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Tag Archives: Mark Stevens

The Snake Pit (Nov. 13, 1948)

The Snake Pit

The Snake Pit (1948)
Directed by Anatole Litvak
20th Century-Fox

The Snake Pit wasn’t the first film about mental illness, but it’s one of the most significant.

German Expressionist films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) and M (1931) are powerful films about mental illness, but they’re more horror films than they are dramas, and they don’t explore the day-to-day reality of life in mental asylums. Films like Maniac (1934) and Dead of Night (1945) are at least partially about “crazy people,” but again, mental illness is used as a horror trope, not a sad and difficult fact of life.

The Seventh Veil (1945) and Spellbound (1945) both dealt with psychoanalysis, but they were designed to appeal to a public newly interested in Freudian theory, and didn’t touch on the facts of life in state mental institutions.

In fact, the only movie I can remember seeing before The Snake Pit that really dealt with life inside a mental institution was Mark Robson’s Bedlam (1946), but the fact that it was both a horror film and a period piece gave audiences a comfortable sense of remove.

Olivia de Havilland

The Snake Pit changed all that. It was based on the novel by Mary Jane Ward, who spent eight and a half months in a mental hospital. She was institutionalized for schizophrenia, which was possibly misdiagnosed. The Snake Pit was rejected by several publishers. When it was eventually released in a small print run in 1946 it became an unexpected bestseller and was reprinted many times. It was a novel, not a memoir, but it contained autobiographical elements and most of the characters were based on people Ward had known in Rockland State Hospital.

The film version of the the novel stars bona fide superstar Olivia de Havilland in an unglamorous, makeup-free performance as Virginia Stuart Cunningham. The film drops us into Virginia’s schizophrenic experience in media res. She’s sitting on a park bench, looking up at the sun shining through the branches of a tree. On the surface, it’s idyllic, but we soon notice that her clothes are threadbare and her nylons have a run in them. Her voiceover conveys how confused she is about where she is and what she’s doing there.

Her fellow inmate, Grace (Celeste Holm), is more aware of what’s going on and guides Virginia into the group of women when the noontime break is over. They are shuttled inside by the nurses, and Virginia’s surroundings resemble a prison. There are even iron bars.

This is a major theme in the film. Virginia is locked in a prison of her mind’s own making — her mental illness. But she is also locked in a very real prison — a mental institution where electroshock treatments, cruel staff, and harsh conditions are the norm.

Snake Pit 1948

The one bright spot for Virginia inside the institution is Dr. Mark van Kensdelaerik (Leo Genn), who is only ever referred to as “Dr. Kik,” because Americans find his surname too hard to pronounce. Dr. Kik has a picture of Freud hanging in his office, and believes psychoanalysis is the key to Virginia’s recovery.

I had some uncharitable things to say about Leo Genn in my review of Mourning Becomes Electra (1947), but that was more about his miscasting than anything else. He’s perfectly cast in The Snake Pit, and his performance is wonderful. His Freudian explanation of Virginia’s condition is a bit too neat, but audiences in the 1940s liked their stories with every T crossed and every I dotted.

The other man in Virginia’s life who cares for her is her husband, Robert Cunningham (Mark Stevens), but there’s very little he can do for her. Through a series of heartbreaking flashbacks, we see her grow increasingly fearful of him and confused about reality.

The Snake Pit was directed by Anatole Litvak, a Ukrainian director who became an American citizen in 1940. Litvak’s previous couple of films, The Long Night (1947) and Sorry, Wrong Number (1948), were both beautifully crafted, but they weren’t as powerful or as resonant as The Snake Pit. The scene in which the title of the film is realized visually is one of the most haunting I’ve ever seen.

Litvak’s direction is wonderful, but none of it would work without Olivia de Havilland’s phenomenal performance. She was nominated for an Academy Award for best actress, but she lost out to Jane Wyman for her role in Johnny Belinda (1948). The Snake Pit actually had an extremely high portion of its budget devoted to hiring seasoned and professional actors, since Litvak wanted even the small roles in the film to be convincing. It paid off.

