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The Snake Pit (1948) – DVD Review

The Snake Pit DVD cover art


Written by Millen Brand, Arthur Laurents, and Frank Partos, based on the novel by Mary Jane Ward
Directed by Anatole Litvak
Starring Olivia de Havilland, Mark Stevens, Leo Genn, Helen Craig


  • Running audio commentary by film historian and author Aubrey Solomon
  • Movietone News shorts
  • Photo Gallery

Released by: Fox Home Video.
Rating: NR
Region: 1
Anamorphic: N/A; appears in its original 1.33:1 format.

My Advice: Rent it, film buffs should buy.

Pain and confusion control Virginia Cunningham’s (de Havilland) life. She is plagued by insomnia, memory loss, and wild mood swings. Since she and her husband Robert (Stevens) are not rich, he places her reluctantly in the Juniper Hill State Mental Hospital. There she must deal with her own mental illness as well as the madness of the other patients, the overcrowded wards, the overworked and burnt out nurses, electroshock therapy and cold water baths, and doctors who are more interested in clearing bed space than curing people. With the assistance of kindly Dr. Kik (Genn), though, she starts delving into her past for the sources of her pain. But the journey to mental health is never easy and Virginia is going to need every bit of strength to crawl out of The Snake Pit.

[ad#longpost]This movie demonstrates the old axiom “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” The movie honestly portrays a state institution that suffers from overcrowding, under funding, and employee burnout, the same problems they have today. While we rarely use electroshock or hydrotherapy treatments anymore, its widespread use mirrors the massive amounts of drugs we use now. Loved ones, then and now, are scared and confused by sufferers’ behavior. That all this could be portrayed in a movie during this time period is really surprising.

The director used some subtle techniques to get past the censors and gives the movie a feel similar to the German expression style. For example, he uses music to punctuate the switching on of the ECT machine. Still, the setting is kept realistic and doesn’t get too caught up in artistic flights of fancy. That doesn’t mean there aren’t some remarkable images, though, like a day room where the patients constantly walk around a carpet. And there is the constant sound of women moaning, babbling, and screaming in the background like the hum of an engine in an airplane to add to the feeling of dread and confusion Virginia feels.

De Havilland gives an amazing performance, shifting from mood to mood in the blink of an eye, constantly frightened by thoughts and feelings that she doesn’t understand. She even allows her looks to worsen as the experience of the insane asylum wears on her. The two male leads also do well given their limited roles as caring sympathetic authority figures. The mental patients have surprising depth, almost reminiscent of the bit players in Casablanca. You can almost sense their back story from just the few moments they have on screen. Now, of course, many mental institutions have closed either due to budget cuts, since patients now have the right to refuse treatment, or due to outpatient drug therapy and the very Freudian interpretation of Virginia’s problem may be outdated. The film doesn’t have the shock value it had for 1948 audiences but its solid performances and well craft direction have withstood the test of time.

Olivia de Havilland from The Snake Pit
If only I didn't need photo ID to buy real sinus medicine anymore...

Most of the special features are a little irritating. The news shorts from the Fox Movietone News are a problem since most deal only tangentially with the movie and its cast. It also doesn’t help that they really aren’t anything more than self-congratulatory pieces for the studio. The photo still gallery is not that illuminating since we don’t know half of what is going on. For instance, I’m assuming that the director is in the shots but I’ve never seen a picture of him. So how am I going to recognize him without some help? These galleries need captions.

Now the commentary is something else. The Fox Studio Classics series gets film historians for some of their commentaries. The one they got for this film gives some amazing detail about the differences between the movies and the book it’s based on, the actors, the crew, and plenty of the back-story of the production. It’s almost like getting a mini-lecture from a film history professor. I wish other DVD producers would follow suit. With the expert commentary and a movie that is emotionally powerful without falling into melodrama, The Snake Pit is definitely worth a rental at least.

Olivia de Havilland and Leo Genn from The Snake Pit
Olivia de Havilland and Leo Genn from The Snake Pit

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