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.
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.
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 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.
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 Delights. The 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.’
A Boschian nightmare in reveal of the central metaphor of The Snake Pit
So it’s come to this again. Another year has passed and I’m still inexplicably taking screengrabs of cute animals in high cinema. I haven’t been as broad in my viewing as in years past. A big chunk of my watching was Dirk Bogarde, whom I wrote my master’s dissertation about. There was no shortage of cute animals in his films though, as you’ll see. The man himself was quite a dog lover. The picture directly above is of the man himself in his pad with his hound, mildly terrifying an interviewer on the eve of the release of Victim in 1961. Enjoy this selection and here’s to many more in 2013! (See last year’s selection of the cutest animals in film). If there was ever any doubt, I’ve concluded the donkey is art cinema’s animal of choice (perhaps tipping their hat to the ‘saint of cinema’). Pulp cinema loves a dog, as you’ll see.
Doctor in the House (Thomas/1954)
4 stills from the beautiful Elgar (Russell/1962)
3 stills from Forbidden (King/1949), which follows British cinema’s abiding interest in the meddlesome scamp of a dog interfering in murder…
…as here in the educational short Partners in Crime (1949)…
…and here in Obsession (Dmytryk/1949) saving our hero from a dip in an acid bath
Dog washing in a bathtub in My Brother’s Wedding (Burnett/1983)
This goat stands in for Mae West against W.C. Fields advances in My Little Chickadee (Cline/1940)
Donkeys=high cinema proven again in Of Gods and Men (Beauvois/2010)
A mournful pup towards the end of Passe Ton Bac D’abord (Pialat/1979)
Pacino and a hilariously incongrous range of pets for an undercover agent in Serpico (Lumet/1973)
One of the last survivors of Bruce Dern’s madness in Silent Running (Trumbull/1972)
Bogarde teases this pup in The Sleeping Tiger (Losey/1954)
This dog tries to lodge a police complain in The Blue Lamp (Dearden/1949)
Everyone loves a monkey in The Entertainer (Richardson/1960)
This little yapper raises the alarm in The Hole (Dante/2009)
You can tell this is early Kubrick because he’s still got the heart to include a puppy in The Killing (Kubrick/1956)
These pups react to Bette Davis’s shoot out in the opening scene of The Letter (Wyler/1940)…
Diana Dors finds comfort on death row with a kitty in Yield to the Night (Lee Thompson/1956)
Youth in Revolt (Arteta/2009)
There are two notable absences of cinematic animals that I would have loved to have included. I watched Ben Wheatley’s Sightseers and Martin McDonagh’s Seven Psychopaths back to back at the London Film Festival and both have a central dog character (and both left me feeling greatness had been squandered but that’s another story for another time).
Best animal of my viewing of 2012 was The Awful Truth. An hilarious screwball comedy with Cary Grant and Irene Dunne from 1937. In most of the films I’ve selected here, the animals play an incidental, or at best a prop-like position. Mr Smith (played by one Skippy the dog) is a full character in this film, and is the focus of many brilliant set pieces. This is Mr Smith’s portfolio.