Hollywood has long been interested in psychoanalysis and the subject has been explored in various genres and from various angles, both implicitly and explicitly. Quite a few times, filmmakers have gone full-on explicit and set stories in psychiatric hospitals (more often dubbed insane or mental asylums back in the day). The most famous of these is probably One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, but it certainly wasn’t the first. The silent era even had its share, with The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari being one of the most notable. On 22nd April, Powerhouse Films are releasing two films on their Indicator label which are set in psychiatric hospitals, both focussing on women suffering from mental health problems. They’re not being released together in a box set, but the similarities were too strong for me not to group my reviews together. So here are my thoughts on the two titles, The Snake Pit and Lilith.
The Snake Pit
Director: Anatole Litvak
Screenplay: Frank Partos, Millen Brand
Based on a Novel by: Mary Jane Ward
Starring: Olivia de Havilland, Mark Stevens, Leo Genn, Celeste Holm, Glenn Langan, Helen Craig
Running Time: 108 min
BBFC Certificate: 12
The Snake Pit is the earliest of the pair of films, being released in 1948, and was the most successful, earning rave reviews and making a decent amount of money at the box office. It was based on Mary Jane Ward’s semi-autobiographical account of her own time spent in a psychiatric institution and sees Olivia de Havilland play Virginia Stuart Cunningham. Virginia has been sent to an institution but lapses in memory mean she can’t remember how she got there and suffers under the harsh conditions and frightening surroundings. She was recently married before her breakdown, but doesn’t trust her husband Robert (Mark Stevens) when he comes to visit, so he struggles to help. The idealistic Dr. Kik (Leo Genn) believes there is hope though and perseveres in trying psychotherapy over traditional methods of treatment.
The Snake Pit was groundbreaking in its depiction of psychiatric institutions, which largely kept a closed-door approach back then, so the public wasn’t aware of poor standards of care. The film was so boundary-breaking in fact that it led to the widespread reform of institutions in the US (though this claim may have been hyped up by 20th Century Fox, the studio behind the film). It’s clear to see why it had such an impact too, as the depiction of life in the institution is fairly unflinching and tough for the time. Due to strict censorship, much of the book’s content had to be toned down for the screen, but it’s still quite disturbing at times, particularly the shock treatment scenes early on.
What stood out for me though, was that although it can be distressing, the film doesn’t entirely discredit the institution. The Dr. Kik character in particular clearly cares for Virginia’s health and does his best for her (other than finding a use for the aforementioned shock treatment). So it’s not a straight-up horror film depiction of life there and indeed there is a happy ending. That said, there are a couple of dark and powerfully impressionistic sequences, such as when the camera cranes up and the walls of the ward extend into jagged rock, turning it into the titular metaphorical ‘snake pit’. There’s also a poignant moment just before the film concludes that reminds us that a great many of the other inmates will never leave.
Also impressive is de Havilland’s powerhouse performance. She goes big at times, so might seem over the top by today’s standards, but it’s hard to deny her great ability to convey a range of emotions in sometimes a single shot. She certainly demands your attention and carries the film. Although Genn and Stevens are a little bland in comparison, many of the actors making up the minor and supporting roles are great too, helping the institution feel like a living breathing place (aided by some great, Oscar-winning sound design). Yes, there are some wild takes on mental illness on display, which probably wouldn’t pass muster in this more enlightened age, but to suggest all mentally ill people are quietly simmering with troubles under the surface would be false too.
The neat tying up of Virginia’s ‘mystery’ to heal her mind is simplistic and rather too focussed on male influence and relationships (all to make her a better wife in the end), but at the time it must have been quite complex to audiences and there’s only so much you can cover in a single feature film.
Overall then, although aspects of the film have dated, it’s still strikingly ahead of its time and (if you believe the press) helped usher in the more sensitive era of mental health care we’re now in. It’s not always subtle, but it’s more nuanced than most films back then on the subject. Driven by a brave and powerful central performance, it’s a fine film that’s worthy of revisiting these 70-odd years later.
The Snake Pit is released on 22nd April by Powerhouse Films on Blu-Ray as part of their Indicator label in the UK. I watched the Blu-Ray version and the digital transfer is excellent in both visuals and audio.
A few special features are included too:
– 4K restoration - Original mono audio - Audio commentary with author and film historian Aubrey Solomon - The Battles of Olivia de Havilland (2019, 10 mins): critic and film historian Pamela Hutchinson discusses the revered actor’s illustrious career - Under Analysis (2019, 31 mins): an in-depth appreciation by author and film historian Neil Sinyard - Original theatrical trailer - Image gallery: on-set and promotional photography - New and improved English subtitles for the deaf and hard-of-hearing - Limited edition exclusive 36-page booklet with a new essay by Lindsay Hallam, an account of The Snake Pit’s production, an overview of contemporary critical responses, and film credits - UK premiere on Blu-ray - Limited Edition of 3,000 copies
Filled with regular pauses, Solomon’s commentary isn’t the most fast-paced or loaded track I’ve heard, but it contains some interesting facts about the film’s production and the history of its leading cast and crew. Sinyard’s piece provides further analysis of the film, which is welcome, and Hutchinson offers a brief but illuminating look at the fascinating career of Olivia de Havilland. The booklet is excellent, as always.
