The Snake Pit (1948)

The Snake Pit (1948), starring Olivia de Havilland and directed by Anatole Litvak, is a high watermark in the cycle of films from the film noir period, that may be referred to as 'the paranoid woman' picture.

There were many of these films, all bearing the same tropes, and all focused intensely on one female lead, who spends the movie in constant fear, living in a creepy house with a controlling husband, suffering a diagnoses of madness, and facing imaginary rivals and forces that seem to specific to her.

As an example of this form, The Snake Pit reached even further into the darks by controversially showing an institutionalised women, played by Olivia de Havilland, at the hands of a brutal psychiatric system, being given electro-shock therapy as a part of her 'treatment'.

Brutal is an apt enough term to describe what passed for a psychiatric system at the time. Although the methodology is now barbaric and out of date, film noir always did have a fascination with Freud, and with analysis, as new ways of interpreting and expressing social roles, behaviours and problems.

Inside the asylum, every woman is free to be her neurotic self. But life is a prison on both sides of the bars, because this is film noir.








Enter next, a man with a pipe, because the pipe for reasons specific to the era, became a cinematic shorthand for authority at some point in the 1940s. It's possible this may have had its roots in the Sherlock Holmes movies, beloved of that decade. 

What is it about a pipe that denotes authority? Or at least supposes authority? Nothing per se, other than the fact that on some mid-century stage, it became one of very few props readily available, to suggest concentration, and therefore perhaps wisdom. It's phallic of course, but then so are guns and cigarettes, so maybe this could be discounted. 


Looking properly at what a pipe might signify in the dream world, it stands for men and ideas as they  transcend and connect with realms beyond that of the mundane to acquire knowledge and of course insight. 

Smoking pipes then denotes intellect and authority, and Einstein and Bertrand Russell, as two examples, were often photographed with them.




The story is about a woman, Virginia Cunningham, played by Olivia de Havilland, who  is apparently a schizophrenic patient at a mental hospital called the Juniper Hill State Hospital. She hears voices and seems so out of touch with reality that she does not recognise her husband Robert.

Over time, Virginia gains insight and self-understanding, and is able to leave the hospital.

The film depicts the bureaucratic regimentation of the institution, the staff, some of whom are unkind and aloof, and others who are kind and empathetic. There are also many dramatic relationships shown between patients, from which Virginia learns as much as she does in therapy.



The portrayal of madness is every bit as interesting as its setting. But one thing that is impossible to avoid in The Snake Pit is the authority given to Leo 's pipe.

The pipe passes for so many different little patriarchal devices, tropes, body parts, ideas and mores that it is hard not to thrill a little every time it returns to the doctor's mouth.


Mark Stevens, in The Snake Pit (1948)


In creating The Snake Pit itself the sad and chaotic home for actors pretending to be 'mad', Anatole Litvak choreographs scores of ragged, wild women, sometimes lying still and at other times raging; some contemplate while other stare at the light, through the high bars.

When the book The Snake Pit was still in galleys, the president of Random House, Bennett Cerf, showed it to his friend Anatole Litvak, who bought the rights. 

Litvak was born in Kiev to Lithuanian Jewish parents and learned filmmaking in Leningrad. He began his career as a director with films in Berlin, Paris, and London. Moving to the United States, Litvak became known as the most prominent director of films with antifascist sentiment. Most notably, he directed Confessions of a Nazi Spy in 1939, alerting American audiences to the rise of Hitler. 

When the United States entered the war, Litvak enlisted in the U.S. Army and co-directed with Frank Capra the Why We Fight films, which Capra produced. In his contact with men who had survived combat, Litvak became interested in the psychiatric treatment of veterans and the plight of the mentally ill. 

After buying the rights to The Snake Pit, Litvak sold them to Darryl F. Zanuck at Twentieth Century-Fox. Zanuck had produced films with social conscience, most notably The Grapes of Wrath and Gentleman's Agreement. With The Snake Pit, Zanuck added mental patients to Jews and the poor as groups left out of the American dream.

Director Litvak insisted upon three months of gruelling research. He demanded that the entire cast and crew accompany him to various mental institutions and to lectures by leading psychiatrists. He did not have to convince de Havilland, who threw herself into the research with an intensity that surprised even those who knew her well. 

She watched carefully each of the procedures then in vogue, including hydrotherapy and electric shock treatments. When permitted, she sat in on long individual therapy sessions. She attended social functions, including dinners and dances with the patients. 

In fact, after the film's release, when columnist Florabel Muir questioned in print whether any mental institution actually "allowed contact dances among violent inmates," Muir was surprised by a telephone call from de Havilland, who assured her she had attended several such dances herself.

Much of the film in fact was filmed in the Camarillo State Mental Hospital in California.

Litvak was an early adopter and master of the whip pan scene transition device, and used it no fewer than eight times in this film.



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