Thursday, February 23, 2023

The Snake Pit (1948)

I’ve never heard The Snake Pit described as a film noir, but I’m going to call it noir anyway. Many films noir address social justice issues, and on that basis alone, The Snake Pit qualifies. And if one agrees that most films noir address existential issues of angst and loneliness, The Snake Pit qualifies on that point, too. I’ve never been a huge fan of categories, and this is another chance to break the not-so-hard-and-fast rules.

The film is based on a novel by Mary Jane Ward, who in turn based it on her own experiences in a state mental health hospital. The field of mental health was dismal, to put it mildly, in the 1940s, when The Snake Pit was released. From the film’s depiction alone, it’s a wonder that Ward survived her mental health issues and her stay in the hospital. I haven’t read the novel, but the DVD commentary by film historian Aubrey Solomon describes it as more detailed, more intense, and more discouraging than the film, and I found the film to be tough to watch.

In the spring of 2021, Library of America reissued Mary Jane Ward’s novel for the seventy-fifth anniversary of its original release. Click here to see an article and interview with Larry Lockridge, a relative of Ward’s, who wrote the afterword for the new edition. In the interview, he discusses the novel and the film, among other topics.

The film starts with a shot of birds chirping in a tree, and the camera pans down to a woman, Virginia, sitting on a park bench. She talks in turn to two men, who are revealed to be imaginary, and to another woman, Grace, who is sitting on the bench not far from her. Virginia doesn’t know where she is and believes everyone around her are strangers. Someone calls out and asks everyone to line up, and Grace takes Virginia by the hand and pulls her into line with several other women. Virginia thinks that they are visiting a zoo when she sees some women behind what look like prison bars. Then she is afraid that they are trapped in a prison. She isn’t sure if she is married, and she doesn’t recognize her husband, Robert, when he comes to visit.

(This article about The Snake Pit contains some spoilers.)

The opening of the film apparently shows Virginia as a recent arrival to the mental health hospital. Her husband Robert is there on this same day, and he is dismayed when Virginia doesn’t recognize him. Robert is at the hospital to discuss Virginia’s case history with one of her doctors, Dr. Kik (no one can pronounce Dr. Kensdelaerik’s last name, so everyone calls him Dr. Kik). The doctor pulls out a file with Juniper Hill State Hospital on it, and this is the point when viewers are finally sure of the setting. Until this point, viewers were seeing events more or less from Virginia’s perspective. Dr. Kik wants to go over Virginia’s case history with her husband because there’s so little in it. But her husband doesn’t know a lot about his wife’s personal history. He says that she never talked much about her family when he first met her and still doesn’t. Robert tells Dr. Kik about what he does know, and he starts with meeting Virginia at one of his first jobs after being discharged from the service in World War II, which is told in flashback.

On a subsequent visit to the hospital, Robert signs the consent forms for electroshock treatment. Virginia eventually has four of them. She also undergoes narcosynthesis treatment, during which she reveals more about her past and her fears to Dr. Kik. She had a boyfriend named Gordon who died in a car accident; Virginia survived the accident, and she blames herself for Gordon’s death. She also blames herself for her father’s death during her early childhood on May 12, and her mental health deteriorates badly on and around that date every year since.

Some of the treatment methods depicted in the film are disturbing to watch, so much so that I’m not sure I want to read the novel. The electroshock treatments were particularly difficult, but I also found the cold-water bath treatments odd and punitive: Patients are buttoned and restrained in the bath from the neck down, whether they like cold water or not. There is also a period when Virginia is straitjacketed, another restraint method that seems punitive, arbitrary, and even dangerous. The patients have little privacy and wander about at the mercy of the other patients and even the nurses and other staff members. In fact, the nurses treat the patients terribly. One nurse, for example, wouldn’t allow the female patients to walk on a large area rug in their ward simply because it was new.

