Plot: Virginia (Olivia de Havilland) has been committed to a mental institution, as her husband Robert (Mark Stevens) is concerned about her recent behavior, which has been erratic at best. The hysteria she has suffered seems to point to a mental breakdown, so he hopes she can be treated and return home soon, though as Virginia soon learns, that isn’t always so simple. The hospital staff is overworked and stressed, which results in less than optimal care, even from the workers who have compassionate, let alone those who aren’t as kind. Virginia spends time with Dr. Kik (Leo Genn), who hopes to uncover what might have led to her sudden breakdown, but even his gentle approach is ineffective thanks to the rest of the institution’s problems. Has Virginia been placed into a hellish existence that she is unable to escape, or will Robert, Dr. Kik, and perhaps other kind souls help her recover and return to her life?
Entertainment Value: Based on Mary Jane Ward’s book, which was itself based on Ward’s own experiences inside mental institutions, The Snake Pit is a dark, unsettling motion picture that poses some difficult questions and of course, some remain just as unanswered now as then. The nature of the narrative means this isn’t an inspiring or easy to process kind of experience, but it is a thoughtful, well crafted one that remains quite a powerful watch. A little melodrama creeps in at times, which seems out of place within the rest of the movie’s framework, but otherwise, The Snake Pit offers a serious, grounded approach. I’ve seen a lot of films that deal with mental illness, but the movies aren’t often interested in the grim realities of those involved, opting to overlook the harsher elements. The Snake Pit doesn’t flinch however and it takes such a personal approach, it makes watching Virginia’s struggles hard to endure, which really shines a light on what those living with mental illness have to cope with. That this was not only based on real life experiences, but likely similar to the experiences of countless others, makes the film feel almost like a horror movie at times. The pace is tense and aside from light melodrama that appears, The Snake Pit is a masterful and unforgettable movie, so it is highly recommended.
When Hollywood explores mental illness, the movies often lean into the melodrama or go over the top in the performances. This is because the mania and other mental issues can lend themselves to dialed up efforts, but in a serious, sincere picture like The Snake Pit, that kind of approach doesn’t work. A few of the smaller, supporting roles wind up going down the melodrama route, but most of the cast and all of the prominent players avoid that technique. Olivia de Havilland has the lead in this one and she is beyond excellent, in a powerful and memorable performance. She is able to convey the inner desperation Virginia feels, unable to piece together her own life, which has to be a terrifying experience. Her turn is able to show restraint and balance, so that we can see the unstable nature of Virginia’s mind, but her mental illness remains real and grounded, not an easy thing to deliver. But de Havilland is a master of her craft and her performance here is fantastic, carrying the movie on her shoulders. The cast also includes Celeste Holm, Ruth Donnelly, Mark Stevens, Leo Genn, and Frank Conroy, while Anatole Litvak was in the director’s chair.
The Disc: The Snake Pit looks gorgeous in high definition, thanks to this Blu-ray release via Twilight Time. The print looks nearly pristine, I couldn’t believe my eyes at first and the movie has simply never looked better. I could see little in terms of debris, marks, or other print concerns, but the image remains film-like, so that crucial natural texture is still present. The black & white visuals are razor sharp and crystal clear here, with superb depth and fine detail throughout. I knew this would likely be an improvement over the versions I’ve seen, but Twilight Time has surpassed all of my expectations with this release. The extras kick off with a film historian commentary track that details the journey from book to motion picture, then continue with an isolated music track, some vintage newsreels, two classic radio shows based on The Snake Pit, and the film’s theatrical trailer.