#204. The Snake Pit (1948)

After hearing that podcast about Errol Flynn being a monstrous asshole I started to feel bad for Olivia de Havilland, who had to star alongside him as the romantic interest in both Captain Blood and The Adventures of Robin Hood, and so apart from wanting to celebrate The Snake Pit just for being really good (occasionally silly) movie, it’s got the added perk of seeing Havilland squeeze a juicy role for everything it’s got, completely stealing the show, playing terror, playing panic and rage and sorrow, romance. I was tryna think of other performances from the List that might compare. Ray Milland in Lost Weekend. Peter Lorre in M., maybe. Could be that I’m just marveling at the roles that look exhausting as opposed to the ones that’re soft and nuanced. Stuff with lots of screaming and weeping and thrashing. (Mark Z. Danielewski refers a lot to his father, Tad Danielewski, who as a director would let his actors perform in exactly that way, tearing up the scene and giving it their roaring all, and once the scene was done he would ask them if they felt good about it. They’d almost invariably say yes. Look at all this sweat, this heaving. And he’d say, “Good, I’m glad,” and then, “now that you’ve done a take for yourself, let’s do another take for the audience.”)

The Snake Pit opens with a woman named Virginia (Havilland) sitting on what appears to be a park bench. We hear her asking questions of herself in a disoriented voiceover. Where is she, how’d she get here, what does she need to do. (Reminiscent of the eerie final scene in Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine — which, similar to this, is an otherwise unremarkable movie save for how Cate Blanchette steals the show.)

Turns out she’s in a sanitarium. She’s been here for months. She’s experienced some breakdown that, apart from causing her to lash out once in a while, is totally fogging her short-term memory. The thrust of the movie is Virginia’s effort, with the help of Dr. Kik (Leo Genn), to explore her subconscious via psychotherapy in hopes of finding the origin of that trauma.

The Snake Pit — which takes its name from a section of the sanitarium where the most disturbed patients are clustered, almost shoulder-to-shoulder, in a giant room — comes almost immediately on the heels of The Secret Beyond the Door, which itself arrives shortly after Hitchcock’s Spellbound (not on the List, but I saw it as part of that Hitchcock course in college). All of these films are exploring psychotherapy, our susceptibility to the unconscious mind. perhaps this also goes hand in hand with the existentialist trend we’re seeing in European cinema, with Roberto Rossellini’s two postwar flicks (Open City and Paisan) and De Sica’s Bicycle Thief. maybe it’s also soaked int he same waters as these occasionally-fatalistic and almost-uniformly existentialist film noir detective stories from the United States.

What can be said for sure is that this area of the List has been curated to showcase some sort of shift in the sensibilities in the western world after WWII. Makes sense that the masses should find themselves looking inward, with all this evidence about Nazi horrors, to see what sorts of capacities for self-deluding evil reside in our heads.

Also pretty neat: these movies are starting to look like the 1950s. At least in terms of men’s fashion. The suits are getting bulkier, especially in the chest and shoulders, and appear to be tailored in a V shape. Also, god bless em, they aren’t wearing their pants so high as they did in the ’40s.

A personal digression, not much to do with the movie: Havilland’s character befriends, in the third act, a disturbed patient named Hester who, apart from being (apparently) mute, is prone toward violence. Fixes people with a steely lock-jawed stare to drive them away. Hester’s played by Betsy Blaire — who’s gorgeous. Silent and intense with really taut and agitated features — totally stunning.

Earlier in the week I tutored a student, let’s call him Ike, who’s tall and walks with his head down, his stride looking a bit like an anxious lope. He’s got light brown skin and a sharp strong jaw. Hazel eyes. Deep-set cheeks. Beautiful guy. Very skinny, too. He wears collared t-shirts tucked into blue jeans and he shapes his facial hair into a slim mustache. His voice is nasally and he asks lots of questions, is nakedly proud of his work wile at the same time prone toward hyperventilating, terrified, if he finds that he’s made any sort of mistake in it. While he and I worked together on revising his speech he made only scattered eye contact, and often scratched his earlobe with a long curly finger. He let slip toward the end of our session that his mom had written most of it.

My friend R. wants to be a speech pathologist and to work specifically with kids who have learning disabilities. She’s currently chasing her master’s degree online and volunteering at a service for kids and young adults with disabilities. I explained my session with Ike to her, described his characteristics, and she said it sounded like, apart from occupying some spot on the autism spectrum, he’s got this and that ailment, disorder, etc.

Note the deified Freud portrait on the wall.

Then, kinda mournful, I blurted out, “Man…he’s so handsome, though.”

She gave me this look then that made me realize I was deeming his affliction more tragic than the average person’s affliction on account of he’s so attractive.

A decidedly ugly sentiment.

It’s something I feel bad about, and nervous to even be mentioning here, but it was an educational moment that gave me a glimpse into my own biases, my unconscious mind at work.

Anyway. The Snake Pit is heavy and intense and good, Havilland is amazing, and it gives a cool glimpse into the burgeoning trend of 1950s psychobabble.


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