The Snake Pit

The Snake Pit (1948) movie poster

(1948) dir. Anatole Litvak
viewed: 05/17/10

File this one under “the mental illness movie” genre.  And even more explicitly, under the experience of treatment and incarceration for mental illness, the insides of the mental institution.  Believe it or not, it’s really quite a thing, a real psuedo-genre or subgenre.  I don’t even really know the proper classifications so I’m just riffing here.

The Snake Pit is one of the earliest of the films.  But you could technically consider The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) as a potential start to this.  But really, the idea of “the mental illness movie” as I’m calling it, the film is more sociological than purely surreal.  There is an aspect of documentation, the real experience of a real person, with a real illness, and the crazy, fucked up world of psychiatry and psychiatric treatments used to try to “cure” the person.  In truth, the film has more in common with One Who Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), Girl, Interrupted (1999), or Prozac Nation (2001), but could also partially include Changeling (2008), or even more radically, Shock Corridor (1963) or Spellbound (1945).

Actually, this could well do for an interesting enough analysis on its own.   But my real reason for watching The Snake Pit at this point was really to catch up on a couple of films that I missed in a graduate film class on “the women’s picture”, a genre of melodrama, the precursor to “the chick flick” and something apparently much more rich and interesting.  Unfortunately, I find that Vincente Minnelli’s The Cobweb (1955) is not actually available on DVD, which was the film’s partner in the class.

The Snake Pit is a good prototype of what I tried to describe initially here, drawn from a memoir of sorts, the direct experience of a woman in the 1940’s who spent 8 months in a mental institution.  The story is one of hope, in a sense, of a cure, or improvement of her ills, but also of the terror and madness of the depths of the institution itself, a prison for those whom society cannot absorb or care for, and the harsh treatment that can come from their caregivers.  Really, this could easily be an ongoing study, as psychiatry and psychology are such new sciences and what at any given time might have seemed a godsend of a solution is now visible for its flaws.

For instance, what illness does star Olivia de Havilland really demonstrate?  Schizophrenia?  She is treated with shock treatment and psychoanalysis, but a very paternalistic story is evolved.  How true to the time is such a story?  Is it still a success story?  What would the case be today?

Really, it’s a good film, strange and full of these types of questions, perhaps, for a modern viewer.  Why wouldn’t one find such an analysis of the history of 20th century psychiatry/psychology not be of value?  Even the treatments of today’s mentally ill, the over-medicated generation, might find that the whole evolution of the study, even through this Hollywood lens, somewhat fascinating.   As a film, from a genre perspective, could be looked at, analyzed, historically placed, given kudos for this or that, but this was my reaction, here.  I still quite wish that I could see The Cobweb soon.  It would give me some sense of partial closure.

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