Sunday, October 05, 2008

Two Classic Films

Brief comments on two classic hollywood films with women protagonists both released in 1948 and both directed by Anatole Litvak. Both leading ladies even got Oscar nominations for their roles though none of them won. Olivia de Havilland would win the next year's Oscar for "The Heiress" (another great film, by the way). For Barbara Stanwyck it was just one of her total four nominations.

Anyway coming back to the first film. Andrea Dworkin in her book on pornography says that heterosexual culture under patriarchy is essentially homoerotic in nature. It is true that men do have sex with women but they reserve their love, which is based on mutual respect and admiration, for other men and that man's love for a woman is at its best a variation of paternalistic kindness and generosity (that is, when he is not busy beating, abusing, raping and murdering her).

Most of The Snake Pit feels like a conscious critique of this kind of heterosexual relationship. Virginia (played by Olivia de Havilland who is quite impressive and very pretty in an unshowy way) has had some "father-issues" while growing up as a kid because of which she is unable to accept the male love with its fatherly paternalism. The film begins when she is already in a mental asylum after suffering a nervous breakdown just after a few months of her marriage. She can't remember her past and her days go by as if in a haze. The doctor in charge of her "Dr. Kik" thinks it is a good idea to let her undergo eletroshock treatment which will help him establish "contact" with her so that then he can do his psychotherapy. Most of the story is then told in flashback as she reveals her life details to him and is then cured when she acknowledges all the messy details of her unconscious (usual Freudianism).

The tone of the film oscillates between that of personal psychological drama and a social problem film tackling the issues of mental illness in society and its proper treatment. We hear her monologues as voiceover (wonderfully voiced by Havilland) and we also see the doctors debating the proper course of treatment. Unlike many other films set in asylums it avoids cheap sensationalism and insensitive humour (it is still funny occasionally) while still maintaining a comfortable distance from truly harrowing nature of illness and treatment. (The electoshock therapy for example happens off camera). The overall effect then is much more palatable than Billy Wilder's The Lost Weekend, a film of the same period which deals with alchoholism.

Like most of the classical hollywood films of the period happy ending feels tacked on and mandatory. For most of these films one has to keep it in mind to truly appreciate the social critique the film offers. For example in this film, the whole story is how women are oppressed under paternalistic authority (even when it is kind and generous) but ultimately the good-natured psychotherapist cures her, to the extent that she even asks for her wedding ring from her husband when she gets out. The message being that women can maintain their sanity only when they give in and accept their position under patriarchy. Fassbinder, who was a huge fan of classical hollywood, said that he wanted to make films like the ones made in old hollywood but "without the hypocrisy." The ending in many of these old films feels hypocritical but as a viewer we can see it as demands of a repressive commercial ideology. It will also be interesting to compare it with Fassbinder's own Angst vor der Angst (Fear of Fear), which I wrote about here, his treatment of the same subject. Unlike the very model of sanity and rational composure and sensitivity, the psychiatrist in Fassbinder is a cold blooded villain who demands sex from Margit Carstensen in return of her medicine. A lot of the Freudianism presented in the film also seem dated even a little ridiculous. Fassbinder explicitly frames the image of Freud hanging from the wall to make it look like a stern patriarch looking down upon the hapless women, while in this film his image comes out like that of a wise and saintly figure. Anyway these criticisms aside, overall it is quite impressive in its treatment of a difficult subject, definitely worth watching.

I saw Sorry, Wrong Number last year but I thought I would mention it on the blog since it is not so well-known. This is the film you shouldn't read anything about before watching. Needless to say it has one of the most nailbiting and shocking climaxes in all of classical hollwood. (Very unlike the hypocritical endings I mentioned above). I am actually surprised that the censors even let it pass. Fans of Burt Lancaster will be in for a shock too, as he plays a craven minion, very unlike the macho-masculine roles he is famous for. Barbara Stanwyck is at her best here (and that is saying quite a bit). The film will feel very gimmicky in the beginning with its real-time story and flashbacks within flashbacks structure but the story really draws you in and doesn't let you go till the very end with the shocking revelation. This is a must-watch example of classic hollywood film-noir.


km said...

I had not heard of that Stanwyck-Lancaster film before. Now I am intrigued.

Alok said...

don't read any reviews, just watch it.

Jabberwock said...

Still haven't seen this, though I've read the short story from which it was adapted, so there are no surprises in store for me! But hope to see it sometime - Stanwyck is a favourite and I've always been interested in Lancaster's career.

Alok said...

Oh, I didn't know anything about it before I saw and I was really shocked and surprised, even though in the beginning it looked very gimmicky and contrived.