Psychological thrillers seem to have been in vogue in the forties with psycho-analysis as the big animal in the revelation. I have previously been rather negative about this sort of psycho-babble and that should make me a bit nervous going into a movie like “The Snake Pit”.
Fortunately this is not (just) a movie about cheap and convenient psychology, but rather about psychiatry, mental illness and society’s way of dealing with it. While there has been movies of other illnesses, alcoholism and thrillers taking place in or around psychiatric wards, no movie have previously described the experience of psychiatric treatment from the inside. Many movies would later follow with “One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest” as the most notable example, but in its day “The Snake Pit” was something new.
We follow a woman called Virginia (superbly played by Olivia de Havilland) who has been committed to Juniper Hill State Hospital, an institution for mental illness. She is confused and erratic, disappears at times even to herself and seem out of contact with reality. Her husband whom she married shortly before she was hospitalized loves her dearly, but she hardly remembers him and he in turn has no idea what is going on with her.
From then on Virginia is sent through different wards in the hospital. She encounters different sorts of treatment then in fashion and, horrid as they seem, they are nothing compared to the overcrowded and run down general conditions in the hospital. There are large rooms full of maybe 30+ beds and people everywhere. The rooms are naked except for bars and fences and the place looks nothing so much as a prison. This also seems to be the general attitude of the staff. This is a storage facility for crazy people and this have to be done as cost efficient as possible (that sounds oddly familiar). Some of the nurses seem sympathetic to the patients, but the general image is that of cool efficiency and superiority. The patients are inmates. The staff set the rules and enforce them as in a military camp or, yes, like in a prison.
But Virginia is lucky because in this hopeless place there is a doctor who takes an interest in her case. This is Dr. Kik (Leo Genn), whose real name is so hopelessly long and foreign that it has been reduced to those three letters. Where the other doctors seem more interested in budgets Dr. Kik is the responsible doctor with the, in this place rather revolutionary, idea that patients need time and attention to be cured on an individual basis rather than processed or stored. The narrative is that through interviews, hypnosis and shock treatment Dr. Kik manages to “solve” Virginia’s mental illness so she can be reunited with her husband.
That plotline is actually the weakest part of the story since it almost falls into the usual trap of simplifying the mental illness. It was the general idea of the time, at least in Hollywood, that if you would just face what made you sick you would be cured. It was just a matter of digging up the dirt from the subconciousness. That makes for nice and convenient movie plots, but reality is somewhat more complex than that. The movie know that and this is also why I can forgive them this transgression. There are more things to it than just the key. In fact it may be a vast complex of issues. You get better and you get worse and you may never get entirely out of it and that attitude in the movie is a massive step forward.
The better story here is in Virginias encounter with the system. She is this naïve girl who is confused, but wants to do the right thing. We are there in the skull with her listening in on her thoughts and so through her we feel the full impact of this place. We get an excellent view of what psychiatric treatment was like in the period and while there certainly is an element of social indignation in the way it is presented we are never in doubt that this is probably how it really is in those hospitals. That once inside you are lost to the world. As Virginia moves from ward to ward she see the upper class department with single rooms and privileges, obviously for the rich or easy cases, right down to rock bottom in the form of the horrible Snake Pit, a big room full of raving lunatic and mattresses on the floor. Where the patients wear rags and no hope of ever getting out. This is the place for the lost causes. In the story it happens to be the means to finally break through to Virginia, but I suspect the actual purpose of this place in the movie was to shock us.
Olivia de Havilland is the star of the movie, no doubt about it. She is stripped of all glamour and we see the naked soul of a woman. Her hopes and fear clearly reflected in her face as she face the horrors of her illness or the treatment of same or her blissful vacant joy when her mind wanders off. The portrayal of Virginia reminds me of Laura in “Brief Encounter”. De Havilland has that same connection with the situation of her character and it is just marvelous to watch. I read how she did her own intensive research on psychiatric patients and their lot and treatment and I suppose she really embraced the role. Olivia de Havilland was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress and it would have been well deserved had she got it.
I know that it is such a Hollywood thing to present people with mental illnesses as loonies who pretend they are someone else while they bounce around or babble away. Such wacky behavior makes good pictures, much better than footage of depression. I also know that presenting mental illness as a mystery puzzle that can be solved through diligent detective work is another silly Hollywood trope. Despite this I think this may be the best and most interesting look at the treatment of psychiatric patients so far on the List. It is painful and heartbreaking, but also with a lot of sympathy and understanding for the patients and even a bit of humor. I learned through the research I did for the movie that this film lead to a number of reforms on mental wards in America and that alone is a success. A place like Juniper Hill State Hospital could drive anybody insane.