The male doctors are portrayed as paternalistic. Most of them feel that they know what is best in all circumstances and don’t give much credence to patients’ feelings. Dr. Kik is an exception because he seems to care about Virginia’s welfare and treats her kindly. He consults with Virginia’s husband Robert, but Robert never enters the wards where the patients are housed. He doesn’t really know anything except what he can glean from seeing Virginia in communal visiting spaces and during doctor consultations. It’s not stated directly in the film, but I got the impression that once Robert brought Virginia to the hospital and signed any consent forms, he had little say in what happened to his wife. And any time Virginia spoke up, she was considered an unreliable source because of her mental health.

The DVD commentary by film historian Aubrey Solomon gives a lot of details about the making of the film and about the background of the original novel and its author. Here’s a list, which is extensive but certainly not exhaustive! The DVD commentary is well worth a listen.

The opening scene with Virginia and Grace shows that this was not a typical Olivia de Havilland film. Olivia Haviland, in the role of Virginia, is shown with torn stockings and a hole in her sweater, and she is disheveled and not wearing any makeup.

Olivia de Havilland did a lot of research for her role. She visited state hospitals and talked to doctors and patients.

Reviews at the time were glowing. The film handled a serious subject well as entertainment that worked.

The calendar syndrome applies to Virginia, whose symptoms get worse on May 12 each year. The calendar syndrome describes the effects of a traumatic event that recur on the same date each year.

The novel was like a diary, with descriptions of daily life from the point of view of one character. To make a screenplay for a film, characters had to be fleshed out and scenes added to make a story. Studio head Darryl Zanuck was good at this, both in writing and in film editing.

Twenty-six states changed their laws concerning the treatment of the mentally ill as a result of the treatment depicted in The Snake Pit. (Wikipedia also has some information about the impact that The Snake Pit had on legislation and social policy. Click here for more information.)

At one point in the film, Virginia locks herself in a bathroom to hide from the head nurse, Nurse Davis. The bathroom is clean, but that wasn’t the case in the novel. The bathrooms were dirty, there was no privacy, and the patients showered only twice a week. This information was part of the case against state institutions.

Until The Snake Pit came out, the public didn’t know what went on at state mental health institutions because they were off limits to visitors. Family members and relatives who came to visit were only allowed in certain spaces that were kept clean and well maintained.

Dr. Kik’s explanation of how Virginia got sick, starting probably in babyhood, is Freudian. (Freud and psychotherapy were popular themes in film noir.)

Solomon doesn’t call The Snake Pit a film noir, but I still do. It’s a great film, whatever you choose to call it, but it’s not a film that one recommends without some caveats. It is disturbing, even for a 1948 release, even in black and white.

November 13, 1948, release date    Directed by Anatole Litvak    Screenplay by Frank Partos, Millen Brand, Arthur Laurents    Based on the novel The Snake Pit by Mary Jane Ward    Music by Alfred Newman    Edited by Dorothy Spencer    Cinematography by Leo Tover

Olivia de Havilland as Virginia Stuart Cunningham    Mark Stevens as Robert Cunningham    Leo Genn as Dr. Mark H. Van Kensdelaerik (aka Dr. Kik)    Celeste Holm as Grace    Glenn Langan as Dr. Terry    Helen Craig as Nurse Davis    Leif Erickson as Gordon    Beula Bondi as Mrs. Greer    Lee Patrick as an asylum inmate    Howard Freeman as Dr. Curtis    Natalie Schafer as Mrs. Stuart    Damian O’Flynn as Mr. Stuart    Ruth Donnelly as Ruth    Katherine Locke as Margaret    Celia Lovsky as Gertrude    Frank Conroy as Dr. Jonathan Gifford    Minna Gombell as Ms. Hart    Betsy Blair as Hester    Jacqueline deWit as Celia Sommerville    Lora Lee Michel as Virginia at age six    Jan Clayton as the inmate singing at the dance

Distributed by Twentieth Century Fox    Produced by Twentieth Century Fox

Friday, February 10, 2023

Insomnia (1997)

The title alone—Insomnia—is probably enough to indicate that the film is noir. Anyone who has suffered from insomnia—and that probably includes most of us living through the pandemic—can identify with the disruption and disorientation that sleeplessness introduces into one’s life. The first time that I saw the film, which is years ago now, I didn’t have as much experience with insomnia. I wish I didn’t have that experience now, but it did give me a new appreciation for its effects on the character in this film.

