• The Snake Pit (Twilight Time Releasing) Blu-ray Review

    Released by: Twilight Time
    Released on: April 16th, 2019
    Director: Anatole Litvak
    Cast: Olivia de Havilland, Mark Stevens, Leo Genn, Celeste Holm
    Year: 1948

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    The Snake Pit - Movie Review:

    Olivia de Havilland portrays Virginia Cunningham, a troubled woman confused by her surroundings, uncertain of what is real and what isn't, and struggles with people and a past she can't remember. A patient of a hospital of some sort, she sees bars around her, locked doors, and regimentation she is no fan of. She believes she is a criminal in some prison but doesn't remember when or how she got here. She soon learns, from her doctor, Dr. Kik, played by Leo Genn, that she has been at the hospital for five months and is married to Robert Cunningham, played by Mark Stevens. As her background unfolds, we learn there are unresolved feelings between Virginia and her parents that have affected her relationships with men thereafter.

    The Snake Pit is a PSYCH 101 masterpiece of sorts. As a psychology major myself, I could easily have written a paper on it for my Abnormal Psychology class had I known about it at the time. Its message strongly supports (or discourages, depending on what you take away from the film) Freudian psychoanalysis and the later (frighteningly) widespread use of shock therapy. The flashbacks from Virginia's childhood focus on her parents as an explanation for her troubles. There was a lot of implication of Freud's theory of transference, throughout, between Virginia and Dr. Kik, as well as some evidence of the Electra Complex in her childhood memories. Dr. Kik even has a photo of Sigmund Freud hanging in his office. Virginia's marriage to Robert seemed doomed from the start, but we are led to believe she will get the help she needed under Dr. Kik's care.

    Unfortunately though, there is an underlying message throughout the film that the mental health industry at the time was completely nuts. There are discussions among the doctors and nurses about not having enough time, supplies, space or help to properly care for patients. Patients are rushed in and out of shock therapy with little regard to details. A nurse asks Dr. Kik at one point why Virginia is being taken off of shock therapy and he tells her that he didn't have enough time for an alternate route and he was “only using it to establish contact with her.” “There are many things we're short of in state hospitals, but time, most of all,” he explains. Patients are transferred back and forth between wards based on difficulty level and there is a level of chaos apparent in all of them that makes the viewer wonder how many of these women really had legitimate diagnoses and how many were a product of this maddening environment.

    As someone who is not very knowledgeable when it comes to films from this era, I had no real connection to anything about The Snake Pit before seeing it. I knew Olivia de Havilland from Gone With the Wind, which I had seen once... maybe when I was a teenager? So that's really not any connection at all. That said, I thought she was perfect in this role. She portrayed a twitchy awkwardness and believably accurate facial expressions amazingly. She jumped back and forth between feeling utterly confused yet not wanting to convey that confusion outwardly totally naturally. When she was upset, I felt empathy for her and when she was enraged, I believed she truly was. Her vacant staring during her delusions and hallucinations seemed spot on. Without having much of an impression of De Havilland before this, she WAS Virginia Cunningham to me. The other stand out performance in The Snake Pit, for me, was Leo Genn. As Dr. Kik, he was equally dedicated and frustrated with his job. He seemed very professional, even when he was pointing out all the things wrong with the “system.” As a guardian angel, in a sense, for Virginia, you could see that he was used to this love patients felt for him, yet he was able to separate himself from it and often remain seemingly devoid of emotion. The two actors played well off each other and I'd be happy to see other films of theirs based on this one.

    The location(s) used for this film really added to its authenticity. There are several shots at the beginning of the film when Virginia is first trying to figure out where she is and what's going on of barred sections of the hospital and women inside looking out. While not prisoners, per se, one could infer these women are prisoners of their own minds or prisoners of a system that doesn't know how to help them. The amount of “craziness” going on in seemingly ever corner of the larger scenes adds to the film's message regarding the lack of space and resources available. At a hospital dance, a patient gives an emotional performance of a song about dying that further suggests the hopelessness of the situation. Everyone in attendance starts singing along. The way these larger scenes were shot really evokes the vastness of the problem.

    The film's score also adds a lot to the atmosphere. The music accompanying certain scenes gives viewers the feel of a thriller or mystery type film resulting in a darker feel overall.

    The Snake Pit - Blu-ray Review:

    The Snake Pit, which runs 108 minutes, is presented on a 50GB disc in an AVC encoded 1080p HD 1.33:1 transfer. Filmed in black and white, images are strong and lines are clean. Black levels are deep and contrast is properly balanced. No apparent compression or jitter throughout. Film looks great overall.

    The disc contains four audio tracks. The first two are English DTS-HD Master Audio Mono tracks. The third track in an isolated music track and the final track is an audio commentary. Optional English subtitles are available. Audio is clear, though the 2.0 track sounds a bit stronger than the 1.0 track and subtitles are on point. Balance is fine and there are no problems with any hiss or distortion.

    Extras include the original theatrical trailer, five newsreels on the film, two vintage radio shows and a commentary from film historian, Aubrey Solomon. The five newsreels showcase different awards and accolades received for The Snake Pit after its release. The first of the two radio shows features Olivia de Havilland and was originally aired on April 10, 1950 for Lux Radio Theater. The second radio show features Agnes Moorehead, with Vincent Price as guest narrator, and was originally aired on January 8, 1956 for NBC Radio Theater. Also included with this release are liner notes by Julie Kirgo.

    The commentary track by Aubrey Solomon is full of information on the film. He talks about author, Mary Jane Ward, and the history and surprise success of the book. He discusses the involvement of director, Anatole Litvak, and the difficulty in finding people to be involved in The Snake Pit because of its subject matter. He gives some background on Olivia de Havilland and tells us how she put a lot of research into the role of Virginia by visiting mental hospitals, observing patients and talking to doctors. “She really threw herself into the part.” He compares and contrasts elements of the film and book and cites some review quotes. Overall it's a very knowledgeable commentary but at times can be a bit dry with seemingly long pauses past the halfway mark. Still, it's worth a listen if you're interested in learning about some of the less obvious elements of the film.

    The Snake Pit - The Final Word:

    It doesn't often happen that I say I love a film that I review unless it's something I've seen before. I loved The Snake Pit though. The characters of Virginia and Dr. Kik were extremely likable and I wanted them to achieve all they wanted to succeed at. For a seventy year old film, it looks amazing. As a person interested in the subject of mental health - the bright side and dark side, as well - I found this film portrayed both well and was informative, sympathetic and meaningful.

    Click on the images below for full sized The Snake Pit Blu-ray screen caps!

    Comments 1 Comment
    1. Mark Tolch's Avatar
      Mark Tolch -
      Swell review!