Snake Pit, The (1948)

Snake Pit, The (1948)

“The whole place seemed to me like a deep hole, and the people down in it were strange animals — snakes! And I’d been thrown into it, as though I were a snake, too.

Upon experiencing a sudden nervous breakdown, troubled newlywed Virginia Cunningham (Olivia de Havilland) is sent by her concerned husband (Mark Stevens) to a state mental institution, where kindly Dr. Kik (Leo Genn) tries to help her uncover the reasons for her distress.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Betsy Blair Films
  • Beulah Bondi Films
  • Celeste Holm Films
  • Leo Genn Films
  • Mental Breakdown
  • Mental Illness
  • Olivia de Havilland Films
  • Psychotherapy

Response to Peary’s Review:
Olivia de Havilland — “whose strong performance,” Peary notes, “still holds up” —

is the primary reason to watch this sincere yet dated adaptation of Mary Jane Ward’s bestselling, semi-autobiographical novel. In the wake of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), nothing in The Snake Pit comes across as particularly shocking, but audiences at the time must have been horrified by its depiction of inhumane overcrowding (the didactic script makes sure we’re aware of the impossibly mounting number of inmates):

… seemingly abusive treatment methods (including shock therapy):

… and power-playing nurses (Helen Craig’s evil Nurse Davis is an eerie precursor to Nurse Ratched).

Leo Genn’s saintly “Dr. Kik” conveniently mitigates much of this impersonal horror, emerging as Virginia’s literal savior:

While his Freudian analysis of Virginia’s childhood is ridiculously simplistic:

… it’s hard not to feel for de Havilland’s highly sympathetic protagonist, and wish her well.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Olivia de Havilland as Virginia Cunningham
  • The creepy “snake pit” shot
  • Fine supporting performances by Betsy Blair and others as female inmates
  • Atmospheric cinematography

Must See?
Yes, simply for its historical importance.


  • Historically Relevant
  • Oscar Winner or Nominee

(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)


2 thoughts on “Snake Pit, The (1948)

  1. A must, but for more reasons than historical importance.

    Yes, it’s almost instantly noticeably dated – still, it’s fascinating to learn (as we do from the DVD commentary) that, because of this film, the laws re: mental institutions were changed in 26 states. And, even though the main character’s dual struggle with ‘the calendar syndrome’ and deep-rooted guilt is dealt with in too simplistic a manner, I have known many people whose adult lives have been horribly warped by what parents did/did not do as a result of ill-defined affection. (I see de Havilland’s character in my eldest brother, who went through a similar trauma and did, in those still-archaic days, receive shock treatment.)

    Though he was behind a number of high-profile films, this could arguably be director Anatole Litvak’s best work. There’s fine attention to detail in all aspects, and an overriding sense that those who created the film cared deeply about what they were trying to illuminate/expose. (In terms of emotional accuracy, ‘The Snake Pit’ succeeds more than films like the overrated ‘The Three Faces of Eve’ and – its immeasurable entertainment value notwithstanding – ‘Suddenly, Last Summer’.)

    There’s also much to savor in the tight script. I find this exchange particularly memorable:

    de Havilland: I wouldn’t mind having a cold or pneumonia or anything I could understand. …What’s the matter with me? Is it a brain tumor?
    Stevens: You’ve had a nervous breakdown.
    de Havilland: “Nervous breakdown.” That doesn’t sound so bad, does it?
    Stevens: Just takes time. That’s all.
    de Havilland: What else does it do to you besides take time?

    And, near the conclusion, de Havilland makes a chilling ‘prediction’:

    de Havilland: When there are more sick ones than well ones, the sick ones will lock the well ones up.

    There is (unfortunately) one inadvertently ‘funny’ moment – immediately after drastic therapy on de Havilland begins, we see this typed memo on the screen:

    Patient confused and disoriented.
    Lacks insight and judgment.

    (Gee, what an odd reaction from someone who has…just had shock treatment!)

    Some fave moments:

    – the ‘Save some for Virginia.’ sequence.
    – Beulah Bondi’s cameo as a ‘high society’ patient
    – as noted, the high-crane shot that gives the film its title; myself, I’d say see ‘The Snake Pit’ for that shot alone – it’s among the best in cinema history.

  2. Solid film with good performances but it’s cheesy and a bit silly. Watched it for the first time recently when doing a technical review of the new UK BD.

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