Saturday, 7 May 2016

I've Just Seen: The Snake Pit (1948)

The Snake Pit (1948)

Director: Anatole Litvak

Olivia de Havilland is up there with Barbara Stanwyck and Myrna Loy for my favourite actress of Hollywood's Golden Age. Unlike those two ladies, de Havilland was decorated by the Academy for her acting, and one of the roles she was nominated for was The Snake Pit. Parts of the film, including de Havilland performance, still feel fresh all these years later, though other parts of the script - particularly its psychology - are dated.

The Snake Pit starts wonderfully, placing us in the same head space as Virginia. We are detached from our surroundings, wondering how we got to this asylum. From there we learn about Virginia's life, and her traumatic experiences with the men in her life; the two important ones we see are her husband and Dr Kik. However, many of the most interesting scenes are between Virginia and the women in the institution, both the patients and the nurses.

de Havilland did her research for the role, and it shows. She has subtle mannerisms, and modulates her voice when the difference voices in her head come to the fore. The film is almost entirely from Virginia's perspective, and some scenes take us right into her mental state. The depiction of life in an mental institution was revelatory at the time, and even now is shocking to watch, particularly the room of women who are really, really sick, which is the titular 'snake pit.'

This is a very good film with a brilliant and rather underrated performance by de Havilland, who people seem to remember only for Gone With the Wind or being Errol Flynn's frequent romantic interest. As she is nearing her 100 birthday, surely it is time to look back at her filmography and acknowledge her place as one of America's greatest actors.


  1. Yes, she is definitely worth celebrating and this role is one she should be remembered for. I agree that the screenplay has some problems, but everything de Havilland touch in this movie is gold. Shocking is the right word for the conditions at the asylum and I sometimes wonder if we are much better off today. It is so much easier to just hide the mental ill away.

    1. Definitely one of her best roles: the only other I think equals it is The Heiress.

      The obvious movie to compare this to is One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest for its depiction of mental illness, a film that is similarly shocking for its exposure of awful practices.

  2. A magnificent film, truly. Olivia de Havilland was notable as someone who frequently took risks with roles. She wasn't afraid to do something really contrary to her glamorous image--both this and The Heiress come to mind as being what one would think of as out of character for someone of her stature and film background.

    The ending is too abrupt for me, but the build up to the last few minutes are pretty amazing. I'd love 10 minutes squeezed in before the last couple of scenes, but it's still pretty dang exceptional.

    1. Yes, I feel the same way about the ending. A bit more exploration of her recovery would have been much better, though I loved her character so much I did want things to work out for her.

      The only other actresses I can think of who were willing to de-glamourise themselves were Bette Davis and Barbara Stanwyck.