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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.

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Sorry, Wrong Number (Sept. 1, 1948)

Sorry Wrong Number
Sorry, Wrong Number (1948)
Directed by Anatole Litvak
Hal Wallis Productions / Paramount Pictures

Lucille Fletcher was the greatest playwright who ever worked in the medium of radio.

Fletcher had an instinctive understanding of radio’s limitations and possibilities. Her dramas were often confined to a single location, never had more characters than the listener could keep track of, and exploited simple but primal fears like helplessness, confinement, and being alone in the dark.

Her most famous radio play was “Sorry, Wrong Number,” which was first broadcast on May 25, 1943, as an episode of the CBS anthology series Suspense. It starred Agnes Moorehead as a bedridden invalid who accidentally overhears a phone conversation between two men who are planning a murder. Distraught, she tries to get the operator to find out where the call came from. When that doesn’t work, she calls the police, but without specific information — she didn’t hear any names or exact places — there isn’t much they can do.

It’s a brilliant setup. Since all the action takes place in a single bedroom and all of the dialogue takes place over the phone, there’s never any confusion about who’s who, or what’s happening. Also, the fact that the story is told completely through sound creates a terrifying sense of intimacy.

“Sorry, Wrong Number” was the most popular episode ever broadcast on Suspense. It was so popular that it was performed seven more times, each time starring Agnes Moorehead; again in 1943, in 1944, in 1945, in 1948, in 1952, in 1957, and for the final time in 1960. (Suspense was on the air from 1942 to 1962.)

Stanwyck

It’s natural that such a popular radio play would be adapted for the big screen, but I wasn’t sure how well it would work expanded to three times its length for a visual medium.

People seem to have mixed feelings about Anatole Litvak’s film version, but I thought it was pretty good. I love Barbara Stanwyck, and she’s a more likeable protagonist than Agnes Moorehead was in the same role on the radio.

I found Sorry, Wrong Number similar in some ways to Robert Siodmak’s film The Killers (1946), which was adapted from the short story by Ernest Hemingway. Both films take a small, perfect little piece of art and expand it into a feature film by adding a bunch of characters and a whole lot of plot that’s not even suggested in the original work. (Incidentally, both films star Burt Lancaster and feature William Conrad in a small but important role.)

How well this works is up to the individual viewer, but I thought that Sorry, Wrong Number worked pretty well as a film. It doesn’t have the same impact as the radio play, but the integrity of the original story remains intact, even though it only occupies the first 15 minutes and the last 10 minutes of the film. The film version also humanizes her husband (played by Lancaster) and turns him into a victim of sorts, which is drastically different from the radio play, in which he is mostly an off-stage presence.

Anyway, I love Lucille Fletcher’s work for radio, so I thought I’d compile a list of some of the shows she wrote scripts for. You can click on the titles below to stream the shows or right-click to download them.

The Hitchhiker (first broadcast November 17, 1941)
This is the June 21, 1946, broadcast of the show on Orson Welles’s Mercury Summer Theatre on the Air. Welles reprises his role as a man driving cross-country who repeatedly see the same hitchhiker on the side of the road, even though there is no possible way the man could be moving from place to place so quickly. The chilling music is by Fletcher’s husband at the time, Bernard Herrmann. Like “Sorry, Wrong Number,” this play was done for radio several times, and was even adapted as an episode of The Twilight Zone in 1960.

The Diary of Sophronia Winters (first broadcast April 27, 1943)
Sophronia Winters (Agnes Moorehead), an unmarried middle-aged woman who is feeling liberated after her father’s death, meets a man named Hiram (Ray Collins) whose sister-in-law was also named “Sophronia.” Hiram marries Sophronia and begins to torment her with tales of the other Sophronia, an ax murderess. This is a claustrophobic, suspenseful story that evokes Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s story “The Yellow Wallpaper,” as well as memories of the real-life case of Lizzie Borden.

Sorry, Wrong Number (first broadcast May 25, 1943)
The original radio version stars Agnes Moorehead and is one of a handful of absolutely indispensable shows if you have any interest in radio drama.

Fugue in C minor (first broadcast June 1, 1944)
Ida Lupino plays a woman in the late Victorian era who is introduced to a widower with two young children. The widower, played by Vincent Price, is a composer, and his children believe that he murdered their mother, and that her spirit is trapped in their father’s organ.

The Search for Henri LeFevre (first broadcast July 6, 1944)
Paul Muni stars as a classical composer who believes his work has been plagiarized and broadcast on the radio by a man named “Henri LeFevre.”

The Furnished Floor (first broadcast September 13, 1945)
Don DeFore plays a man whose wife has died. He moves back into the apartment he used to share with his wife and restores it to exactly the way it was when his wife was still alive. Mildred Natwick plays his landlady.

