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Anatole Litvak
Olivia de Havilland, Mark Stevens, Leo Genn, Celeste Holm, Glenn Langan, Helen Craig, Leif Erickson, Beulah Bondi
Writing Credits:
Millen Brand, Arthur Laurents, Frank Partos, Mary Jane Ward (novel)

Virginia Cunningham (de Havilland) appeared to have an idyllic life - a nice home, a loving husband and prospects for a writing career. But something just wasn't right. Confusion, doubts about her husband's love, even violent outbursts led Virginia to be confined to a mental institution. She is put through a series of brutal treatments, including being forced into close quarters with patients whose disorders far exceed her own. The belief - the shock of the experience will return her to sanity. De Havilland's gripping turn as a woman desperately trying to return to normalcy in The Snake Pit is supported with an outstanding ensemble cast, including Leo Genn, Celeste Holm and Mark Stevens.

Rated NR

Fullscreen 1.33:1
English Stereo
English Monaural
Spanish Monaural

Runtime: 107 min.
Price: $14.98
Release Date: 6/1/2004

• Audio Commentary with Author and Film Historian Aubrey Solomon
• Movietone News
• Still Gallery
• Trailers


Sony 36" WEGA KV-36FS12 Monitor; Sony DA333ES Processor/Receiver; Panasonic CV-50 DVD Player using component outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Sony SA-WM40 Subwoofer.


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The Snake Pit: Fox Studio Classics (1948)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (May 31, 2004)

In 1948’s The Snake Pit, we get a look at psychiatric care circa the late Forties. We meet Virginia Cunningham (Olivia de Havilland), an apparently schizophrenic inmate at a mental institution called the Juniper Hill State Hospital. She hears voices and seems so out of touch with reality that she doesn’t recognize her husband Robert (Mark Stevens).

Dr. “Kik” (Leo Genn) works with her, and flashbacks show how Virginia and Robert met a few years earlier in Chicago. He worked for a published who rejected her writing, and they bumped into each other again in the cafeteria. Occasionally she continued to drop by the cafeteria so they get to know each other.

Despite their blossoming romance, Virginia eventually abruptly leaves town without explanation. Robert moves to New York and bumps into her again at the Philharmonic. After she provides a loose excuse for her absence and departure, they pick up where they left off, though she remains evasive and avoids his desire for marriage. Eventually, Virginia brings up the possibility of marriage but acts weird when Robert talks about doing it in a few weeks; she freaks if he won’t get hitched now.

They go ahead and marry on May 7, but Virginia acts erratically again. She can’t sleep and loses touch with reality, as she feels it’s November and snaps when Robert corrects her. She soon goes off the deep end, and we observe that there seems to be some deeper meaning to May 12; that’s the day she goes bonkers as well as the day she left Chicago earlier.

The rest of the film follows her therapy. Dr. Kik puts her through shock treatment and other forms of analysis including hypnotherapy. Dr. Kik wants to get to the “causes of her unconscious rejection”, so we watch those processes. The film includes many flashbacks, as we see her earlier failed engagement to Gordon (Leif Erickson) as well as childhood concerns. The film shows her progress and what happens to her along the way.

Pit doesn’t just present a story about schizophrenia - it’s a darned schizophrenic little flick itself. The story can’t quite decide if it regards psychology as a boon or a bane. Actually, maybe that’s a reasonable attitude. Heck, I work as a psychologist, but I won’t present the field as being a force for constant good, especially given the fact that what we think is right one day turns wrong the next, and vice versa.

Still, those elements make Pit look inadvertently amusing as it embraces some sides of psychology and rejects others. The movie varies from the kind, nurturing and insightful Dr. Kik and the cruel, uncaring nurses. What broader statement does the film attempt to make? I have no idea. It jumps from one viewpoint to another so abruptly that it makes no sense.

This inconsistency does cause some real problems. While the movie wants us to accept Dr. Kik as almost all-knowing and universally helpful, he also sends her for shock treatment. The film seems to convey that this assists and opens her up for later progress, but it gets depicted in a very strident manner. With blaring music and awful visuals, these scenes feel like they come straight out of a horror flick. Are we supposed to view shock treatment as a necessary step or an appallingly primitive choice? Again, I don’t know, for the movie never gives us a clear viewpoint or anything that makes much sense.

It doesn’t help that Pit offers a very simplistic view of psychoanalysis. By the end of the flick, it wraps up Virginia’s case with a neat little bow. This seems silly and unrealistic, though I guess movies need to boil things down to a basic level to make sense.

Interestingly, the film proved somewhat prescient in some ways. This became particularly evident when the hospital’s authorities push for her discharge. They do so not because she seems ready but instead due to overcrowding. Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t follow up with the social ramifications, and the flick fails to explore its topics well.

