Saturday, June 4, 2011

The Snake Pit (Litvak. 1948)

"When there are more sick ones than well ones, the sick ones will lock the well ones up...."


After the train wreck experience that I encountered with The Color of Pomegranates, I felt that it was necessary to watch a film that featured one of the remaining living legends of the classic Hollywood era. After searching through the 1077, I came across a film starring a two time Academy Award winning actress that I had actually never even knew existed. The Snake Pit is an interesting and entertaining film that surprised me with its simplicity. In fact, that is what I liked about it most.

The Oscar winning actress referenced above is Olivia de Havilland. She plays Virginia Stewart Cunningham - a writer who suffered a severe mental breakdown. As the film opens, we find that Virginia has been committed into a hospital for the mentally ill. Her husband, Mr. Cunningham, is a profitable auditor who has lovingly stood by the side of his ill wife. At first approach, it looks like their relationship will be the center of the film, but director Litvak and screenwriter Frank Partos decided to make the film almost primarily about Virginia's struggle.

This means that the audience has the privilege of watching Olivia de Havilland in action for almost every single scene in The Snake Pit. Her performance is chilling and heartbreaking. The portrayal of mental illness was convincing enough to earn an Oscar nomination for Best Actress. This is my favorite part of the film, as the relatively simple storyline was overshadowed by an amazing performance by de Havilland.

In terms of storyline, The Snake Pit follows an unfortunate typical formula. Do not get me wrong, I am not a glutton for unhappy endings. I just feel that the storybook was not the book that this film should have been written in. While watching the treatment of some of the inmates, I go straight to the extraordinary documentary by Frederick Wiseman, Titicut Follies (1967). This is a cinéma vérité documentary that boldly exposes the mistreatment of inmates in a Massachusetts mental hospital. I feel as though The Snake Pit was partly trying to send the same message, but it was watered down with other storyline obligations.

This includes a very unusual love story, or something like that. During her breakdown, the happily married Virginia Cunningham falls in love with her doctor, Mark Kik. As she progresses mentally, you almost wonder if he is trying to keep her in the hospital. Does he love her back? We never really find out, but we do see them embrace in a dance. His special interest in her is an almost out of place aspect to the film, but he is also credited for Virginia's eventual recovery.

The title is in reference to how Virginia feels when she is put in the least well ward of the hospital. She says that she was thrown into a "snake pit" where everyone was far more sick than herself. The other patients give the film a much needed sense of realism and sadness. In one of the final scenes we see them all singing about their homes in unison. Most of them will never be well enough see to see their homes.

The Snake Pit is a wonderfully acted film. Every scene will give the audience something to remember, and Olivia de Havilland is worth the price of a rental. But this film was not simply a work for entertainment. It also was a major influence for the reformation of several mental hospitals all across the United States and United Kingdom. I like this film a great deal more than I expected.

The Snake Pit: B+

My Next Film...Clerks (Smith. 1994)

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