Bedlam (1946)


(director/writer: Mark Robson; screenwriter: Carlos Keith (a pseudonym for Val Lewton); cinematographer: Nicholas Musuraca; editor: Lyle Boyer; music: Roy Webb; cast: Boris Karloff (Master Sims), Anna Lee (Nell Rowen), Billy House (Lord Mortimer), Richard Fraser (Hannay), Jason Robards, Sr. (Oliver Todd), Ian Wolfe (Sidney Long), Elizabeth Russell (Mistress Kitty Sims), Glenn Vernon (The Gilded Boy), Leland Hodgson (John Wilkes), Joan Newton (Dorothea the Dove), Skelton Knaggs (Nell’s Valet, Varney); Runtime: 79; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Val Lewton; RKO; 1946)

“As a sociological tract it’s right on the money, as a psychological thriller it wanders at times too far away from the money.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A big-budget horror film that was inspired by the William Hogarth engraving “Bedlam,” the Number 8 plate from “A Rake’s Progress.” It’s a serious, ambitious and intelligent attempt to serve as an indictment of the treatment of the mentally ill during the “Age of Reason.” The telling narrative gives a compassionate view of how people should be treated, as it strikes out against the beatings and mental cruelty the unfortunate inmates suffered at the time. Its only problem was in how flat it was.

It’s set in London in 1761 and tells of the inmates of Saint Mary’s of Bethlehem Hospital, an infamous maligned place of horrors that’s better known as Bedlam. It was produced by Val Lewton with the same sensitivity he reserved for all his great films, but under Mark Robson’s (“The Seventh Victim”/”The Ghost Ship””Isle of the Dead”) stodgy direction it never breathes with fire as much as it should. Instead it’s served best when it exposes the insane asylum to criticism for its inadequate treatment of its inmates. The narrative has going for it the qualities of a Restoration play, the superb dark photography by cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca and the uniformly fine performances from the entire cast–especially Boris Karloff’s nuanced sinister one.

It tells of the insensitive upper-classes who pay the cunning and evil Apothecary General of the Bedlam insane asylum, Master Sims (Boris Karloff), a tuppence to visit inside to gawk at the caged lunatics and get a good laugh at their expense. On one such visit the feisty hedonistic actress Nell Bowen (Anna Lee) and the buffoonish Lord Mortimer (Billy House), to whom she’s a protégé, visit Bedlam. But to Mortimer’s dismay one of the poets he hired to write several poems for him (a man despised by the Warden Sims) was wrongly imprisoned and died when he was pushed out of a window while trying to escape. Mortimer blames Sims and chews him out the next day in his home, but the clever toady Sims convinces Mortimer to use some of Bedlam’s inmates to put on a play that he will specially write for the occasion. Mortimer is pleased that this is the kind of entertainment that will please his society friends, and orders Nell to visit Bedlam and get a few laughs. Instead of being amused at what she sees, Nell is appalled at the inhuman conditions and in anger strikes Sims. She bonds with the pious Quaker Hannay (Richard Fraser), who has applied for a job as a stonemason at Bedlam but refuses to play ball with Sims’ attempt to compromise him with an offer of a kickback. Hannay suggests she could use her influence to improve the lives of these poor souls through her influential friends. At the Tory gala, during the inmate play, a boy performer who is painted over with gold (Glenn Vernon) and who played the part of Reason, dies from fright and suffocation as the gold chokes off his pores before he can finish his speech praising Mortimer (this death was copied for James Bond’s Goldfinger-1964). No guest sees anything wrong with this but for Nell, who will afterwards complain to Mortimer and ask for changes. Sims counters her arguments of reform by telling Mortimer he would have to raise taxes to make those changes. When he refuses, this upsets Nell so much that she blurts out the contempt she has for Mortimer and he gives her the boot.

In jest Nell puts up for sale her parrot in the marketplace, who has been taught an insulting rhyme that will embarrass both Mortimer ans Sims. Nell refuses both Master Sims’ offer of 20 pounds and Lord Mortimer’s offer of 100 guineas for it. Sims brings his niece (Elizabeth Russell) to bribe Nell, who reacts by putting the money note between two pieces of bread and eating it. With that, Sims convinces Mortimer to have her committed to Bedlam (a practice used by men at the time to get rid of an unwanted wife). A board of inquiry, where the fix is in, commits Nell for not being able to explain her actions as sane.

At the frightening asylum, Hannay locates her with the help of some friendly stonemason workers and promises to get her in touch with her lawyer John Wilkes (Leland Hodgson). In the meantime, Nell begs that the Quaker give her a weapon to defend herself, but he carries no weapons and reluctantly gives her his work tool–a trowel.

In the asylum Nell is befriended by Sidney Long (Ian Wolfe), a former lawyer, and realizes she’s the only one who is sane enough to help the other inmates who are crying out in pain. She wins them all over with her acts of kindness. At the climax when Sims enters her cage to torture her so that she won’t be able to tell Wilkes what has happened to her and thereby ruin his career, the inmates overcome the jailer and put him on trial for his cruel treatment of them. But he offers a whiny and cringing defense and convinces them he’s sane, but a woman who stole Nell’s trowel bashes him over the head and because they think he’s dead and will be punished they bury him behind a brick wall they build not realizing he’s alive. The next day Nell, who escaped that night, and the Quaker visit Bedlam, and he decides to remain silent about where Sims is buried fearing the inmates would only be severely punished for an act they were incapable of being responsible for due to insanity.

As a sociological tract it’s right on the money, as a psychological thriller it wanders at times too far away from the money. It stays too much on social conditions instead of on supernatural occurrences to work as a horror film–the kind of films producer Lewton (“Cat People”/”Leopard Man”/”I Walked With A Zombie”) gained his rep on.