Instead, it mostly feels like a star vehicle for de Havilland. She offers a decent performance in that she shifts gears nicely as Virginia’s moods change. She comes across as rather showy and overly emotive at times, but she provides some of the movie’s better moments and keeps it from going totally over the top.

In the end, though, The Snake Pit feels too muddled and incoherent to work. It can’t decide on a viewpoint and it meanders along its awkward way. The movie seems more like an excuse for a big performance from its star and little like a real story with clear exposition.

The DVD Grades: Picture B+/ Audio B-/ Bonus C+

The Snake Pit appears in an aspect ratio of 1.33:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; due to those dimensions, the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. The movie occasionally showed its age, but it mainly presented a nice picture.

Sharpness seemed very good. Almost no intrusive softness appeared at any time during the movie. Instead, it looked nicely detailed and well defined. I witnessed no concerns related to jagged edges or shimmering, and only a smidgen of edge enhancement occurred.

As for print flaws, they were fairly minor. Occasional marks, spots, and grit showed up, but these occurred relatively infrequently. Overall, the image remained generally clean and fresh. Black levels seemed nicely deep and dense, and shadows mostly appeared distinctive. A few nighttime shots were slightly opaque, but those instances seemed rare. Instead, most of the dark shots looked reasonably clear and appropriately defined. Given the film’s age, the transfer for The Snake Pit seemed more than satisfying.

Similar sentiments greeted the remixed stereo soundtrack of The Snake Pit. The stereo imaging seemed like nothing more than glorified monaural for the most part. The vast majority of the audio remained mostly anchored in the center. Some light spread of music and effects moved to the sides and rears. Speech occasionally sounded somewhat unfocused and slightly bled to the sides. Otherwise, the audio seemed mainly concentrated in the middle.

While many of these remixes suffer from a terrible sense of reverb, only a little of that appeared during the stereo track for Pit. However, the track mostly remained acceptably natural, and the echo didn’t interfere with the mix too badly. For the most part, speech sounded reasonably natural and distinct. The lines showed a little edge at times, and the reverb made the material a little tinnier than I’d like, but dialogue still appeared fine. Effects and music were fairly clear and well-defined for their age, and the score presented pretty solid bass at times. Some light hum and background noise cropped up at times, but these remained very modest.

Although the movie’s stereo track seemed unobjectionable, it also was pointless to me, and I preferred the original monaural mix. Really, the two came across as very similar, though the mono version lacked the light reverb of the stereo one. Of course, it also failed to demonstrate the modest side and surround spread that occasionally appeared in the multi-channel edition.

In general, the mono track sounded moderately more natural than the stereo one. Dialogue came across as relatively warm and crisp. Some edge still appeared, but the reverb of the stereo mix exacerbated that issue, whereas the mono one diminished the concern somewhat. Music and effects also benefited from the minor increase in depth and clarity found without the extra echo. Both tracks featured similar levels of light background noise. While I gave the stereo mix a “B-“, the mono one earned a slightly higher “B”.

As with all Fox Studio Classics DVDs, The Snake Pit includes an audio commentary. Here we hear from film historian and author Aubrey Solomon, who presents a running, screen-specific piece. I usually enjoy commentaries from film historians, but Solomon fails to make this a very engaging chat.

When he talks, Solomon provides some good information. He talks about the origins of the story, its path to the screen, the cast and filmmakers, differences between the novel and the movie, production elements, and the flick’s reception within its era. These bits seem interesting when they appear. Unfortunately, quite a lot of the movie passes with no remarks at all. Solomon pops up sporadically and leaves lots of dead air. That becomes a significant flaw that means the commentary never turns into something consistently involving.

Five Movietone News segments appear next. We find “NY Film Critics Honor Olivia de Havilland” (62 seconds), “National Magazines Makes Film Awards” (61 seconds), “Showmen Honor The Snake Pit” (39 seconds), “Special Film Award Is Presented for The Snake Pit” (76 seconds), and “Motion Picture Academy Awards Film ‘Oscars’” (44 seconds). These offer a minor look at various award presentations and are slightly fun for historical reasons, but nothing special appears.

We get a collection of ads. The disc includes the theatrical trailer for Pit as well as promos for other Studio Classics. That domain contains promos for All About Eve, Gentleman’s Agreement, The Song of Bernadette, and The Three Faces of Eve.

In the Still Gallery we get 46 images. These all offer candid shots from the set. Most of these collections tend to be more promotional, but this batch seems more informative and interesting than usual.

Too bad The Snake Pit itself seems like something of a dud. It offers a decent snapshot of psychiatric care circa the late Forties, but it fails to create an engaging story or a coherent presentation. The DVD offers very good picture with decent sound and some minor extras that include a spotty audio commentary. It seems like a reasonably good DVD overall, but I can’t recommend this silly movie to folks who don’t already know they like it.

Viewer Film Ratings: 4.1818 Stars Number of Votes: 22
4 3:
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