The main character in Insomnia, the Swedish detective Jonas Engström, has a difficult time getting any sleep in the Land of the Midnight Sun. He has traveled to Norway, north of the Arctic Circle, to assist in the investigation of a young girl’s murder. The details of the case are unsettling enough to cause sleeplessness, but Engström is also affected by the elements above the Arctic Circle: the fog, the sunlight. It affects his ability both to sleep and to make decisions. Everyone else around him is already accustomed to the elements or has no trouble adapting, which makes his insomnia stand out more. The story is told from his perspective, so viewers see its effect on him more so than the other characters do.

Before Engström’s investigation starts in Norway, the film opens with grainy images of the young woman, Tanja, being beaten and killed. Her face is shown clearly, but the murderer’s is not. Her smile in the first shot implies that she knew her killer. There’s no sign of a struggle until the killer grabs her by the throat. After she dies, her body is wrapped in black plastic and carried off. The killer was likely prepared and/or practiced at this sort of thing. The percussion on the soundtrack sounds like a heart beating, a musical theme that is carried through the film.

After the opening credits and the grainy shots of the crime, the film cuts to a sky filled with light and the sound of a plane flying through the clouds. The scene appears to be shot from a seat on the plane. Then viewers see two men on the plane, Engström and his partner Erik Vik. Erick Vik has just awakened, with the plane’s captain announcing that they have crossed the Arctic Circle and are now in the Land of the Midnight Sun. Engström allows his partner to use his shoulder as a pillow. Engström’s insomnia apparently started before his arrival in Norway and gets worse afterward. In this same sequence, Engström blacks in the face of the murder victim in a xerox copy of a photo: He may also have a case of misogyny.

When the pair land in Norway and drive the rest of the way to their destination, it is revealed that Erik Vik suffers from memory loss. It’s a condition that should force his retirement, but Engström covers for him. The first time that I saw the film, I thought it showed one bit of humanity about Engström, but on subsequent viewings, it seems to be just one more instance of Engström’s ease at deception. He is so used to lying, and protecting his partner is the easier version of covering up crimes and errors of judgment.

(This article about Insomnia [1997] contains all the spoilers.)

As the detectives begin the investigation, they create a plan to bring the murderer out of hiding. They almost trap him, but someone accidentally alerts him to the police presence, and a chaotic pursuit commences. In the confusion and in the fog that creeps in around the area, Engström shoots his partner, who dies on the scene. Was it an accident? Did Engström really think that it was the murderer shooting at him when he returned fire? Or was he anxious to get rid of Erik Vik because both were the subject of a police internal investigation in Sweden? These questions seem easy to answer given Engström’s propensity for skirting the law. Here are two lists of his transgressions in the two related investigations, the killing of Erik Vik and the murder of Tanja:

Shooting on the Job of Engström’s Partner Erik Vik

Engström takes the gun from the scene and hides it in his pocket.

He shoots a dog with the same gun, then pulls the bullet out of the dog’s body and cleans it.

He replaces the crime scene evidence, specifically the bullet that killed Vik, with the bullet from the dog.

He frames a high school teenager for the killing of his partner by planting the gun that killed Vik in the teenager’s bedroom.

Murder of Tanja

Engström molests one of Tanja’s friends to get information from her about Tanja’s boyfriend and the older man that Tanja was seeing.

He breaks into Jon Holt’s apartment without a warrant and takes the man’s appointment book. Jon Holt is a writer of crime novels and a suspect in Tanja’s death.

He makes a deal with Jon Holt to cover up Tanja’s murder because Holt knows that Engström shot his partner and is willing to tell the police that it was not an accident.

When Engström is pursuing Holt through some wooden buildings lining the waterfront, Holt falls through rotting planks, hits his head, and falls into the ocean. Holt drowns while Engström watches, then turns away and does nothing.

It’s not just the murder investigation and the round-the-clock daylight that are taking their toll on the protagonist. Engström does more than cut corners here and there; he lies and deceives in almost every aspect of his life and work. Viewers are not given any backstory on Engström. He doesn’t express much emotion, and there are only a few hints that he suffers from any guilt at all, for example, when his deceased partner appears in his hotel room with a mouthful of blood, or when he sees someone in the search party who looks almost exactly like Vik and he does a double take to see the person clearly. But these are few and fleeting moments in the overall picture given of Engström.

The effect of the endless hours of light on Engström isn’t the only reason that the light is such an important part of the film’s plot. A comparison can be made between the relentless light and the relentless pursuit of the truth by Hilde Hagen, one of the Norwegian detectives who is also investigating the young girl’s murder and who is quite at home with the midnight sun and the search for truth. Hilde Hagen is assigned as the principal detective investigating the shooting of Engström’s partner, Erik Vik. She finds a lot of holes in Engström’s version of events. He claims to have seen Vik’s body lying face down in the water, for instance, but from the position he claims to have been in when he fired his gun, she knows that it would have been impossible to see that far in the fog.

Engström may be compromising his morals and his profession, but he does find out the truth about Tanja’s death, and the officers in Norway—all male except Hilde Hagen—celebrate his success and his reputation as an officer who always solves his cases. The investigation into his role in the accidental shooting isn’t fully resolved, but not because the film doesn’t resolve doubt on this point. Hilde Hagen finds the evidence she needs to prove that Engström is lying about the circumstances of his partner’s death, but she leaves the evidence with Engström himself. She leaves the Norma bullet (Norma bullets are used in a make of gun only Swedish officers use) found at the scene of Vik’s shooting on Engström’s nightstand just before he leaves Norway. It appears that he will be let off the hook for one death because he solved the murder of Tanja Lorentzen—perhaps because Hilde Hagen doesn’t want to fight the established vanguard arrayed against her when she will find it hard to prove that Vik’s death was not simply an unfortunate accident.

I was looking forward to seeing the U.S. remake with the same title that was released in 2002. I don’t usually enjoy U.S. remakes of foreign films, but this one is directed by Christopher Nolan and stars Al Pacino, Hilary Swank, and Robin Williams, four great reasons to recommend it. But even Al Pacino can’t compete with Stellan Skarsgård. Skarsgård inhabits the character completely, which is amazing considering how far Engström will go to solve his cases and protect his reputation. Maybe if I had seen the 2002 film first, I would feel differently because the U.S. film is a good one. It makes some changes that suit the different characters and the new setting in northern Alaska, but Stellan Skarsgård makes Engström so believable as a corrupt officer who is difficult to bring to justice.

In some ways, Insomnia is the opposite of noir. It takes place above the Arctic Circle, in the Land of the Midnight Sun, which is not the typical urban setting of many noirs. Glaring sunlight is used to accentuate Engström’s insomnia and its effects. Engström will betray anything, including his profession, to get what he wants. No one is asking him to compromise himself; he does it willingly, seemingly for the sport of it. It’s a dark and noir performance that is hard to beat. Engström will do anything to prove his murder case and to obscure his responsibility in the shooting of his partner. The film is told from Engström’s point of view, so viewers are with him during every step—and misstep—of the investigation.

One of the most poignant examples of Engström’s complete lack of moral compass comes during the scene where a suspect, a high school student, is being interrogated and that suspect breaks down in anguish because he has done nothing wrong. Engström watches impassively, knowing full well that the only reason the student was brought in was because of the evidence that he—Engström—planted. It’s a chilling scene, one among many.

March 14, 1997, release date    Directed by Erik Skholdbjærg    Screenplay by Erik Skholdbjærg, Nikolaj Frobenius    Music by Geir Jenssen    Edited by Hakon Overas    Cinematography by Eerling Thurmann-Andersen

Stellan Skarsgård as Jonas Engström    Sverre Anker Ousdal as Erik Vik    Gisken Armand as Hilde Hagen    Maria Bonnevie as Ane    Bjørn Moan as Eilert    Maria Mathiesen as Tanja Lorentzen   Bjørn Floberg as Jon Holt    Marianne O. Ulrichsen as Frøya Selmer    Kristian Figenschow as Arne Zakariassen    Thor Michael Aamodt as Tom Engen    Frode Rasmussen as the chief of police

Distributed by Norsk Filminstitutt    Produced by Norsk Film AS, Nordic Screen Production AS