5. David and Lisa (1962) | Dir. Frank Perry
Frank Perry’s minor art-house film (adapted from a novel by Theordore Rubin) has the premise of a boy-meets-a-girl story. Only here, the boy David (Keir Dullea) plays an extremely intelligent boy, who turns aggressive when touched. The girl Lisa (Janet Margolin) is a schizophrenic, who carries a deep trauma only speaks in rhymes. They are thrown in together at a private psychiatric hospital. What separates this work from usual melodramatic mental asylum films is that it approaches its characters and their surroundings with sensitivity and understanding. The internal turbulence & frustration of the characters is portrayed with rare attention to detail; not characterized by ridiculous outbursts. The film also showcases an idealized atmosphere for mental institution and depicts how certain kind of mental illness could be cured by better communication. Both the characters awaken for a better future in the care of attentive Dr. Swinford (Howard De Silva). The film’s most unforgettable, tender scene happens when Lisa goes to art museum for a field trip. Watch out for the painful action when Lisa sees the statue of a mother embracing her infant.
4. Shutter Island (2010) | Martin Scorsese
Martin Scorsese’s psychological thriller (based on Dennis Lehane’s novel) opens with arrival of US Marshal Teddy Daniels (Di Caprio) to the dark isle, where the infamous criminally insane patients are confined to Ashecliffe hospital. Teddy is there to investigate a disappearance and gradually learns that the missing element is far more elusive than he thought it to be. The narrative is considered to be flawed due to its erratic tone that veers between hard-boiled mystery and Gothic horror. But, the film scores full marks in creating a dense, atmospheric visual signature and in the performances of brilliant ensemble.There’s a superfluous nature in the way, the film brings home its psychoanalysis, although the burgeoning mental breakdown of Daniels in the delimited environment gives enough cinematic pleasures.
3. Shock Corridor (1963) | Dir. Samuel Fuller
Samuel Fuller’s pulp classic takes place inside confined spaces (there are some exotic footage of locations in Japan). Even when its reporter protagonist is shown outside the mental institution he is bounded to a four walls, obsessed by the risks he wanted to take for attaining the Pulitzer Prize. The plot concerns Johnny Barrett (Peter Breck), a newspaper reporter, who wants to unravel the mystery behind a murder, happened in state psychiatric hospital. To question the inmates, who had witnessed the killing, Barrett risks his sanity and by trumped-up complaint gets into the mental institution. Despite the pulpy story-line, Fuller manages to explore the themes of obsession that turns around the sane individuals. He is able to cram in political ideas and social observation through the emotional suffering of the inmates. DoP Stanley Cortez and Fuller work in tandem to precisely visualize the disintegrating inner mental state of Barrett and the pervading insanity in the dark corridors of asylum.
2. The Snake Pit (1948) | Anatole Litvak
Anatole Litvak’s powerful feature was one of the earlier movies to deal psychosis or mental illness in a non-melodramatic or non-sensitive manner. Based on Mary Jane Ward’s fictionalized memoirs, the film marvelously visualizes (it was the era of Hays Code) the nervous breakdown of a young woman named Virginia, afflicted by repressed childhood trauma. An empathetic doctor Kirk (Leo Glenn) treats her to the era’s new psychotherapy for apprehending the painful memory of Virginia. “Snake Pit’s” brilliance is justified in the heartrending performance of Olivia de Havilland, who deeply exhibits inner thoughts of an institutionalized schizophrenic. While Virginia’s emotional problems are very grounded and realistic, the real socioeconomic problems in running an asylum was also properly dealt with. The film’s title refers to the indifferent, inhumane treatment prevalent in the run-down state psychiatric facilities.
1. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) | Miloš Forman
Milos Forman’s stirring classic isn’t just a work that claims for free-spirit in a tyrannical mental facility; it is a powerful anti-establishment drama, reflecting on the mentalities of oppressors and the rare rebellious thinkers, striving to break that humongous wall of sociopolitical limitations. Jack Nicholson’s live-wire performance as Patrick McMurphy and Louise Fletcher’s anger inciting Nurse Ratched have been registered as two of the best performances in the history of cinema. The de-humanzing treatment of institutional powers is blended with a right mix of angst and humorous absurdity. The story is pretty basic and it’s definitely not a fair critique of the institution’s treatment methods, but Forman’s symbolism combined with Hasker Wexell’s fabulous cinematography gives us a phenomenal dramatic agitation. McMurphy’s crusade for liberation or battle of wills provides abundant life lessons and the film’s final image of freedom is rich and impactful in its imagery that it still stays fresh in my mind.