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Monday, October 31, 2016

The Snake Pit

The Snake Pit is a 1949 film about mental illness, and being that there has been a lot learned since then I found it fairly even-handed in its portrayal of the ill and mental institutions. But at the same time I wanted it to have a point of view--it doesn't condemn mental hospitals, despite the title, and it has the same easy answers that other films that treat this subject had, like the Hitchcock films Spellbound or Marnie.

Olivie de Havilland plays a young woman who finds herself in a mental hospital but she's not quite sure why she's there. I went into the movie thinking that perhaps she was wrongly committed, but no, she's got problems. Her husband (Mark Stevens) tells the doctor (Leon Genn) what happened. They met in Chicago, she abruptly left him, and they met up again in New York. They married, but she got very upset whenever the date May 12th was mentioned, and finally had a crack-up.

Directed by Anatole Litvak, the film chronicles much of the day-to-day operations of a mental hospital. Most of the time it seems pretty accurate--she's not in Bedlam--but she's in a public hospital, in a bed in a large ward. She comes across all sorts of women with various disorders, and only one nurse (Helen Craig) who seems to have it in for her. Genn digs deep into her past, and finds that she had a cold mother (played by Natalie Schafer, later well known for Gilligan's Island) and a father who was doting but died young. In these kind of dramas, there are easy answers (such as Gregory Peck's dream containing all the clues to who he is in Spellbound, or why Marnie hates the color red) and that's no different here, but at least Genn tells her that there is no one thing that has made her ill.

De Havilland moves from ward to ward. The higher the number, the worse off you are, and when she ends up in Ward 12, she calls it a "snake pit," but that's more a metaphor than an apt description. With that title you'd think the film would be an indictment of the psychiatric profession, but it's not. De Havilland is very good in the film--she had a very blank beauty that suits her well here. She wears a mostly perplexed look that fits her thoughts, which she speaks in voiceover. But it doesn't really add up to much. It's not as harrowing as one might think--she is forced into a straitjacket and put into hydrotherapy, but given the timing of this film, at no time do we really fear for her safety.

The Snake Pit is more a curiosity than an entertainment, the kind of film that would make for a good double feature with One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, a far better film about a mental hospital.

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