This article examines the simultaneous gendering and pathologization of screen space in two films directed by Anatole Litvak, The Snake Pit and Sorry, Wrong Number (US, 1948), released within months of each other. It focuses on two formal phenomena: the morbid close-up and the curlicue camera movement. Magnification of ordinary percepts, or a general and unpleasant accenting of objects in the visual field, is a common complaint in the phenomenology of mental illness, for example, in hysteria, obsession, phobia, and paranoia. An illness removes something from its ordinary context and brings it closer to the subject, who experiences its closeness as enigmatic or distressing. By bringing things closer, however, it also brings them closer together, compacting them into strange and novel figures. Magnification has its cinematic analogue in the close-up, while compaction can be visually rendered by montage or whip pans. The Snake Pit and Sorry, Wrong Number, like other films of the 1940s centered on female insanity, exploit the language of cinema in order to make spectators partake in their pathologized versions of the sensory world. This restructuring of perception by mental illness has also historically been conceived as a deviation of attention from its normal, goal-oriented routines. Attention seems to lose its proper object and so becomes aimless, free floating. In these particular films, the heroines' destabilized attention is figured in whimsical, decorative camera movements. Such curlicues are another means by which the spectator is gradually involved in a world of perceptual morbidity. The article concludes with an extended treatment of paranoia in relation to Sorry, Wrong Number.
Skip Nav Destination
Seth Watter; Close-Ups and Curlicues: Female Neurosis in Two Films by Anatole Litvak. Camera Obscura 1 December 2015; 30 (3 (90)): 93–127. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/02705346-3160663
Download citation file: