Bedlam (1946)

“Ours is a human world; theirs is a bestial world.”

Bedlam Poster

Synopsis:
In 18th century London, the headstrong protege (Anna Lee) of a wealthy lord (Billy House) learns about the horrors inflicted by a cruel asylum director (Boris Karloff) upon his inmates, and vows to intervene — only to find herself unjustly committed.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary correctly labels this postwar RKO horror film by producer Val Lewton “his most underrated”, noting that it possesses “terrific performances by Lee and Karloff”, as well as an “intelligent, witty script, offbeat supporting characters, and classy direction by Mark Robson”. Inspired by Plate 8 in William Hogarth’s series of engravings known as “A Rake’s Progress” (and with several of his other engravings appearing as wordless “intertitles” throughout the film), Lewton’s team (including cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca) effectively recreates the shadowy, sinister aura of the notorious “Bethlehem” asylum, whose abbreviated nickname has gone down in etymological history.

Karloff is perfectly cast here as “Master Sims” — an unspeakably evil psychopath whose desire to dominate those weaker than himself manifests in a hellish, sorry existence for the hapless souls trapped in Bedlam. His character’s depth of depravity is hinted at in one brief moment, as he strokes the cheek of a mute woman known simply as “The Dove”; his simple gesture implies an ongoing history of sexual molestation, though this is never made explicit. Indeed, Sims’ depravity seems to have no limits: in one of the film’s most eerily disturbing scenes, Sims allows a young boy (Glenn Vernon) painted entirely in gold to suffocate while reciting a poem, then casually asserts that the boy caused his own death.

But it’s Anna Lee’s fiery courtesan Nell Bowen who this story is really about. As Peary notes, Lee is indeed “the most dynamic of Lewton’s remarkable women” — and her character’s transformation from self-absorbed mistress to selfless caretaker (without ever losing any of her spunk or vitality) drives the narrative. As noted in TCM’s analysis, the film could be seen in some ways as a “feminist horror film”, given that the intelligent, fearless Bowen is essentially being punished for speaking her mind. When Bowen makes the mistake of defiantly eating the money given to her by her former client (House is drolly amusing as the corpulent, well-meaning, yet fatally clueless Lord Mortimer), our hearts sink from the knowledge that Sims will inevitably twist its meaning and use it against her — as he does.

Fortunately, Sims comes to an appropriately horrifying ending in the film’s satisfying, Poe-inspired denouement.

P.S. Film fanatics take note: “Lee’s best dress was worn by Vivien Leigh in Gone With the Wind.”

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Anna Lee as Nell Bowen
    Bedlam Anna Lee
  • Boris Karloff as Master Sims
    Bedlam Karloff
  • Nicholas Musuraca’s striking cinematography
    Bedlam Cinematography
  • Fine supporting performances all around
  • Lewton and Robson’s smart, creepy screenplay

Must See?
Yes. This powerful little B-flick has held up remarkably well, and bears repeat viewing.

Categories

Links:

2 Responses to “Bedlam (1946)”

  1. Thank you for the review. This is on my list of films I must watch in 2009. Karloff really was a master of his craft.

  2. Yes, a must. This one has indeed held up well and remains satisfying on repeat viewings.

    Karloff puts forth a rather modulated performance, his character knowing full well how to play others to serve his own ends. Lee (who later seemed to mostly work in television) gets a rare opportunity with a meaty role that allows her depth and complexity. (Interestingly, her character – upon noticing just how cruel Karloff is – does not immediately turn ‘selfless’. She’s been around selfish, deceitful people long enough for more than some of it to have rubbed off. Note how she sweet-talks the Quaker, in the latter part of the film, into going against his principles and giving her a weapon.)

    The film moves swiftly, is constructed well and does have a sharp (and sometimes witty) script. The climax is not easy to anticipate. I’ve seen ‘Bedlam’ a handful of times and I always find myself wrapped up in it. While it’s naturally easy to hiss Karloff, it’s equally disturbing, for example, to see the well-to-do audience playing into Karloff’s hands and laughing as Karloff makes a mockery of the clearly suffering ‘golden boy’. Another scene I find rather horrifying (and which recalls ‘Witchfinder General’ for me) is the one in which Lee is brought before ‘counsel’ to quickly be determined insane. That sequence does accent the film’s feminist stance as we witness Lee being considered trivial – less, perhaps, for being thought insane than for ‘merely’ being a woman.

    cf.: ‘Marat/Sade’

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.