Tuesday, June 18, 2013

The Snake Pit (1948)

Director: Anatole Litvak                               Writers: Frank Partos & Millen Brand
Film Score: Alfred Newman                         Cinematography: Leo Tover
Starring: Olivia de Havilland, Mark Stevens, Leo Genn and Celeste Holm

Olivia de Havilland is one of my favorite actresses. I loved her work for Warner Brothers with Errol Flynn, but after she won her freedom from studio contracts she worked for a number of other studios and did some of her best work in the late forties and early fifties. The Sake Pit was one of her Oscar nominated roles, playing a mental patient who can’t seem to remember who she is or anything else about her life. There have been lots of films about mental illness and institutions, most of them not very flattering. And however well-meaning, they all seem to wind up like yet another version of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. de Havilland does a remarkable job, but didn’t win because she was up against a major field of contenders at the Oscars that year.

de Havilland plays a woman whose husband has committed her to a mental hospital because of her erratic behavior and inability to understand what’s going on around her. As the film opens she is on a bench outside, hearing voices. The wonderful Celeste Holm is sitting next to her and helps her inside after their exercise time is over. The doctor is played by Leo Genn, who is something of a poor man's Cedric Hardwicke. The husband is Mark Stevens, who had a long career in films and television but in nothing very memorable. So, de Havilland is not surrounded by any major support and must carry the film on her own. After shock treatments seem to have improved her condition somewhat, Stevens pusher the doctors to release her, but a relapse keeps her in for a while longer while Genn attempts to figure out the repressed memories at the heart of her problem.

As with many of these types of films, there are several good character actors playing small roles as inmates, the most well known in this case is Beulah Bondi. Natalie Schafer plays de Havilland’s mother (before her own descent into the TV sit-com snake pit in Gilligan's Island), Mae Marsh plays a patient’s mother, and several more faces are recognizable in the hospital. Ultimately, it’s not very gripping drama. de Havilland does a tremendous job, but the revelation is fairly benign and anti-climactic. In the tradition of films from Bedlam to One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest, it seems as if the hospital itself is responsible for not allowing patients the ability to really recover. Officious nurses and doctors who seem to not understand what the patients need also contribute to an atmosphere of hopelessness. The Snake Pit is not quite the expose it promises to be. It’s a simplistic tale, and one that seems almost childish by today’s standards, but it’s worth it just to watch Olivia de Havilland.

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