Dark Journey (first broadcast April 25, 1946)
Nancy Kelly and Cathy Lewis play a pair of old friends who reunite after years apart. One of them is obsessed with a man who has spurned her, and believes that she can make him love her through sheer force of will.

The Thing in the Window (first broadcast December 19, 1946)
Joseph Cotten plays a man who thinks he can see a corpse in the apartment across from him, but he can’t be certain if his mind is playing tricks on him.

As I said, I love Lucille Fletcher’s work, and I hope you will too.

The Long Night (May 28, 1947)

Anatole Litvak’s The Long Night is a remake of Marcel Carné’s 1939 drama Le Jour se lève. It stars Henry Fonda, Ann Dvorak, Vincent Price, and Barbara Bel Geddes in her screen debut.

Litvak, who was born in Kiev, worked in the Soviet cinema system in Leningrad, in the pre-war film industry of Berlin, in France after Hitler’s rise to power, and finally in Hollywood, where he became a contract director for Warner Bros. in 1937. Litvak became an American citizen in 1940, enlisted in the Army, and worked with Frank Capra on his Why We Fight series of short films. Litvak finished the war with the rank of colonel and returned to directing Hollywood features. Two of his most famous films would follow — Sorry, Wrong Number (1948) and The Snake Pit (1948).

The Long Night, his first post-war feature, is less well-known. For a long time, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who remembered seeing it. But thanks to a pristine print on DVD from Kino Video (released in 2000 along with a VHS version), this flawed but worthwhile drama is now widely available. In the special features section of the Kino DVD, there are a couple of side-by-side comparisons with Le Jour se lève — a murder sequence in a darkened stairwell and the first meeting of the two lovers — that show how heavily Litvak borrowed from Carné’s film, at least stylistically. (The ending of The Long Night is radically different from the ending of Le Jour se lève, however, which is a standard practice in Hollywood remakes of depressing European art films.)

Despite the happy ending, Litvak infuses The Long Night with a pervasive sense of doom. After shooting a man in his apartment building in an unnamed steel town somewhere near the Pennsylvania-Ohio state line, Joe Adams (Henry Fonda) sits alone in his rented room, the door barricaded as police and onlookers swarm the street below his window. Accompanied by a refrain from Beethoven’s 7th Symphony, Joe tells his story through flashbacks, and we learn what brought him to this desperate place. “How can I explain when I don’t understand myself?” he thinks to himself.

Joe Adams grew up in an orphanage. “Class of ’34,” he tells the pretty young Jo Ann (Barbara Bel Geddes) when he meets her. (We must presume that Joe is younger than the man who plays him, since Fonda was 29 years old in 1934.) Jo Ann also came from the orphanage, and her romance with Joe is simple, childlike, and profound. Fonda plays Joe as a sweet-natured boy with no ability to plan long-term or handle disappointment or frustration. Bel Geddes plays Jo Ann in much the same way, but instead of being petulant she is naïve and unworldly, and open to the manipulation of a slimy magician named Maximilian the Great (Vincent Price).

Maximilian is a congenital liar. His relationship with Jo Ann is nebulous for some time in the film. He first tells Joe that Jo Ann is his daughter, but that he had to go on the road for 15 years and leave her in the company of strangers. After another series of flashbacks, however, it becomes clear that Maximilian and Jo Ann were romantically involved. He took her to see the Cleveland Symphony when she had never been as far west as Pittsburgh, and forced himself on her when she had never been kissed. Jo Ann was uncomfortable with Maximilian’s actions, but she was also lonely, and Maximilian offered her a world of excitement and glamor.

The visual style of The Long Night, its doomed protagonist buffeted by forces outside of his control, and its story told through flashbacks are all hallmarks of film noir, but it also has elements of social realism. For instance, Joe befriends Maximilian’s assistant Charlene (played by the always wonderful Ann Dvorak). He lies on her bed on a Sunday afternoon, reading the funnies, in her crummy room full of clutter, next to a couple of big bottles of beer and a bag of pretzels he brought for them to eat. She provides a stack of toast. She’s in the bath when he arrives, and throws on a slinky silk robe. It’s unclear how close Joe and Charlene really are, but the realism of the setting and the intimacy of the situation push the limits of Hays Code acceptability.

Along with the realism and intimacy of some of the interior settings, there’s plenty of artifice in The Long Night. Unlike the typical Hollywood production in which backdrops were either matte paintings or rear-projection film, production designer Eugène Lourié used elaborate sets with tricks of forced perspective in The Long Night. For example, a factory on a hillside in the distance is really a small model that could be lit in whichever way the filmmakers wanted. Lourié and Litvak intended to achieve a kind of “poetic reality,” and they succeeded. At the same time, the artifice sometimes clashes with the realism, and when it does the film feels aimless.

The Long Night was a commercial and critical failure, and lost approximately $1 million, but it was also the springboard for Barbara Bel Geddes’s long onscreen career. After seeing her performance in the film, RKO signed her to a seven-picture deal.