The Snake Pit is a film about Virginia Cunningham, a possible paranoid schizophrenic played by Olivia de Havilland. She is sent to a mental hospital against her will by her husband. She’s having flashbacks about events from the past that have impacted her mental state. The hospital itself isn’t intentionally depicted as a horrific place (it was filmed at Camarillo State Hospital in California—which actually was quite abusive), but it comes off that way, with some abusive staff to match but also a few decent ones.
There’s loads of Freudian bullshit involved (the doctor even has a portrait of Sigmund in his office), but the film has something of an expose feel as well. Given it’s the late ’40s… SPOILER but part of her ‘treatment’ is that at the end she becomes a obedient housewife.
It’s based on a bestselling book by Mary Jane Ward, who had herself been an inmate, and it was one of the first films to serious deal with mental health, and it had a real-world impact, with legal changes recommended for the US system. It paved the way for better films like Shock Corridor, Lilith and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest that also dealt with life inside mental institutions.
De Havilland was not the first choice for the role. Gene Tierney (who would have been perfect) turned it down, as did De Havilland’s sister Joan Fontaine, Ingrid Bergman and Ginger Rogers. In fact, de Haviland picked up a few roles turned down by Rogers during this period, Roger is quoted as saying “It seemed Olivia knew a good thing when she saw it. Perhaps Olivia should thank me for such poor judgment”.
There are some good parts, but it’s its not a great movie by any stretch. The director was a Russian-born Lithuanian-American, Anatole Litvak, who isn’t that well-remembered. His best-known film was Sorry, Wrong Number, a Barbara Stanwyck-Burt Lancaster noir that he directed the same year as The Snake Pit. He was actually decorated by Stalin for The Battle of Russia, one of the ‘Why We Fight’ documentary series that Frank Capra also worked on. He helmed mainly war films, melodramas and film noirs. The Snake Pit could be described as a noir-tinged melodrama.
The disc includes commentary by film historian Audrey Solomon, Pamela Hutchinson discussing Olivia de Havilland’s career and Neil Sinyard providing an appreciation of the film. The original theatrical trailer, an images gallery, and a booklet with two essays, contemporary critical responses and more completes the package.