Wednesday, 22 February 2012

1,001 Films: "The Snake Pit" (1948)

Emerging out of that post-War moment where American society grew introspective and Hollywood, in particular, got into pop psychology in a big way (cf. Spellbound, Secret Beyond the Door), The Snake Pit is a diverting case study that opens with the outwardly respectable Virginia Cunningham (Olivia de Havilland) babbling away to herself in the grounds of her institution. Her condition is treated as a mystery: not the cherchez la femme of the then-contemporary noir film, but a kind of cherchez dans la femme, the clues in this instance being a certain touchiness around the date of May 12th, and whenever her father is mentioned. (Sabina Spielrein, the heroine of Cronenberg's recent A Dangerous Method, would doubtless jut her jaw in neurotic solidarity.) Interpreting these symptoms, and nudging our girl back towards normality, are the men in Virginia's life: the suave doctor (Leo Genn) who would become a staple of this mini-cycle of films, and a touchingly devoted husband played by Mark Stevens, an actor not coincidentally familiar as a detective or private investigator elsewhere in noir.

In later years, this material would most often be shaped into afternoon TV movies and shameless Oscar bait; here, though socially-minded lip service is paid to such issues as standard of care, it forms the basis for a crime (even prison) drama of sorts, compelled by keys in locks (literal and figurative), cots, crucial changes in governance, and the institution's roaring trade in cigarettes. The idea of a woman under investigation or interrogation extends to the way director Anatole Litvak stages a competency hearing as a courtroom confrontation; elsewhere, the film concerns itself with altogether practical solutions to its heroine's problems - the doctor compares her plight to not knowing where the light switch is in a darkened room: pure noir - which establish The Snake Pit (even the title sounds tough and urban) as a more grounded alternative to the wild, expressionist flourishes with which Hitchcock and Dali dolled up Freud. It's a little duller for that, in truth, but de Havilland - removed of her usual good-girl glamour, and genuinely stretching herself - appears more credibly tormented from within than the serene Ingrid Bergman, projected onto throughout Spellbound: her convincingly befuddled interiority nudges the film along its predetermined arc to recovery, escape, release.

The Snake Pit is available on DVD through Optimum Home Releasing.

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