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.
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
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