The Snake Pit
1948, 20th Century Fox Pictures
Directed by Anatole Litvak
Based on a novel by Mary Jane Ward
Many critics hail this film as the pinnacle of Olivia de Havilland's acting career. Although she did not win an Oscar for the role of Virginia Cunningham, she was nominated and it is worth noting that by 1948 standards, this was a groundbreaking film. It touched upon the idea that otherwise normal, regular everyday people could experience mental breakdowns that could find them in an institution for care and recovery. Before The Snake Pit, Hollywood always seemed to draw a line between "us and them." There were lunatics and there were the rest of us and the line between was never crossed.
Virginia Cunningham begins as a young 1940s style wife with a nice young husband and the perfect little life. She is openly concerned about being a "good wife" which makes the movie seem sexist by today's standards. However, these sort of references must be placed in their historical context. Her behavior grows erratic to the point where her husband has to struggle with the possibility that she needs professional help. Eventually he makes the difficult decision to drive her up to the state hospital in the hopes they can make her better.
The hospital is overcrowded and the attendants don't much care for Virginia. After all, what is her problem? She has a perfect little life at home, she's young, attractive and has no business going nuts. They abuse her and threaten to send her to the "snake pit" if she doesn't smarten up. The snake pit of which they speak is a special room where all the "really crazy people" are sent to just wander around openly, babble and do whatever their particular psychosis calls on them to do. On the other side is the kindly doctor, a compassionate psychiatrist who seeks to help her. It is something of a metaphor for Virginia's condition. As anyone who has ever had a "mental breakdown" can attest, there is the voice of reason on one side, reminding you that you need to hold it together, and the torturous voices tugging at you from the other side trying to convince you to stop fighting the tide.
If you are looking for insights into the field of psychology or treatment of the mentally ill, then this film is not for you. It will seem simplistic and unsophisticated in the light of what has been released in the genre since, as well as in the light of advances in the field of psychology. However, if you are seeking to have an nice intense evening of movie watching, The Snake Pit makes a solid companion piece to One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest but Pit should certainly be watched first in such a case.
Fact check and memory jogging done at allmovie.com
Most culled from memories of watching the film.