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The Snake Pit

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Cast
Olivia de Havilland, Mark Stevens, Leo Genn, Celeste Holm
Released
1948
Gerard Chrzanowski | Sigmund Freud
Spoiler alert
Blog entry

Replete with apparently accurate depictions of psychiatric relevance, this watershed film portrays a renegade psychiatrist (Dr. Kik whose character may have been based on Gerard Chrzanowski) as a hero for bucking the overcrowded and understaffed institution to provide his patient (Virginia) the treatment he alone knows she needs. The classic couch and portrait of Freud on the wall of his office suggest psychoanalytic training, but he combines ECT, narcosynthesis, hydrotherapy and face to face psychotherapy to bring about apparent cure of what we might diagnose today as posttraumatic stress disorder. Except for the narcosynthesis we see no use of medications even though barbiturates and possibly reserpine would likely have been available at the time.

In the opening scene we see Virginia sitting on a bench in what appears to be a park. A male voice asks questions suggestive of a psychiatrist, and a female voice, presumably her inner voice but possibly hallucination, wonders about the situation. She sees another woman sitting near her, but seems to think the woman was transformed from a man.

As the scene progresses she seems confused about the situation, to have no accurate memory of where she is or who the other characters are. She acts frightened until she asserts that she is visiting a prison to work on a project. She even gives the wrong last name, perhaps her maiden name, as hers, and fails to identify the psychiatrist or her own husband (prosopagnosia?). As the story unfolds we see less suggestion of psychosis.

Dr. Kik recommends ECT "to get to the cause, to establish contact with her. Her husband authorizes the treatment. Patients are lined up for treatments. The device and electrodes appear authentic, but when the switch is operated with no anesthesia we hear loud dyssonant music, and the camera pans away, sparing us from watching the effect. Progress notes reading, "lacks insight, judgment" support need for repeated treatments. The nurses seem offended when Kik stops further treatments.

Kik sticks to his plan despite criticism from other psychiatrists, some of whom appear peculiar or almost brutal, for his involvement in her case.

With psychotherapy and narcosynthesis Kik uncovers the significance of May 12 and the deaths of Virginia's father during childhood, and male suitor as an adult, as contributing to her illness. Dr. Kik dictates a letter he hopes will gain her more time in the hospital.

After Virginia tries to hide to avoid transfer to another unit nurses place her in a camisole. We see a sparsely furnished day room where patients posture and perseverate, some displaying rapid speech, inappropriate affect, disorganized behaviors.

Dr. Kik formulates Virginia's case for her: feeling unloved in early life, she was angry at her father for siding with her mother. When he died she felt guilty and unconsciously blamed herself for his death as well as that of the suitor.

In the end Virginia helps a mute catatonic patient talk and admits to Dr. Kik her feelings for him. He relaxes boundaries to dance with her.