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Film / The Snake Pit

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The Snake Pit is a 1948 drama film directed by Anatole Litvak and starring Olivia de Havilland, Mark Stevens, Leo Genn, and Celeste Holm.

The film centers around Virginia Cunningham (de Havilland), a young newlywed who has had a mental breakdown and has been confined to a state psychiatric hospital. There, kindly Dr. "Kik" (Genn) tries to get to the cause of her descent into madness, while a frightened Virginia fights for her sanity. Through drugs, shock treatment, and regular talking therapy, Dr. Kik plumbs into Virginia's repressed memories to discover the past trauma that unbalanced her mind, as a series of flashbacks dramatizes Virginia's mental breakdown and the events that led to it.


  • All Psychology Is Freudian: Played utterly straight, right down to the picture of Freud displayed in Dr. Kik's office. Dr. Kik uses electroshock therapy to jolt Virginia out of the fog of schizophrenia, but ultimately cures her by Freudian psychotherapy, talking about her childhood and helping Virginia to figure out that her mental illness is rooted in the guilt that she felt as a child when her father died of kidney failure right after little Virginia wished that he would go away. De Havilland's portrayal of a woman suffering from mental illness is fairly sophisticated, but the idea that anybody could recover from schizophrenia and auditory hallucinations without the aid of medication dates this film badly.
  • Battleaxe Nurse: While Dr. Kik is kindly and helpful, most of the nurses are mean. The worst is Nurse Davis, who obviously hates Virginia—she has an unrequited crush on Dr. Kik and resents Virginia's closeness to her doctor. At one point Nurse Davis essentially provokes Virginia into a relapse.
  • Bedlam House: Played with. The staff at Virginia's hospital are conscientious enough, but most of the nurses are pretty mean, and the hospital is overcrowded. Ward 32, where the worst cases are shown ranting and babbling in a common room, is the clearest example of a Bedlam House.
    • Among the world-class character actresses in that scene is Celia Lovsky as Gertrude (the patient repeating German prayers). Angela Clarke is there (the Greek woman), along with Jan Clayton (the singer) and Dorothy Vaughn (the brash, bossy one).
  • Electroconvulsive Therapy Is Torture: Played with. Originally played straight, as the electroshock treatment Virginia is submitted to is pretty scary, as of course it is from her perspective. Ultimately averted, as the electroshock treatment actually works, helping Virginia snap out of her haze and make contact with Dr. Kik.
  • Establishing Character Moment / Hallucinations / Hearing Voices: The first scene shows Virginia in a courtyard having a conversation with a man who is offscreen. It quickly becomes apparent that no man is there at all and Virginia is having a chat with the voice inside her head.
  • The Film of the Book: Adapted from a semi-autographical 1946 novel of the same name by Mary Jane Ward, which was inspired by her own treatment for catatonic schizophrenia.
  • In Medias Res: The film opens with Virginia in the courtyard of the hospital, looking haggard and hearing voices. Several flashback sequences fill in the story and explain how she came to be here.
  • Madness Mantra: Various examples of insane babbling from various patients, most dramatically when Virginia is sent all the way down to Ward 32 where the worst cases are kept. The effect is enhanced by the fact that some of the patients are speaking foreign languages.
  • Mental Health Recovery Arc: The film is about a schizophrenic woman's experience and recovert in a 1940s mental hospital. It's based off of a semi-autobiographical book based on a woman's real experiences.
  • Most Writers Are Writers: Virginia is a novelist. The film is based on the semi-autobiographical novel by Mary Jane Ward.
  • New York Is Only Manhattan: Averted. When the mentally ill protagonist is tested on whether she's well enough to leave the mental institution:
    Man: Where were you living when you became ill?
    Virginia: New York.
    Man: Where in New York?
    Virginia: New York City.
    Man: I mean, where in New York City?
    Virginia: Manhattan.
  • Only Known by Their Nickname: Dr. "Kik" has a name that Virginia's husband doesn't even try to pronounce (we see on Kik's office door that it's "Kensdelaerik"). Everyone calls him "Kik".
  • Scare Chord: Used every time a nurse flips the switch on the electroshock device that Virginia is hooked up to.
  • The Shrink: Friendly, pipe-smoking Dr. "Kik" helps bring Virginia back.
  • Single-Issue Psychology: Dr. Kik traces Virginia's illness back to the death of her father when she was small, and how Virginia blamed herself.
  • Snake Pit: Only a metaphorical one. When Virginia is in the Bedlam House part of the asylum with the hopeless crazies, she imagines looking down on the ward from far above, and compares it to the snake pits that people in medieval times would fling the insane into in an effort to shock them back to sanity.
  • Title Drop: See Snake Pit above.