I will be watching all 5 nominees from 1948 before I move on to the next year. The goal here is to watch them and have an internal discussion among them to try to piece together a “history” of the year. Let’s get to it.
The metaphor here is both simple and literal: against a backdrop of the most wretched or insane, there’s always someone worse off. The snakes represent the conflict – any conflict – a person might have and the pit represents the environment within which the conflict takes place. The imagery is straightforward, too. Snakes, as plot devices, represent something unnatural and the pit represents unrelenting depth, the No Exit. It’s almost too simple, then, that 1948’s The Snake Pit tells a snippet of a poor woman, one who needs to be tossed into the snake pit to come back out. It’s an interesting concept, like film shock therapy but besides the magnificent performance from Olivia de Havilland, the story is too obvious and the message comes across as preachy rather than eerie.
Instead of a nebulous take on contemporary health care or a murky character analysis piece, The Snake Pit is instead a straightforward plot-and-potatoes story about a woman, Virginia Stuart Cunningham (de Havilland), who finds herself in an institution after years and years of abuse and psychological trauma had caused her to lose some kind of grip on reality. She interacts with a myriad of doctors, ethical and self-serving, with nurses, caring and maniacal and with other inmates, in various levels of sanity and protective custody. Not one of the interactions is dramatically challenging to the viewer nor do any of the situations force Virginia to become so unhinged as to seem like a real threat to herself or to others. We spend almost two hours watching and listening to a woman resolve daddy issues and fall in and out of “love” with her boring doctor. de Havilland plays what limited material she’s given with grace and class and a certain level of un-hingedness expected of her. Unfortunately, the performance wasn’t enough to save the film from the snake pit of boredom.
The film lacks both an emotional punch and a thematic strength befitting of the mental health genre, à la One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest or even Rain Man. A theory as to why could involve the source material: it just might not be interesting, or at least interesting enough to base a whole film of the semi-autobiographical novel bearing the same name. Nurse David is not Nurse Ratched; she’s cruel, but very much obviously so and she’s suffocating for the wrong reasons. Instead of mental torture by way of subtle and menial sado-masochistic torture, Nurse David (Helen Craig) is a failed caretaker, rejected by the doctor (Kik – Leo Genn) she almost knew didn’t love her, rejected by her patients she almost knew don’t respond to any kind of stimulus and rejected by this boring archetype, which, instead of strongly contrasting temporary dissociative Virginia, simply is a mean person. Another theory is the lack of clear direction from perhaps an odd choice, Anatole Litvak, who seems to have missed the power of creating a noir powerhouse, and instead deciding to do an expensive exposé on mental health by way of a strange choice in marginalizing women’s rights and role definitions. Not quite modern and less progressive, The Snake Pit suffers from its own thematic shortcomings: throw this film in a film snake pit and perhaps cure it of its disillusionment.
Buzz surrounding The Snake Pit maybe (?) led to a national review of the national mental health system. It’s not unprecedented for a national cultural event to affect goings on outside the filmsphere, but it’s unclear as for what the auditors searched. Unkind treatment of inmates? Lack of funding or misappropriation of funds? Some hazy regulation review? Considering that claims like these are wholly unsubstantiated firsthand, the production company may have had a hand in a quite progressive guerrilla marketing campaign. Sadly, this must have been the most interesting part of this movie. The Snake Pit lacked the moral upheaval of Johnny Belinda, the psychological forethought of The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre and the storytelling ebullience of The Red Shoes. Snake pit indeed.