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The Snake Pit

Olivia de Havilland received an Oscar nomination for The Snake Pit (1948) with her portrayal of Virginia Cunningham, a smart young newlywed with a bright future ahead of her as a wife and a writer. When her behavior becomes increasingly erratic, her husband (Mark Stevens) sends her off for professional help — to an overcrowded, under-funded state hospital where she's subjected to abuse at the hands of the psych ward's crazy patients and sadistic staff. The Snake Pit is a skin-crawling example of psychological horror, even when its reductive view of psychology makes the modern viewer cringe (or chuckle). The performances are powerful, especially those of de Havilland, Celeste Holm as a fellow inmate, and British actor Leo Gunn as a gentle, sympathetic psychiatrist. And the pre-feminist subtext is inescapable — Virginia starts to "go crazy" when she dares to strive for a career beyond her housewifely duties, and ultimately she must capitulate to the status quo to be judged sane. Based on an autobiographical novel by Mary Jane Ward and directed by Anatole Litvak (Anastasia [1956], Sorry, Wrong Number [1948]) with a solid score by Alfred Newman, this unsettling look at the conditions of modern psychiatric treatment was powerful and ground-breaking upon its release, nominated for Oscars for Best Actress, Director, Sound, Writing, and Music (however, the film's only win was for Best Sound). While perhaps a tad simplistic and outdated today, The Snake Pit is still a disturbing scare flick that touches on our deep-seated terror of loss of control and of self. Fox's DVD release, part of the "Fox Studio Classics" imprint, offers an excellent black-and-white, full-screen transfer (1.33:1 OAR) — there's a fair amount of noticeable specks and scratches due to age, but the contrast is marvelous, with deep blacks and crisp mid-range tones. The Dolby Digital audio (in English stereo or English, French or Spanish mono, with available English or Spanish subtitles) is very clean, with no noticeable ambient noise. A commentary track features film historian Aubrey Solomon, who offers anecdotal tidbits about the actors and background on the production of the film. Also on board are five Movietone News trailers released to theaters during the promotion of the film, trailers for other Fox Studio Classics DVDs, a stills gallery, and the theatrical trailer. Keep-case.
—Dawn Taylor

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