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The Snake Pit (1948) starring Olivia de Havilland Blu Ray (Indicator)

A writer’s mental breakdown

This adaptation of Mary Jane Ward’s semi-autobiographical novel of the same name features Olivia de Havilland as Virginia Cunningham, a writer suffering from schizophrenia who has been consigned to a State Mental Hospital. Her condition is so dire that she can’t remember how she ended up there and no longer even recognises her devoted husband Robert (Mark Stevens).

Leo Genn plays her psychoanalyst Dr. Kik, who attempts to resolve her psychological affliction by digging deep into her past.

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A tour de force performance by de Havilland

This harrowing psychological drama provided Olivia de Havilland with her fourth Academy Award nomination and her personal favourite role - and with good reason on both counts. She gives a superb, intense performance that mixes her usual near-childlike charm with a palpable sense of anxiety, paranoia and unbearable frustration at her own mental predicament. She also provides occasional narration by playing a plethora of voices inside her character’s head. Her turn here is the main driving force which pulls the viewer through the entire gruelling 108 minutes without ever letting go.

That’s not to say that the rest of the film is lacking by any means. The flashback structure is cleverly-handled in the way in which it offers tantalising fragments of Virginia’s past as small puzzle pieces. Pieces which are, of course, gradually put together further down the line. This technique effectively places the viewer into the character’s equally fragmented mental state. There are also a number of truly memorable individual sequences here: a disturbing electroconvulsive therapy montage, a flashback to a terrifying POV car crash on a rainy night, an inmate singing Sweet Georgia Brown while rebelliously dancing on a carpet she was told not to, the nightmarish god’s-eye-view “snake pit” scene and the sweeping musical-style grandeur of the climactic dancehall sequence.

The Snake Pit (1948)

On the minus side, the other characters - from the various other patients to Leo Genn’s eternally noble Dr. Kik and Helen Craig’s vindictive Nurse Davis (a thinly-written prototype of Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) - are mostly rather one-note despite the supporting cast’s best efforts. The psychology is also decidedly dated and the Hollywood-style happy ending feels forced. Nonetheless, the overall effect is compelling in a uniquely discomfiting way.

Runtime: 108 mins

Dir: Anatole Litvak

Script: Frank Partos, Millen Brand, Arthur Laurents (uncredited), based on a novel by Mary Jane Ward

Starring: Olivia de Havilland, Mark Stevens, Leo Genn, Celeste Holm, Glenn Langan, Helen Craig, Leif Erickson

Blu Ray Audio-Visual

Contrast levels seem a bit too high during some scenes but, otherwise, the image is fine with a strong level of detail.


Audio Commentary with Aubrey Solomon

This commentary by the co-author of The Films of 20th Century-Fox is rather intermittent but still worth a listen. He reveals that Anatole Litvak had a lot of difficulty in finding a studio willing to put up funding for his adaptation of Mary Jane Ward’s novel because they didn’t want to make a film dealing with mental illness. In the end, Darryl F. Zanuck at 20th Century Fox agreed to do it.

Olivia de Havilland carried out a lot of research in state mental hospitals in order to prepare for her part. At this time, her own personal life also undoubtedly helped to make her performance more convincing as she was going through the stresses of suing her agent and dealing with two separate stalkers. Indeed, during one contemporary interview, she described her offscreen life as being like “living The Snake Pit”. Surprisingly, considering the actress’s remarkable work in the film, Litvak’s original choice for her role wasn’t her; it was Ingrid Bergman.

The supporting cast was unusually large, consisting of 32 important small roles and 50 bit parts in addition to the main stars. The casting budget allocation was 20% more than usual for a 20th Century Fox film of this period, in part due to the large number of roles to fill and, in part, because Litvak expended a lot of time and effort on finding actors who were strong enough to appear on screen alongside de Havilland.

To end on a positive note, the film’s exposure of some of the barbaric real-life practices which occurred in American state mental hospitals up until then resulted in a number of reforms taking place.

The Battles of Olivia de Havilland

Freelance writer and film critic Pamela Hutchinson discusses de Havilland’s fascinating career. Hutchinson begins from her landmark legal battle to break free of her contract with Warner. She won her case, resulting in the creation of the so-called “de Havilland Law” which has benefitted Hollywood’s acting fraternity ever since.

We then take a whistle stop tour through some of her darker and more interesting roles in such films as The Dark Mirror, The Snake Pit, The Heiress, My Cousin Rachel and Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte before ending on her second great legal battle. Recently, she has taken FX Networks to court over the miniseries Feud due to them representing her as an onscreen persona (played by Catherine Zeta-Jones) without consulting her first.

Under Analysis

As with a number of other Indicator releases, Neil Sinyard (Professor of Film Studies at the University of Hull) provides us with a worthy examination of The Snake Pit. He takes a look at its influence on other films depicting mental illness and Freudian themes. He also examines the various notable talents which were involved in creating it, including (obviously) Olivia de Havilland and Anatole Litvak. However, he additionally brings up one name which was left off the credits: that of screenwriter Arthur Laurents, who also worked with Alfred Hitchcock on the film Rope that same year.

The extras here are rounded out by a trailer, an image gallery and a collector’s booklet.


The Snake Pit is a disturbing classic. Once again, Indicator have provided us with a solid and informative collection of extras.

Movie: ☆☆☆☆

Video: ☆☆☆1/2

Audio: ☆☆☆☆

Extras: ☆☆☆☆

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