Tuesday, May 5, 2009
Bedlam was the last of producer Val Lewton's RKO horror films, and it's a rather stunning conclusion to the vaunted series of B-movies the producer oversaw at the studio throughout the 40s. As with all of Lewton's work, this film strays far from its ostensible genre, and its horror is strictly human and realistic; it is the horror of cruelty and indifference towards one's fellow beings. Just a year after the end of World War II and the revelation of the horrors of the Holocaust, Lewton made a film about society's continuing tendency to classify people as either human or subhuman, declaring certain specimens to be animals, brutes, mindless, not worthy of respect or dignity or even the ordinary essentials of living. The film is set comfortably in the past, in the 18th Century, and it ends with an optimistic message of progress, but one can't help but think that there are darker, uglier truths at its core.
The film concerns itself with the plight of the insane, institutionalized at a famous London asylum derisively called "Bedlam," where the overseer George Sims (Boris Karloff) charges admission for high society visitors to come and watch the lunatics and be entertained. It is an appalling state of affairs, but no one seems to mind other than Nell Bowen (Anna Lee), an entertainer herself and the protege of the wealthy Lord Mortimer (Billy House). She is a former actress and a cultivated wit, and she is kept as something like a court jester for the corpulent lord. She herself is far from amused by the conditions in Bedlam, but she tries to resist the pangs of her conscience, trying to maintain the air of upper-crust indifference that her friends and companions wear so comfortably. She finds, however, that she cannot stifle her feelings, and the Quaker Hannay (Richard Fraser) encourages her to do something about what she's seen. When Sims parades a troupe of lunatics in theatrical costumes before one of Mortimer's parties — even making a cruel joke out of the death of one of the performers — she is horrified as much by the laughter at the table as by Sims' own actions. She tries to use her influence with Mortimer to change conditions at Bedlam, but the threat of raised taxes proves much more persuasive to the lord than his companion's desires; he tells her to consider his problems rather than those of the poor in the asylum.
Eventually, Nell's insistence on stirring up trouble and trying to improve conditions at Bedlam gets her committed herself, with Sims manipulating a sanity hearing against her and getting her under his care. Sims is a true villain, and Karloff delivers one of his best, creepiest performances as the sadistic asylum-keeper. He is a toady to the upper class, cherishing his stable position, in which he is at least tolerated in society by virtue of his usefulness, but he is never really accepted. All he wants is this acceptance, and he tries to present himself as a poet, an educated man of letters, though as the introduction makes clear, he can only really attain this status by imprisoning and murdering his more sensitive and intelligent rivals. He is a monster masquerading as a sophisticate, and his ingratiating smiles fade over time into sinister leers. He looks uncomfortable, too, in the neat dark wig that covers up his shock of white, ragged hair, another society pretense, a thin veneer barely covering up his evil nature.
This is one of Lewton's most pointed and forceful social commentaries. One of the film's greatest scenes is the climactic moment when, after Nell has finally engineered her escape from Bedlam, the inmates take Sims as their prisoner while one of them, a former judge (Ian Wolfe), decides to put the prison supervisor on trial. The inmates hold a trial in which Sims stutters out his excuses and justifications, saying that he didn't want to hurt anyone, that he was merely following the dictates of society, trying to fit in with those around him — a defense that essentially amounts to, "I was just following orders." It rings as false here as it did at the contemporaneous Nuremberg Trials, but the inmates nevertheless declare Sims to be "sane" and therefore release him. It's a fascinating moment, not least because the inmates' verdict of sanity can also be understood as an acknowledgment of his culpability for his actions. The inmates act as though Sims' sanity frees him, but in actuality it confirms that he knew exactly what he was doing, that his cruelty and viciousness were conscious.
Lewton and director Mark Robson sculpt this film's images with their usual care and delicacy. The images from the early part of the film, in Mortimer's lavishly appointed home, are bright and pristine, seeming to glow with light. The brightness and good cheer of Mortimer's parties and the laughter constantly echoing throughout his house create a powerful contrast against the squalor of Bedlam. The film purposefully delays the moment when the inmates' quarters, hidden behind a heavy wooden door, are finally revealed. When Nell goes to visit the asylum for the first time, as she steps through the doors the camera remains on her face, in a closeup as her eyes go wide and her mouth opens slightly, unable to suppress a gasp of horror. Lewton and Robson hold the moment, taking in Sims' self-satisfied smirk behind her, convinced that he has another satisfied customer. And then the camera slowly tracks backward into the room, revealing the filth and misery and darkness in which Bedlam's inhabitants must live. They are sprawled out all over the floor, most of them dressed in rags and covered in dirt, sleeping on straw, living like animals. As Sims leads Nell around the room, he even describes what kinds of animals certain inmates are: some are pigs, wallowing in their own filth, while others are dogs and need to be kicked every so often. He's a cartoonish villain, but his villainy feels all too real anyway.
The same can't always be said of the other characters. Despite the film's many virtues, it often suffers from mannered, stilted dialogue — it's the kind of writing that tries to approximate older forms of speech by eliminating contractions and making the conversational rhythms stiff and slow. Karloff's sheer intensity gets across even the clunkiest of the dialogue, but some of the other actors occasionally stumble. This is especially a problem for Fraser, whose stubborn Quaker comes across as self-righteous and sermonizing. Lee, however, is a worthy foil for Karloff's scenery-chewing evil. She's free-spirited and quick-witted, even if the rather staid dialogue never really establishes her as quite as funny as she's supposed to be. But as usual with Lewton's productions, the emphasis is on the film's atmosphere, particularly the eerie, darkly lit interior of the asylum, with its shadowy back corridor where grasping hands reach out from between the bars of cages. This is a horror story about the inhumanity with which people treat one another, and the societal structures that prop up and encourage this inhumanity.