Dark Dignitaries: When Karloff met Lewton Part III: Bedlam

As part of this week's ongoing Boris Karloff blogathon, we take a look at the Uncanny One's final collaboration with distinguished producer Val Lewton – the 1946 Period-Horror-‘Message’-movie hybrid, Bedlam. Be sure to check out a list of links to other Karloff related goodness over at Frankensteinia: The Frankenstein Blog.

After the success of The Body Snatcher and with Isle of the Dead finally wrapped and ready to be released, RKO decided to ‘reward’ Lewton by upping his budget for what would transpire to be his last B Horror movie for them. As well as receiving $350,000 Lewton was also given a staggering 8 months for post-production – unheard of for a B movie at the time.

Following on from Isle of the Dead and The Body Snatcher, Bedlam was another ‘period’ film with astounding attention to detail lavished upon it, and like Isle of the Dead was also inspired by a painting – William Hogarth’s Bedlam Plate 8: The Rake’s Progress. The script was written by director Mark Robson and Val Lewton, under his pseudonym Carlos Keith, and was apparently also inspired by the ponderous writings of Casanova and English poet Nicholas Breton. Whilst the dialogue is immensely decorative and accomplished, it was initially criticized for being to ‘high-brow’, although now it is considered amongst Lewton’s best work. Lewton also gathered together a few familiar and trusted colleagues, including composer Roy Webb, who provides a fittingly baroque score, cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca, who had previously lensed Cat People, Curse of the Cat People, The Ghost Ship and The Seventh Victim. The cast also compromised of a few familiar faces too, such as Jason Robards, Elizabeth Russell and Skelton Knaggs. The producer also insisted that Anna Lee portray the headstrong Nell Bowen, as he had wanted to work with her since I Walked with a Zombie, a film she narrowly missed out starring in.

Unfortunately, the extra eight months Lewton was given to put the film together in post-production would conspire to rob the film of its already dwindling potential audience. Post War audiences wanted realism – they wanted to be cheered up and reminded that they were alive and that being alive was a good thing and blah, blah, blah. In other words, no one wanted to watch horror films and be reminded that the world could be a dangerous and scary place. Bad news for Bedlam, which was heavily marketed as a horror picture – its lurid posters visually squealing about the promise of seeing ‘Beauty at the Mercy of Madmen!’ and ‘The shocking truth about 18th Century London’s ill-famed House of Horrors, where only death could free its hopeless inmates from the foul and fancy tortures of a master in monstrousness!’. Yes, they put ALL that on a poster.

What many didn’t realise, much to the chagrin of its star Karloff, was that Bedlam was really a delicately crafted, if a quite often creepy and sadistic, message movie about the ill-treatment of the mentally ill. In this respect, Bedlam was very ahead of its time – tackling issues (albeit within the guise of a ‘chiller’) that most other films of this time would only shirk from. According to an interview with star Anna Lee in a 1991 edition of ‘Science Fiction Stars and Horror Heroes’: ‘Boris used to get quite annoyed when people referred to it as a horror picture. He said ‘It’s not a horror picture, it’s a historical picture’, and he was right, absolutely dead right.’

Dir. Mark Robson

Nell Bowen (Anna Lee), the spirited protégé of the very rich and very pompous Lord Mortimer, is quietly horrified by the conditions of the infamous St. Mary's of Bethlehem Asylum – Bedlam - when she visits it for a ‘jest’. Encouraged by her friend, Quaker Hannay (Richard Fraser), she attempts to reform Bedlam, but the cruel apothecary general, Master Sims (Boris Karloff), resents her interference and has her committed there. Winning over the inmates with her kindness and self-sacrificing nature, Nell soon has it in her power to turn the tables on the sadistic Sims once and for all.

Whilst Lewton’s most identifiable trait throughout his film work must surely be his use of ambiguity and suggestiveness – Bedlam is quite different from his other productions, with its no-holds barred depiction of the horrors and atrocities of humanity. The cruelty and lack of compassion people often express towards one another, particularly those who are considered ‘different’ by society, is the dark core of this film. Of course, this being a Lewton production, it is still handled tastefully and is grounded firmly in the world of literature and art.

The scenes within Bedlam are suitably atmospheric and creepy, as bodies lay strewn about the place amongst filthy straw beds, chains and unidentifiable debris. A truly effective shot of hands reaching out through the bars of dark cells along a corridor reveals the plight of many inmates. Director of photography Musuraca drenches his carefully composed filmic canvas in dramatic lighting and a rich visual texture. The interior of Bedlam is a mass of expressionistically angled shafts of light and shadow, highlighting its uneven kilter as a house of the damned and anguished. When Nell has her first glimpse inside the asylum, we are treated to a wonderful shot of her startled face before the camera pulls back, and keeps pulling back, to gradually reveal the degradation she sees spread out before her. As mentioned, Bedlam was inspired by Hogarth’s painting sequence The Rake’s Progress, notably its final panel showing the eponymous rake in an insane asylum. The film begins with a montage of excerpts from Hogarth’s paintings, and at various times throughout the film, other excerpts appear briefly onscreen. As Nell moves around the asylum, various little segments from Hogarth’s paintings are recreated in the onscreen action.

