is at the bottom of a snake pit. Livak’s filming method was European. He liked to shoot as much of a scene in a single take as possible, moving the camera forward and back, panning left and right as actors hit specific marks. This was time consuming and took a great deal of rehearsal for both camera crew and actors.
Isolated Music Track – The Alfred Newman score is heard with dialogue and sound effects muted as the film plays.
Fox Movietone newsreels – Five brief excerpts relating to The Snake Pit are shown.
1. New York Film Critics Honor Olivia de Havilland
2. National Magazines Make Film Awards
3. Showmen Honor The Snake Pit
4. Special Film Award Is Presented for The Snake Pit
5. Motion Picture Academy Awards Film Oscars
Vintage radio shows – Two radio productions of The Snake Pit are heard in their entirety.
1. Lux Radio Theater, April 10, 1950, starring Olivia de Havilland
2. NBC Radio Theater, January 8, 1956 (hosted by Vincent Price), starring Agnes Moorehead
Theatrical Trailer – The trailer is different from most coming-attraction teasers of the time because it focuses on the importance of the picture rather than its entertainment value. Music suggests that The Snake Pit deserves attention, and reference is made to the film’s source, Mary Jane Ward’s bestseller.
Twilight Catalogue – Twilight Time Blu-ray releases from 2011 through 2019 are listed in a click-on menu.
Booklet – The 8-page insert booklet features a critical essay by Julie Kirgo, 5 black-and-white photos from the film, and a color reproduction of the movie’s original poster.
– Dennis Seuling