In addition to de Havilland’s nomination, The Snake Pit was nominated for Academy Awards for best picture, best director, best screenplay, best score, and best sound recording, which is the only Oscar that it actually won.

The Street With No Name (July 14, 1948)

By the time William Keighley’s The Street With No Name was released, noirish docudramas were practically a genre unto themselves. The docudrama craze began with The House on 92nd Street (1945), which was loosely based on a real case of nuclear espionage during World War II and was produced by Louis de Rochemont, the creator of the March of Time newsreels.

More “ripped from the headlines” stories followed. Spy thrillers like 13 Rue Madeleine (1947) and The Iron Curtain (1948), tales of miscarried justice like Boomerang (1947) and Call Northside 777 (1948), and even films like Kiss of Death (1947), which wasn’t based on any single real event, but presented its crime story as realistically as possible by eschewing a musical score and filming all the action on location — in prisons, schools, and city streets.

The Street With No Name begins with the following words: “The motion picture you are about to see was adapted from the files of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Wherever possible it was photographed in the original locale and played by the actual F.B.I. personnel involved.”

Then, a quote from J. Edgar Hoover appears as it is pounded out by invisible hands on a sheet of paper stuck in a typewriter:

The street on which crime flourishes is the street extending across America. It is the street with no name. Organized gangsterism is once again returning. If permitted to go unchecked three out of every four Americans will eventually become its victims. Wherever law and order break down there you will find public indifference. An alert and vigilant America will make for a secure America.

The docudrama that I think The Street With No Name most closely resembles is Anthony Mann’s T-Men (1947), which uses the same kind of “government-approved” patriotic opening, but eventually devolves into a film noir in which the underworld setting and stylistic elements are more interesting than the clean-shaven protagonists. T-Men, however, showed its protagonists becoming drawn deeper into their undercover roles while The Street With No Name doesn’t really develop its protagonist beyond his play-acting heroics.

The Street With No Name opens with a murder at the Meadowbrook night club, a typical road house in a typical city called “Center City.” (The Street With No Name was filmed in and around Los Angeles, and while there is a neighborhood of San Diego called “Center City,” I think that “Center City” was just meant to be a generic name for “Anytown, USA.”)

A second crime by the same masked gang — the murder of a bank guard — draws the FBI into the case, since bank robberies are a federal crime. Leading the investigation is FBI Inspector George A. Briggs, who is played by Lloyd Nolan. (Briggs is the same character Nolan played in The House on 92nd Street.)

According to Briggs, these new gangs are “the juvenile delinquents of yesterday” and they are even more ruthless than the pre-war gangs. The only way to break this gang is to send in an undercover agent.

Enter Mark Stevens as FBI cadet Gene Cordell, who we know is a prime candidate for the assignment because he knows exactly which targets to shoot — and which ones not to shoot — in a Hogan’s Alley sequence filmed at Quantico, VA.

Stevens goes undercover as “George Manly” in the skid row section of Center City, which is full of pool halls, boxing gyms, and peep show machines, and where apparently the only song anyone ever plays on the jukebox is an instrumental version of “I’m Looking Over a Four-Leaf Clover.”

Despite Stevens’s total lack of proficiency in the boxing ring (he looks less competent than Charlie Chapin was meant to in City Lights), the robbery gang he’s after is impressed with his skills and takes him in as one of their own.

The gang’s leader is named Alec Stiles, and he’s played by Richard Widmark. This was Widmark’s second big-screen role, and it’s similar to his first, the psychopathic Tommy Udo in Kiss of Death. Stiles’s teeth aren’t quite as big as Udo’s were, but his maniacal leer is the same. Widmark delivers a good performance, but character details like Stiles’s germaphobia and wife-beating aren’t quite enough to make you forget Udo if you’ve recently watched Kiss of Death.

But character details and plot points aren’t what makes The Street With No Name a standout docudrama film noir. What makes the film memorable is the overriding sense of tension and the dark, shadowy cinematography of Joseph MacDonald.