A particularly disturbing moment that also forms one of the film’s most notorious scenes occurs as affluent and exquisitely attired guests assemble for the banquet Sims has thrown. The sumptuousness and opulence of the guests and their lavishly laid out dinning table contrasts quite powerfully with the suffering and eventual death of the feeble boy standing before them covered in gold gilt. They laugh and chatter and fan themselves as he is made to recite a poem as he suffocates within his own skin. When he drops dead they react as though his suffering were a mere trifle, and carry on with the festivities as before. This is the moment that reaffirms Nell’s realisation that the ‘loonies’ aren’t quite as funny as she initially thought they’d be, and it is quite haunting in its simplicity and cruelty.

Anna Lee breathes life into Nell, enlivening proceedings whenever she is onscreen. She is headstrong, good natured and sharp-witted – typical of Lewton’s leading ladies and it is easy to like her – if only because Sims is such a conniving nemesis. The rapid-fire exchanges of dialogue between her and, well, anyone else in the film, are definite highlights. Her transformation into a saintly, Florence Nightingale-type is believable, if a little hasty. Lee also conveys Nell’s vulnerability quite well, as demonstrated in the rather taut trial scene in which she is committed to Bedlam. The scene is edited in such a way as to highlight her mounting frustration with the increasing number of absurd questions fired at her by a room full of judges. Elsewhere, Richard Fraser as the kindly Quaker comes across as stiff, handsome and quite bland – typical of leading men in 1930s/40s horror films. Elizabeth Russell is a hoot as Sim’s boozy floozy and it’s nice to see her in a slightly comic role for once, as she usually portrayed tragic, doomed women in Lewton’s films.

Karloff provides another richly textured performance that, while not quite as nuanced as his portrayal of Gray in The Body Snatcher, still ensures that the otherwise unsavoury and malignantly cunning Sims manages to invite our sympathy at various times. Cordial, droll and immensely sadistic, the apothecary general is still open to ridicule from time to time – especially from takes-no-bullshit-Nell. Whereas she is strong and principled, he is corrupt, cruel and obsequious enough to worm his way into the ranks of society he fancies he belongs to. And yet when we first see him, it is as he sits anxiously outside Lord Mortimer’s chamber waiting to be quizzed about the death of an inmate Mortimer was acquainted with. The complexity in his character is also evident when he is being judged by his own inmates in a tense kangaroo court. As he defends himself, it would be easy to dismiss his pleas as those of a man who would say anything to save his snake-like skin – however, because of Karloff’s conviction, we aren’t too sure about Sims – maybe he is telling the truth.

We never find out though, as events climax in a shuddersome Poe-inspired finale.
Bedlam may at times appear to be unsure of what kind of film it wants to be – a horror film? A period thriller? A ‘message’ movie? A restoration satire? In fairness, it is all of these things. It is also a finely crafted and moving film with credentials that completely belie its B grade status.

Bedlam marked the final collaboration between Karloff and Lewton – a fitting end to a most fruitful partnership. Karloff received rave reviews for his performance, and perhaps due to his successful work with Lewton, won three major roles the following year in three big budget mainstream movies: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Lured and Unconquered. His second ‘terror’ omnibus, entitled And the Darkness Falls, was released to coincide with Bedlam, and was also received favourably.

Follow the links to read more about Karloff's collaborations with Lewton.

Dark Dignitaries: When Karloff met Lewton Part I: Isle of the Dead

Dark Dignitaries: When Karloff met Lewton Part II: The Body Snatcher


Ed Howard said…
Nice writeup. I actually really like this film and I'm glad to see some more appreciation for it. Like all of Lewton's later films, it's hobbled by an overly stiff, literary sensibility in the writing, but the dialogue is certainly stronger than in his previous two moralistic period pieces. Karloff is amazing, of course, mostly just a sinister portrait of pure evil but balancing out the portrayal with a few more subtle touches, like his desperate desire to be accepted as a sophisticate, as a member of high society. Anna Lee is almost as good, lovely and energetic and fun.

It's also Lewton's most forceful and powerful social commentary, dealing as it does with the treatment of the mentally ill. I see in the film some deliberate parallels to the just-ended WW2, with the dialogue's continual references to some people being less than human; Lewton is decrying the human willingness to relegate some fellow humans to a lower species, to treat them like animals or worse, to care nothing about their lives and deaths. And of course, when Karloff finally gets put on trial, he mounts what is essentially a "just following orders" defense reminiscent of the explanations put forward by many former Nazis. It's not his fault, he insists, he was simply doing what was expected of him by society, by those above him.
James Gracey said…
Hi Ed,
Thanks for your comments - always a pleasure to read your thoughts.
I like what you said about Bedlam being Lewton's most forceful and powerful social commentary, dealing as it does with the treatment of the mentally ill. I also found what you said about the seemingly deliberate parallels to the just-ended WW2 extremely interesting. I guess looking back over the film, this does indeed make sense. And to think that all of this comes from a modest, nay, humble little B movie...

Thanks again for your comments - glad you liked the post. :)
When I got the Val Lewton DVD set I was not very interested in this film... I am a big fan of ISLE OF THE DEAD - have been since I was a kid but when I finally settled down and watched BEDLAM I was blown away.

What a neglected little gem of a film it is.

Great work as always.
Enattendant said…
I really do think that it's a message movie, anti-psychiatry in advance and philosophy of the eighteenth century explained to the common twentieth century man expecting his share of horrific notions. Especially because the film is not scary and very didactic.
You can have a look at what I wrote about it, if you want, I'll be happy to read your point of view.

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