Into "The Snake Pit"

I have come to the most surprisingly realization: I really like - even admire - Olivia de Havilland. For years the poor woman (and I'm sure this affected her deeply) languished at the peripheries of my awareness, forever identified with Melanie, Ashley Wilkes's insipid wife. I knew nothing about her - not about her famous feud with Joan Fontaine (or even that the two were sisters), nor about her pioneering role in lessening the actor's subservience to the will of the studio.

A few months ago I was surprised by how much I enjoyed "The Heiress" (1949), William Wyler's adaptation of Henry James's "Washington Square," in which the principle source of interest is de Havilland's plain and plaintive heroine, spurned by father and lover alike. Over the course of the film (which won her an Oscar), she moves from melancholy and the self-effacing acceptance of disappointment to an opportunity-snuffing firmness, a love-quashing self-sufficiency that is truly chilling. And we revel in it all - we think she is right.

Last week I faced a second surprise, when I found that I loved (absolutely loved) "The Snake Pit," Anatole Litvak's film of the previous year. I give de Havilland a great deal of credit for this. As in "The Heiress," de Havilland shows the remarkable ability to evoke our sympathy, or even empathy, for her weakness one moment (in a medium in which weak or unheroic characters so often provoke sadism, at worst, or wincing impatience, at best), and awe at her icy strength or ferocity the next. Seeing de Havilland perform Catherine Sloper in "The Heiress" is like watching the creation of Miss Havisham, and quietly cheering it on. (I am just now finishing "Great Expectations," and have been pondering the relationship between James and Dickens - more on this soon, I hope.)

"The Snake Pit" makes similar demands on our empathy. In it, de Havilland plays Virginia Cunningham, a woman confined to a state psychiatric hospital by her bewildered but adoring husband. She famously performed much of the film without makeup, a choice that enhances the haggard expressiveness of her face as well as underscoring our sense of her normalcy, her proximity to us and our experience. Here is a question for the film buffs among you: was de Havilland the first actress to be lauded (by the Academy, among others) for deliberately cultivating plainness onscreen? Should that title instead go to Bette Davis in "Now, Voyager," or does that film not have the proper social agenda of realism (a la Susan Sarandon in "Dead Man Walking" or Charlize Theron in "Monster") to really "count"? Maybe an earlier film yet, like "The Passion of Joan of Arc," deserves a nod here?

The film opens in medias res, our consciousness awakening with befuddled Virginia's: she finds herself in a garden, hearing voices (as we do) but unsure of where they come from, seeing people (as we do) but as of yet unclear on who they are, and most importantly, utterly confused (as we are, forced to trust only her assumptions) about where she is. The context comes to us very slowly. Her interaction with the voiceover, which may be the soothing presence of her perhaps too heroic therapist, Dr. Kik (played with a refusal to sink into blandness by Leo Genn), or may be the paranoid urgings of schizophrenia, is an utterly innovative blending of the psychiatric and the cinematic.

The story unfolds from there in an intriguingly nonlinear manner, weaving together a series of narratives provided by her husband, hypnosis, and the slow excavation of her subconscious in analysis. This is all ultimately in the service of equating psychoanalysis with the methods and narratives of detective thrillers, bound inevitably for the set of concrete clues that will solve the mystery and end the narrative.

As with Hitchcock's "Spellbound," this scheme makes for the least interesting aspect of the film - an unsatisfactory colonizing of the far more intriguing irrational world by the logical drive of the rational that represents neither the complexities of psychoanalysis nor of these story-tellers well. To me it rather recalls Coleridge's assessment of Iago's character as plagued by "the motive-hunting of motiveless malignity." This is motive-hunting that is far less interesting than the essential elusiveness of motive: an overdetermined drive to explain that points to the futility (and even absence) of real explanations. We don't believe in the end that confronting her fears and traumas has really cured Virginia, in part because her (and our) fears and traumas proliferate so rapidly upon examination, and in part because we have enjoyed the art of her insanity so immensely.

It has been some time (perhaps 9 months or a year) since I have seen "Spellbound," and I would like to compare the two films more closely sometime soon. From what I can remember, however (and I may be about to commit heresy here), I enjoyed "The Snake Pit" more and found it to be a more successful formal experiment with the implications of mental illness and psychotherapy. [Those of you who know me know that I am a sucker for tales of psychotherapy in film and theatre.] The weaving narrative is more innovative and complex, and makes wider and more bewildering use of cinematic conventions to convey the slippery feeling of being unable to rely on your own mind and senses. The therapeutic "solution," although still uncomfortably "pat" and paternalistic (I feel rather pleased with that pun -- I'll admit it), is both more multi-faceted and more self-consciously tentative than "Spellbound's"

Havilland's harrowing, unpredictable performance is another great feather in "The Snake Pit's" hat (what a bewildering array of images that phrase contained), but the film's strength does not solely reside in her contributions. Anatole Litvak and the screenwriters (Millen Brand, Arthur Laurents, and Frank Partos) also deserve a great deal of praise for their bold approach not only to the increasingly chic "mystery" of psychoanalysis, but also to the more difficult and plebian issue of state-funded psychiatric institutions, under constant pressure to churn out cures on the model of a factory. This is a film that draws heavily and meaningfully from its predecessors, lifting the oppressive masses from King Vidor's masterful "The Crowd" (particularly in one shot which recalls the famously vertiginous view of "The Crowd's" hero dwarfed in an endless line of desks) and a dizzying unreliability of narrative from "Caligari." It also speaks with remarkable prescience of films, theatre and novels to come, like "Cuckoo's Nest" (as yet, sadly, unseen and unread by me) and "Marat/Sade."

The ensemble work that is done here, both by the not entirely unsympathetic staff of the hospital, and by the vivid characters who populate the teeming wards, is extraordinary. Over the course of the film, we lean away from the model of sanity, the orderly portrait of the subconscious presented by the film's psychoanalytic resolution. Much more seductive is the chaos of the wards, surging with crowds made of absolutely unique individuals. This seduction lies in the rhythms of each patient's psychosis, often marked by an expert, prolific use of jargon; an obsessive, warped expertise that provides a refracted view of their former lives and selves, of the outside reality.

Highly recommended.

"The Snake Pit" ****1/2