Stevens isn’t as strong a protagonist as Dennis O’Keefe and Alfred Ryder were in T-Men, and the most memorable sequences in The Street With No Name are completely wordless. The first is a chase in a ferryboat station (filmed at the Municipal Ferry in San Pedro, CA) and the second follows Stevens as he tries to get ballistic evidence by breaking into the gang’s weapons cache in a warehouse with Widmark hot on his heels.

Despite a generic story and a bland protagonist, The Street With No Name has great pacing, lots of suspense, style to spare, and a solid villain. I recommend it to all fans of FBI stories and film noir.

The Dark Corner (April 9, 1946)

If someone were to say to me, “What exactly is a film noir? I don’t think I’ve ever seen one,” I might direct them to Henry Hathaway’s The Dark Corner. Not because it’s the greatest noir I’ve ever seen, but because it contains so many “noir” elements; a tough-talking P.I. and his sexy secretary, blackmail, frame-ups, violence, creative use of shadows and low-angle shots, and a plethora of quotable tough-guy dialogue like “I can be framed easier than Whistler’s mother.” It’s also not a picture that’s attained the status of a true “classic” like Double Indemnity (1944) or The Big Sleep (1946), so no one’s going to be distracted by great acting, iconic characterizations, or a brilliant storyline. This is pulp. Pure and unvarnished.

I love pulpy noir, so I really enjoyed The Dark Corner. On the other hand, I first saw this movie less than a decade ago, and only remembered one scene, in which one character pushes another out of a skyscraper window and then calmly walks to his dentist appointment. I have pretty good recall, especially when it comes to films, but I didn’t remember anything about this movie, not even after watching it again. Nothing came back. And I have a feeling that I won’t remember much about it 10 years from now, either.

But that doesn’t change the fact that I enjoyed the heck out of it while I was watching it. Mark Stevens isn’t an actor who ever made a big impression on me, but he’s a passable lead. As private investigator Bradford Galt, he delivers his lines with the speed and regularity of a gal in the steno pool pounding the keys of a Smith Corona typewriter. Galt is the kind of guy who makes himself a cocktail by grabbing two bottles with one hand and pouring them into a highball glass together. He’s also the kind of guy who probably wouldn’t do well in today’s litigious corporate environment. When he tells his newly hired secretary Kathleen Stewart (Lucille Ball) that he’s taking her out on a date, she asks, “Is this part of the job?” He responds, “It is tonight.”

It turns out that he’s (mostly) telling the truth, and the reason he’s taking her out on the town is to draw out a tail he’s spotted; a big mug in a hard-to-miss white suit played by William Bendix. Their date was one of my favorite sequences in the movie. There’s a lot of great location footage of New York in The Dark Corner, but the scenes in the Tudor Penny Arcade take the cake. I don’t know if any of the scenes in the arcade were shot in back lots, but the batting cages, the Skeebowl, and the coin-operated Mutoscopes with titles like “Tahitian Nights” and “The Virgin of Bagdad” all looked pretty authentic.

Once Galt gets his hands on the guy tailing him and roughs him up for information, the plot kicks into gear. Bendix’s character, “Fred Foss,” is a heavy who claims to have been hired by a man named Jardine. Galt starts to panic as soon as he hears the name. Jardine was Galt’s partner when he was a P.I. in San Francisco. Jardine had Galt framed, which led to Galt doing two years in the pokey. Jardine (played by the blond, German-accented Kurt Kreuger) is now in New York, but still up to his old tricks, seducing married women and running blackmail schemes. The current object of his affection, Mari Cathcart (Cathy Downs), is married to the effete art dealer Hardy Cathcart, who is played by Clifton Webb. In The Dark Corner, Webb essentially reprises his role from Otto Preminger’s Laura (1944); another film noir in which a painting of a beautiful brunette played a major role.

I won’t summarize the Byzantine plot any further, but it should go without saying that all the pieces tie together. As I said, The Dark Corner isn’t the greatest noir I’ve ever seen, but it’s pretty enjoyable to watch, and it looks fantastic. The dialogue is especially cracking, and consistently verges on the ridiculous. For instance, when Cathcart tells Foss (who is on the phone with Galt) to tell Galt that he wants $200 to leave town, Foss repeats the information to Galt by saying, “I need two yards. Powder money.”

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