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Category:    Home > Reviews > Drama > Snake Pit

The Snake Pit


Picture: B-     Sound: C+     Extras: B-     Film: B-



Anatole Litvak was a great journeyman director who seamlessly could pull off some of the best documentary, Melodrama and Film Noir material.  In 1948, the same year he delivered the Noir Classic Sorry, Wrong Number, he pulled together all three for an important film called The Snake Pit.  Based on the Mary Jane Ward sleeper hit novel, the film was somehow made against the odds at studio major 20th century-Fox in there too-brief cycle of socially conscious features.  What is amazing is that Litvak keeps remarkably balanced al the aforementioned qualities in a screenplay adaptation co-written by Frank Partos and Millen Brand, of one woman’s plight with mental illness.


Olivia de Havilland gives one of the breakthrough female lead performances in the Classical Hollywood era as Virginia Cunningham, who is struggling with severe emotional problems, yet as is the case to many who such things fall upon, does not know it.  She marries Robert (Mark Stevens), only to get worse and worse.  She lands up in a mental institute of the time and it turns out to be a disaster, a living hell.  This is smart, not exploitative, has dignity and is done with such care that the film manages to endure the datedness of its information and censorship limits by the sheer strength of the enduring qualities of the exceptional cast and chemistry throughout between all of them.  Having strong female supporting actresses like Celeste Holm does not hurt and see Natalie (Gilligan’s Island) Schafer as Virginia’s mother.  It may have dated, but it is actually better than the endless stream of awful “psychological thrillers” that have all kids of violence, gore, access to the latest information, and still are not as seriously convincing as this film from nearly 60 years ago.


The full frame 1.33 X 1 image is clearer than expected for such an older production, with some fine detail when you least expect it.  It is more like this than not throughout, though the grey is a tad odd to me for whatever reason.  Much of the camerawork is relatively standard, but then cinematographer Leo Tover, A.S.C., has a few tricks of its own and some classics shots that have been influential on films within and outside of the subject matter are more obvious, the more films you have seen.  One of the cleaner transfers of such a film that even shames anamorphic black and white widescreen films on DVD we have seen.  The Dolby Digital 2.0 is here in a decently boosted Stereo, as well as an acceptable Mono, plus French & Spanish Mono.  One will have to decide the preference on their own, but kudos to Alfred Newman’s usually sharp score.  The extras include four Movietone News segments, one of which is silent, trailers for this and other Fox Classics on DVD, a stills gallery and an outstanding audio commentary by well-read and researched film historian and writer Aubrey Solomon that everyone should hear.


The Melodrama never gets too bad, but hits a few false notes, while the Noir elements are more obvious on this DVD then they would be on TV, though it is still not totally a film Noir by any means.  Fox went out of their way for this title and did a fine job.  Alfred Hitchcock was still more on the cutting edge four years earlier with Spellbound, but this film caused massive reform in institutions that seemed to be cutting costs at patience’s expense and possibly wanted them to stay ill for profits sake, something still an issue today.  If you have not seen The Snake Pit, now is your chance.  Get this DVD.



-   Nicholas Sheffo


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