review for The Snake Pit on AllMovie

The Snake Pit (1948)
by Mark Deming review

At a time when Hollywood's understanding of mental illness hovered at the level of Arsenic and Old Lace, The Snake Pit bravely suggested that healthy, respectable people could suffer severe depression and nervous breakdowns, and that emotional maladies were treatable, and even curable. The film's representation of Virginia Cunningham and her troubles may seem elementary by today's standards, and the worries about her ability to remain a good wife may feel archaically sexist. But Anatole Litvak's grim portrait of the mental hospital and its residents remain strong and startling, and Olivia de Havilland's Oscar-nominated portrayal of Virginia was a bravely unglamorous choice that still holds up as her best performance. While the film's sunny ending seems a bit pat, it suggests that Virginia's crippling anxieties could be cured, like any other disease, a radical notion in Hollywood in the 1940s. If The Snake Pit does not seem quite as brave or groundbreaking today as it did on first release, it's still an effective and powerful drama.