The Snake Pit (1948)

“It was strange, here I was among all those people, and a the same time I felt as if I were looking at them from some place far away . . . the whole place seemed to me like a deep hole and the people down in it like strange animals . . . like snakes, and I’ve been thrown into it . . . as though I were in a snake pit.” A compelling if somewhat dated drama (especially after you view something like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest!) about mental illness that features an amazing performance by Olivia de Havilland, The Snake Pit was based on a Mary Jane Ward’s 1946 novel of the same name based on her own experiences as a psychiatric patient. The film opens with the schizophrenic Virginia Cunningham (de Havilland) sitting on a bench at a mental institution called the Juniper Hill State Hospital. She hears voices and doesn’t even recognize her husband Robert (Mark Stevens). Through a series of flashbacks, we discover the events that led to the aspiring author’s current state. The film expertly details the nightmarish conditions of the mental institution (Virginia receives multiple electric shock treatments, gets placed in a straitjacket and even has to deal with a “Big Nurse” wannabe). Leo Genn potrays the kindly, pipe-smoking Dr. Mark Kik, who helps Virginia. One of the highlights of the entire film is the scene at the dance social when all the inmates join an unbilled Jan Clayton as she sings a moving rendition of “Going Home.” Directed by Anatole Litvak (Sorry, Wrong Number), The Snake Pit was filmed at the Camarillo State Mental Hospital in California. The Snake Pit would make a good double feature with Samuel Fuller’s Shock Corridor (1963). Useless Trivia: The Snake Pit, which was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture (losing out to Hamlet) led to a series of reforms in mental institutions across the United States. In addition, de Havilland was nominated for Best Actress but lost out to Jane Wyman (Johnny Belinda) and Litvak was nominated for Best Director but lost out to John Huston (The Treasure of the Sierra Madre). The film did take home one Academy Award for Best Sound.

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