It feels good to be back in the film blogsphere. After the two-plus-week break I feel anxious to see what's been happening on the blogs in my blogroll. I feel just as skin-crawlingly anxious to restart the Film of the Year project, looking at film history and/or history through one film per year. Let's see...we left off at 1948. Hmm...where to (re)start? Well, where did we leave off? In the post for 1947 we looked at Carol Reed's manhunt picture Odd Man Out (1947). I wrote about how that film opened a door for me to a cinema tradition I hadn't been aware of previously, the cinema of Northern Ireland. I pointed to a number of Reed's recognizable filmmaking techniques and other elements at play in the movie. A host of film bloggers joined in the discussion in the comments section and fleshed out the examination of the film with insights on the film's charm, structure, audience appeal, characterizations and more. We also talked about the film's theme of alienation. That theme, about the lone individual lost among enemies in a hostile or alien environment, seems to turn up often in post-war cinema.
When I sit down to write about a motion picture from a given year I like to find an element in the previous year's movie that serves as link between the two. The link could be an actor, director, studio, topic, technique, or theme. In Odd Man Out, the anti-hero Johnny McQueen suffers from a number of psychic breakdowns. Reed dramatizes these breakdowns through impressionistic imagery that evokes McQueen's trouble state of mind. Watching that reminded me of the great expressionist phantasmagoria of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919), half of which is seen through the nightmare interior reality of an inmate of an insane asylum. I wondered what other representations of mental illness, its twist on reality, and the methods of its treatment exist on film? As luck would have it, Twentieth Century-Fox released one the finest attempts in motion pictures to explore questions about mental illness and its treatment in 1948...
The Snake Pit (1948), based on Mary Jane Ward's real life experiences recorded in her book of the same name, stars Olivia de Havilland as Virginia Cunningham, a struggling novelist who suffers from a form of paranoid schizophrenia. Shortly after marrying, Virigina suffers a major breakdown and is sent to a state mental hospital. Under the care of the calm, kindly and oh, so rational Dr. Kik (Green for Danger's (1945) Leo Genn), an adherent of Freudian psychotherapy, she undergoes a series of treatments including electroshock therapy, hydrotherapy, narcosynthesis, and psychoanalysis. These treatments, combined with the overcrowded, understaffed hospital and the strict regimentation she's forced to endure, only serve to exacerbate Virginia's doubts and fears. She feels ever more alienated from the staff, the other patients, and even herself. Late in the picture, she's punished for not complying with hospital rules and sent to the terrifying dungeon-like ward 33, the ward reserved for the most severe cases. Here she makes a breakthrough by convincing herself that she's not as sick as the others in the ward and therefore can get well after all. She and Dr. Kik proceed with the slow process of psychoanalysis and uncover the origins of her illness. No longer doubting her own thoughts or reality, Virginia is declared cured by the hospital staff board and released.
The movie-going public must have been drawn to the unusual subject matter and/or by de Havilland's star power because The Snake Pit was one of the top ten box office pictures of 1948. It was nominated for Academy Awards for best motion picture, directing, actress, screenplay and music, and received an award for sound recording directed by Thomas T. Moulton. Critics and reviewers in publications like Time, The New Republic, Variety, and the New York Times praised the quality of the film and applauded the filmmakers for producing a film that examined such an important and timely subject. At once melodrama and social problem picture, entertainment and exposé, The Snake Pit remains significant today for helping us grasp some sense of the attitudes and feelings about mental illness and state hospitalization prevalent in the United States in the late 1940s.
There is evidence of mounting public concern over the care of the mentally ill in state run hospitals in the post-war years. After World War II public demand on psychiatry and the already overcrowded state mental hospitals increased, and in 1945 the American Psychiatric Association released a set of standards to improve treatment in mental hospitals, public and private. However, according to columnist Albert Deutsch, author of a 1948 exposé about the conditions in state mental hospitals titled The Shame of the States, "not a single state mental hospital meets, or has ever met, even the minimum standards set by the A.P.A. in all major aspects of care and treatment" ("Hearded Like Cattle," Time, 20 December 1948).
However, co-producer/director Anatole Litvak told the New York Times that his purpose wasn't to make a film that presented frightening images of the mentally ill or the "various scientific methods used to effect rehabilition." He wasn't making a horror film. Rather, he wished to encourage public concern about mental illness and the conditions in state mental hospitals. Further, he intended the film "to reassure people that mental disorder is an illness which can be cured" ("Of Litvak and The Pit," New York Times, 7 November 1948, X5). The structure of Litvak's film, awakening interest in a perceived social problem, illustrating some of the possible dangers involved, and then soothing fears by showing that the problem can be overcome through solutions already available, is characteristic of other social problem pictures I've written about on this blog, such as Traffic in Souls (1912), The Wet Parade (1932), and Confessions of a Nazi Spy (also directed by Litvak, 1939).
Virgina trapped in ward 33, the titular snake pit. One of the few impressionistic shots in the film.
There's so much to write about this picture and topic that a blog post cannot possibly contain all of the questions let alone examine the answers. So, I'm going to focus on one aspect of the filmmaking: Litvak's approach to identifying the nature of Virginia's illness. In the film, the director allows us to experience two contrasting perspectives of reality at the same time by neatly dividing the scenes between what we see and what we hear. With a few exceptions (see above), Litvak's camera maintains the perspective of an objective observer. This has the effect of allowing us to view Virginia's and the other hospital patient's irrational behavior, and observe methods of treatment and management by the staff. In the second perspective, Litvak and Moulton employ the sound of Virginia's interior voice, and other voices heard inside her head, to help us understand her delusional take on the occurances in the film. By using the tools of cinema, Litvak contrasts these two perspectives on reality and aids the audience to understand Virginia's illness by comparing the reality of the picture with the sound of her paranoid interior monologue through voice over. This technique is doubly effective for cinephiles because we typically expect voice over to confirm what we see on the screen not to cause doubt about its veracity or contradict it.
Litvak's method of contrasting what we see on the screen with the way the main character tells herself (and us) she perceives things has since become a familiar way to differentiate opposing perceptions of reality on film. I wonder, what other approaches have filmmakers tried over the ensuing years to convince the audience that a character is mentally ill? or that a character's perception of reality differs from those around her? or that we in the audience might not be able to trust the version of reality that is being presented on the screen or through the speakers? (For some reason I'm drawn to my David Lynch collection right now.) What are some of your favorite films that explore these ideas and contradictions? Other than Caligari some of mine include Schatten (1923), Un chien andalou (1929), Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974), Videodrome (1983), Jacob's Ladder (1990), Lost Highway (1997), Abre Los Ojos (1997), The Messenger (1999), Memento (2000), and Donnie Darko (2001).
--a more general question: what are some of your favorite films that either comment on mental illness and its treatment or borrow themes of mental illness or psychoanalysis for variations on familiar genres like horror, thrillers, melodrama, comedy? Some of mine include, M (1931), Psycho (1960), Repulsion (1965), Le Roi de coeur (1966), Sisters (1973), One Flew Over the Coo-Coos Nest (1975), and Halloween (1978).