Three Great Asylum Films: 1. The Snake Pit (1948)

Later this month I’m screening two films at a former asylum in Peckham (CLICK HERE TO BUY TICKETS). While the location was never a mental institution (rather a sanctuary for retired publicans), I wanted to count down my top films set in asylums in the traditional sense. First up is 1948’s The Snake Pit, directed by Anatole Litvak and starring Olivia de Havilland… 



A woman sits on a park bench, questioned by an offscreen interlocutor. She answers him hesitantly, uncertain of the answers to basic questions (where do you live? Do you know where you are?). The camera pulls back. Her fellow speaker does not exist. So begins the tale of Virginia Cunningham (Olivia de Havilland). Ms Cunningham has been committed to a state mental hospital for unspecified reasons. We follow her during her treatment, learning the sources of her trauma, her interactions with the other inmates and with her doctors and carers. de Havilland’s tour through the various methods available to psychiatry at the time (hydrotherapy, occupational therapy, electro-shock and ‘talking cure’) allows us to see her in many different shades of self-possession, with the risk of hanging the majority of the film on her performance. de Havilland brings a subtlety and variety to a role that could have proved monotonous. Her haunting depiction of a woman on the edge earned her an Academy Award nomination.

The Snake Pit (1948)

One wonders how distressing the film would have been with the director’s first choice for the film, Gene Tierney. Tierney, who only half a decade later was institutionalised herself, played many roles with an intensity that goes beyond manic, almost vibrating with the difficulty of withholding herself. While it was pregnancy and not her mounting mental unease that excluded Tierney from participating, Olivia de Havilland had her own status as ‘difficult woman’ to contend with. During the 1940s, she fought a bitter battle to break the lock that the studios had over stars’ contracts. While her close friend Bette Davis had failed to break Warner Bros control over her in the 1930s, de Havilland succeeded (giving her name to the reformed California law), though she was essentially blacklisted by all studios for two years following her win.


This struggle directly affected de Havilland taking up her role in The Snake Pit. The studios now had a looser grip over stars and Olivia had greater agency over the scripts she could accept. The film was considered highly pioneering at the time for its frank depiction not only of the mental institution but for the underlying misogynistic conditions that result in a diagnosis as ‘hysterical’. Samuel Fuller’s Shock Corridor (which I wrote about here) feels largely of a piece with the film, both in terms of production design and unflinching (if heightened) realism. That the British censor felt it necessary to add a disclaimer explaining that all the players were actors and that British institution bore little resemblance to those depicted is testament to its power to unnerve. The cast and crew attended many institutions in their research, de Havilland being especially diligent in understand the conditions her character faced.

The Snake Pit (1948) 1

Olivia de Havilland and Bette Davis, wearing similar outfits in The Snake Pit and Now, Voyager (though Davis’s is a stylish reconfiguration of one she wore in her earlier spinster mode)


If one wants to compare the average level of discourse at the time about mental illness and its institutions, we can look to Now, Voyager from 1942. We see it star Bette Davis quickly blossom from petulant nerve case to charming debutant under the supervision of Claude Rains’ psychiatrist. The actual psychiatry is cosy and paternal, with Rains slowly peeling back the layers of her trauma and offering her koan-like slices of Walt Whitman poetry. Like Spellbound (released 1945), the psychiatric relationship is a palimpsest for the romantic relationship. The Snake Pit itself is not free from this dynamic, with Virginia’s defender substituting the role of her mostly absent fiancé. When she is delivered to his arms in the final scene, it is a jolt that we remember the life to which she has been attempting to return. While it’s unfair to expect as crushingly realistic a portrayal as A Woman Under the Influence in the 1940s, one must look to the general voyage (Virginia overcoming her personal difficulties) rather than its ultimate destination (being reunited with her fiancé) if the viewer is to look at this film kindly.


The father of The Snake Pit‘s view of psychiatry looks on benevolently on Doctor Kik’s treatment

Like Spellbound, The Snake Pit takes on a highly literal Freudian view of psychiatry. The mind is a puzzle and once the right pieces and recollections are present, complete recovery can be expected. The symbolism is often heavy handed, as when Virginia becomes distraught during her board review by one of her interviewers waggling his cigar too vigorously in her face.

The Snake Pit (1948)

The excavation of childhood episodes is similarly overly neat and clear, with a failure of maternal love and alienation of affection from her father the root cause of her later issues with men. Again, it seems harsh to criticise given the wider context of psychiatry at the time, which was still often dismissed as a pseudo-science or quackery.

The Snake Pit (1948)

One of the less reputable wards in the institution, filmed strikingly similarly to the tragic end of Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress

Where the film undoubtedly excels is in the cinematography. Anatole Litvak’s camera makes excellent use of crane shots and pans, but also captures de Havilland’s troubled features with a noirish dreaminess. There’s also many scenes that recall earlier depictions of madness, whether that be the last frame of Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress or Bosch’s Garden of Earthly DelightsThe latter provides one of the most enduring and disturbing images of this powerful and moving film, and explains the film’s title.

‘It was strange. There I was amongst all those people, and at the same time, looking at them from some place far away. The whole place seemed to me like a deep hole and the people in it like strange animals, like snakes and I’d been thrown into it. Yes, as though I were in the snake pit.’

The Snake Pit (1948)

A Boschian nightmare in reveal of the central metaphor of The Snake Pit

The Snake Pit (1948)


1 Comment

August 12, 2013 · 4:13 pm

One response to “Three Great Asylum Films: 1. The Snake Pit (1948)

  1. Pingback: Three Great Asylum Films: 3. Bedlam (1946) | Pangolin Blues

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