Director: Robert Rossen
Screenplay: Robert Rossen
Based on a Novel by: J.R. Salamanca
Starring: Warren Beatty, Jean Seberg, Peter Fonda, Kim Hunter, Gene Hackman
Running Time: 114 min
BBFC Certificate: 12
Also based on a popular novel (of the same name by J.R. Salamanca), though not on the author’s real experiences, Lilith opens with Vincent (Warren Beatty) visiting an asylum looking for work. He was formerly a soldier, but wants a job with purpose. He’s offered a position training to be an occupational therapist and he soon meets the titular Lilith (Jean Seberg), a peculiar case that other doctors have struggled to deal with. Vincent is drawn to this enigmatic woman and begins to devote most of his time to her, gradually falling in love with her. As he discovers her insatiable desire to leave a sexual mark on everyone she meets though, he grows jealous and begins to lose a grip on his own sanity. His actions also affect Stephen (Peter Fonda), another patient Lilith has been stringing along who madly loves her.
Although I stated the two films being reviewed here shared a lot in common, this is only in terms of subject and initial set-up. The approach and directions taken are very different. The clearest contrast when watching Lilith after The Snake Pit was how the institutions greatly differed. Where the earlier film portrayed a terrifying prison overloaded with jabbering inmates, Lilith is set in a serene retreat for the mentally ill, where patients are treated through relaxation, one-to-one support and group therapy. It’s a more exclusive institution, for the wealthy, so isn’t meant to reflect the typical situation at the time, but I couldn’t help but feel we were seeing the changes made after The Snake Pit put into action.
That’s not to say the film is a lighter, happier affair. Although it has a quiet, hazy, sunlit aura, Lilith has a sense of unease simmering under the surface, which breaks out towards the end as it moves towards its bleak conclusion.
It’s a more complex and unusual film than The Snake Pit too, but for this reason I didn’t connect with it in the same way. It didn’t help that I was very tired when I put it on, but I found the film less engaging. Also, although the film seems more forward thinking than The Snake Pit in its treatment of mental illness in a number of ways, it also clearly portrays a dated idea that women with unconventional sexual desires and a disinterest in typical matrimonial/motherly roles should be deemed unstable. The character of Lilith can be a nasty piece of work at times, but whether or not she should be institutionalised is another matter. Perhaps the film was trying to comment on this, but I got the niggling sense it was actually supporting it.
Although the film didn’t quite ‘click’ with me, I did still appreciate much of it. The performances are very strong, for instance. Beatty, in an early role, does well with his very internal character. Fonda plays out of type (or at least out of the type he would become known for a few years later) and also delivers the goods with his awkward character, who’s all pent-up nerves. Seberg is the standout though. She treads the perfect balance of being enigmatically alluring and quietly malicious. She was enjoying a fairly quick rise to fame at the time, and rightfully so, but tragically died only 15 years later at the young age of 40.
It’s a very different take on mental illness and its treatment than the relatively straightforward drama of The Snake Pit. It’s rather meandering and unusual, so won’t be to everyone’s tastes and I wasn’t entirely sure what to take from the film by the end. However, there is plenty of food for thought to chew on and the film is well performed and handsomely mounted in a strangely shimmering style (if that makes sense), so I’d still recommend people give it a try.
Lilith is released on 22nd April by Powerhouse Films on Blu-Ray as part of their Indicator label in the UK. I watched the Blu-Ray version and it looks great, featuring a detailed picture with a high dynamic range. Audio is clean too.
A few special features are included too:
– High Definition remaster
– Original mono audio
– The Guardian Interview with Warren Beatty (1990, 87 mins): archival audio recording of a career-spanning interview with the celebrated actor and director, hosted by Christopher Cook and conducted at London’s National Film Theatre - The Suffering Screen (2019, 25 mins): a visual essay by journalist and author Amy Simmons which explores cinema’s enduring fascination with narratives and representations of female madness - The Many Faces of Jean Seberg (2019, 8 mins): critic and film historian Pamela Hutchinson explores the life and career of the famed actor - Original theatrical trailer
– Image gallery: on-set and promotional photography - New and improved English subtitles for the deaf and hard-of-hearing - Limited edition exclusive 36-page booklet with a new essay by Richard Combs, Robert Rossen and Seberg on Lilith, an overview of contemporary critical responses, and film credits - UK premiere on Blu-ray - Limited Edition of 3,000 copies
Beatty’s interview doesn’t spend much (if any) time on Lilith, but it’s a wonderfully engrossing listen nonetheless, offering a thorough discussion of the actor/filmmaker’s work. Simmons’ piece is a fascinating discussion of cinema’s various depictions of female madness and Hutchinson provides a brief but interesting overview of Jean Seberg’s career and tragic life. Once again, the quality of the booklet can’t be understated.