The Snake Pit

The Snake Pit (Anatole Litvak, 1948)


A detailed chronicle of a woman during her stay in a mental institution.

The Snake Pit is a very interesting film about a woman who is in a mental institution.  The beginning of the film starts out the way most of my mornings after a drunken night: confused woman who thinks she is at the zoo.

Virginia, played by Olivia de Haviliand, starts the film acting very mysterious.  She works at a newspaper and falls in love with her co-worker, Robert cunningham (Mark Stevens).  One day she disappears, and then one day re-appears again.  He wants to get married, but she resists.  Finally, she asks why he doesn’t want to marry her, which he has said that he does, this is the first sign of her batshit craziness.

What is wrong with this gal?  While watching a movie she cries over the date May 12th, okay.  And then she complains of not being able to sleep.  Finally, her Robert takes her to see a doctor because she thinks it is November, but it is May 12th!!! Whoa!  She then freaks the f’ out and claims that no one can love her.

The doctor, of course, wants to do shock treatment.  That seems like a theme this month.  Shock treatment, or Electroconvulsive Therapy, (ECT), is a very controversial treatment option.  It usually is a last resort for patients with depression, who do not respond to other treatments.  Whether it actually works or not has not been confirmed.  In the film, Virginia is given many shock treatments, which seem to do nothing, until finally she is said to be more alert.  Well, that’s something I guess.


The film is a good portrayal of mental institutions in the 40’s and 50’s, in which women were committed for varying, and often problematic reasons.  A lot of the reasons for being committed, usually by their husbands or families, were due to emotional instability or other feminine gender role characteristics.  It is crazy to think that a woman could be emotional because of a miscarriage or something and end up getting numerous shock treatments, drug therapies, and lose their freedom.


Another theme in the movies reviewed so far is the doctors have pictures of Freud in their offices.  Freud is thought to be the father of modern psychology, which is interesting because his theories were based on no research, not testable, and severely sexist towards women.


The film is frustrating because Virginia has no say at all in her future or treatment.  Her husband commits her, and then has to sign off on her treatment.  It is also not disclosed what is wrong with her, but the doctor suspects that something traumatic happened in her past that she has not told anyone about.  The doctor does not want her to leave the hospital to go live on a farm with her husband because he has not finished his treatment.  He claims that he has to finish the treatment and find out what happened in her past before it is “too late”!  During a hypnosis treatment she mentions a man named Gordon.  She also seems to have some daddy issues.  Dammit Freud is always right.

daddy issues

The doctor uses Freud’s theory to psychoanalyze Virginia.  She was not close to her mom, and then she wanted to kill her father because he was strict, but really loving as well, so then she got sick because this guy who reminded her of her father wanted to get married and then he died, so then she went back to Robert because he reminded her of her father too… and now I have gone cross-eyed.

The Snake Pit is an interesting film because it helped to change the conditions in American mental institutions.  It also has sparked debate on the feminine gender roles and themes by feminist writers.  The idea that in order for Virginia to leave the hospital as a cured woman she must become a homemaker and be subservient to her husband offers a limited and sexist view of women’s mental health and autonomy.

In general, I think The Snake Pit is a really good film, and definitely portrays an accurate picture of the male-dominated field of psychology.  Things have changed over the years, but not enough.  Women who do not fit or act within the subscribed female gender roles tend to be constructed as crazy or outside of the norm.  A very poignant scene in the film is when Virginia finds herself on level 12, which seems to be the ward where all of the difficult women are held.  The women are walking in circles around a rug, and Virginia gets in trouble for sitting on the rug.  Apparently the rug is brand new, and level 12 is the only level to get a new rug, therefore no one is allowed on it.  So funny that the rules of the institution are weird and do not make sense.  It is strange to think that a bunch of medicated women who are told they are crazy have to make sense of stupid rules, like “stay of the rug”.

I definitely recommend The Snake Pit.  It may not be funny, but it certainly portrays how  funny and ridiculous mental institutions and psychology could be.  The name of the film is taken from a supposed treatment of insane people, in which they would be thrown into a snake pit to shock them into getting better.  Seems legit.  In the end, all that Virginia needed was some good ol’ mansplaining.  What every woman needs.

The Snake Pit receives 4.5 apparently batshit bitches out of a possible 5.



Author: kristaskene

A movie, book, and music lover. I love to offer my, hopefully witty, and always sarcastic thoughts.

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