Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Snake Pit

It's difficult to gauge the quality of movies that seek to inform their audiences after a few years have passed.  The Snake Pit, released in 1948, tackles some of the then-prevalent issues in America's mental institutes.  Obviously, things have changed a little in psychiatry and psychology since then (like gaining widespread acceptance), so a lot of the things this film argues against have already been overcome.  Does that mean this movie is not worth watching?  Well...

Virginia (Olivia de Havilland) wakes up and doesn't know where she is.  She is recently married --- or is she? --- to Robert (Mark Stevens), but she can't find him anywhere.  Virginia is surrounded by a large group of women who appear to be following orders; Virginia doesn't want to follow, but someone she doesn't know implores her to, for her own safety.  As she follows the group, they move into a building, then into a secure area and into a mental ward.  Virginia has obviously gone crazy, but just as obviously doesn't realize it.  Most of the staff in the hospital are rude and abrasive, many of the doctors are cruel and prescribe shock treatment regularly.  There is one doctor, a young upstart with some wacky ideas about the human mind, who wants to cure Virginia through psychotherapy.  With the help of Doctor Mark (Leo Genn), Virginia begins to piece together her life before the asylum and what caused her breakdown.  The title comes from an archaic practice for treating the mentally ill.  The inflicted would be thrown into a pit of snakes, reasoning that something that would drive a normal person crazy would do the reverse to a nut.

The most obviously successful aspect of this movie is the performance of Olivia de Havilland.  Playing a crazy person is always an opportunity for overacting (like Brad Pitt in 12 Monkeys), but she plays this role fairly low-key.  When I watch older movies, I often find that the female lead role is pretty bland and boring to watch.  While de Havilland's dialogue doesn't give her much to work with, she was able to carry the film through sincerity and sympathy.  This was Anatole Litvak's biggest critical success as a director, and it depended entirely on his work with de Havilland.  The rest of the cast is nothing special.  Leo Genn and Mark Stevens are faceless ciphers, just filling the film's necessary roles and adding nothing to them.  Celeste Holm is a little more interesting as one of the crazies, but she's more of a cautionary character than a three-dimensional one.  It is worth noting that the opening credits show that Alfred Newman and Leif Erickson are both members of the cast and/or crew.  I guess that makes this film both historically important and funny.

The main thrust of this plot is the importance of psychiatric treatment over punishing treatments.  That might sound odd now, but it was a relatively new idea in the 1940s.  According to this movie, shock treatment, isolation, badgering, and vindictive punishments are not the way to cure the mentally ill.  I'm not saying that's true (who doesn't love being berated in front of others?), but the film suggests that Freudian treatment is the path to sanity.

I get that this was an important movie when it was made.  It won an Oscar for Best Sound Recording and was nominated for five others, including Best Actress (de Havilland), Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay.  With all of those accolades, you would think that this would age well, like a fine wine or an expensive cheese.  It has aged about as well as a box of Better Cheddars would.  One reason for this is because, for better or for worse, film can be a snapshot of an era.  And, like a snapshot, you can look back and notice how funny people dressed, how lame their music was, and how their big social problems are non-issues today.  This happens a lot with "issues" movies; I have a hard time watching Philadelphia and Do the Right Thing for basically the same reason.  The performances are good and the movies were clearly important at the time, but since then our culture has acknowledged that the stances taken in these movies is the correct one.  "Issues" movies are made because they want to draw attention to their subject matter and show it in a different light; when society embraces that new take on the subject, the "issue" doesn't seem as bold as it once was.

Having said that, I would like to point out that this movie was nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay (The Treasure of the Sierra Madre won) because there are some goofy parts in this script.  When Virginia is discussing her courtship with her husband, she lists all the things they had in common: music, walking together and soda.  I am shocked that she could find anyone, much less a single man, with such deviant likes.  Let me just say that, if this was the pinnacle of compatibility in 1948, I am so very glad I am getting married now.  When Virginia is first placed in the mental home, she is given a dose of shock treatment.  She asks her doctor if there was any other way.  His response was "Yes, if we had more time."  Right.  Shock treatment is a quick fix, and psychiatric treatment is renowned for its quick results.  There is also a scene that looks like it is symptomatic of poor writing, but I did a few minutes of research and confirmed that it actually happened: insane asylum prom.  Apparently, it was totally acceptable for the men and women of the mental wards (the sexes were kept in separate buildings then) to mingle at dances.  Everyone seems to have been invited, including the violent patients.  It just goes to show...people back then were weird.

As a film that entertains, The Snake Pit doesn't hold up too well.  Olivia de Havilland does a good job in the lead role, one that still stands the test of time, but she is only one actor.  The rest of the film has aged poorly because the subject matter is no longer controversial.  The film is well made, though, and its purpose is clear.  This film works better as an educational look at how the mentally ill were perceived not too long ago.  Unfortunately, just because a film was once important does not mean it still is.

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