Later this month I’m screening two films at a former asylum in Peckham (CLICK HERE TO BUY TICKETS). While the location was never a mental institution (rather a sanctuary for retired publicans), I wanted to count down my top films set in asylums in the traditional sense. First up was The Snake Pit. Last time it was the turn of The Hour-Glass Sanatorium. My final film is the last that Val Lewton produced in his golden period at RKO, Bedlam…
Val Lewton produced only fourteen films in his lifetime before dying of a heart attack at 46. However, his influence has been considerable: everyone who produces frights from suggestion rather than revelation owes him a debt of gratitude, including John Carpenter, Ridley Scott, Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese (who paid his debts with a worthwhile documentary on his films, Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows). His most fruitful period was with RKO, a studio seemingly permanently on the brink of collapse, and no more so than when he started producing there in the 1940s. Following a string of expensive flops (Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons among them), the studio was looking for B material that would pull above its weight. Lewton ably satisfied this brief, producing eight more films for the studio, mostly to strong box office. Bedlam was his last at RKO, by now working with an established team of regulars. Boris Karloff had starred in two previous Lewton films and director Mark Robson had been working with Lewton since his first, Cat People. Having begun Robert Wise’s fantastic directorial career (Robson and Wise had both edited Citizen Kane), he again promoted a previously unknown staff editor at RKO to direct. Robson went on to produce a series of high budget exploitation films (including Earthquake).
The plot of Bedlam is relatively simple. Nell (Anna Lee) is the protege of Lord Mortimer (Billy House), a dyspeptic and petulant aristocrat. When Master George Sims kills one of his inmates at Bethlehem Hospital, he unwittingly ruins Mortimer’s masque, which was to be written by the prisoner. Charged with repaying the dead man’s debt, the wicked Sims casts his inmates in the masque. Nell’s sympathy is drawn by the cruelty on display and begins to investigate the brutal conditions in the asylum with the help of a Quaker, Hannay (Richard Fraser). But when Nell becomes too much of a nuisance, Sims conspires to have her committed…
Lewton is often rightly praised for his use of unexpected source material. Having adapted short stories (both those one would expect from a horror master – The Body Snatcher by Robert Louis Stevenson – and the surprisingly literary – Mademoiselle Fifi from Guy de Maupassant’s writings), Bedlam marked the second time that the germ of Lewton’s idea originated in a painting. Though the connection was far looser in Isle of the Dead (based upon Arnold Böcklin’s painting of the same name), there is a pervasive spirit of Hogarth’s The Rake’s Progress series in Bedlam. Besides the overt visual references (including the fades between scenes interspersed with Hogarth’s caricatures), the dialogue in the film has more than a hint of the meaningless badinage of Restoration comedy. Sporting repartee, especially between Karloff’s Sims and Anna Lee’s Nell, is the order of the day. Brushing off Hannay who points out that her heart is not of stone, she replies, ‘My heart is of flint sir. It may strike sparks but they’re not hot enough to burn.’
Yet though the film is surprisingly committed to the Restoration setting, it also has strong links to the contemporaneous environment. As we have seen with The Snake Pit, the 1940s signalled a change in outlook in what had previously been a neglected area of interest by the general public. With so many men returning shell shocked, the importance of the mental health complex came into sharp focus. 1946 became a flash point for this debate. When John Ford made Let There Be Light that year (available legally in full from Archive.org, an inspiration for P.T. Anderson’s The Master), it was suppressed by the authorities who had commissioned it for its depiction of the 20% of those wounded whose scars were mental. While this film didn’t see full release until 1981, another crusader was bringing fully to light conditions in state hospitals. ‘Concentration camps masquerading as hospitals’ was how Life magazine writer Albert Q. Maisel described the conditions within two state veterans’ hospitals in Ohio and Pennsylvania. The photographs and testimony in the piece (which you can read in full in Google Books’ fantastic Life archive) were the start of a shift in mental healthcare in America. The photos themselves have a harrowing link not only to the past atrocities of the Holocaust, but had a disturbing echo of Abu Ghraib to my eyes. While Bedlam conveniently delimits its discourse by setting itself safely in the past, the parallel is too clear to ignore. Lewton’s films almost all had a social commentary element, though less overt and awards-courting than a film like The Snake Pit. Whether showing Irena of Cat People‘s as foreign outcast or Curse of the Cat People‘s probing of the inner life of the child (the film was highly praised by the psychological authorities for its realism and sensitivity), these elements give the film resonance that outstrips any deficiencies of production quality.
The film’s conclusion, ripped straight from the pages of Poe’s ‘The Cask of Amontillado‘, is the only moment that could fit within a conventional horror scenario. Otherwise, the film’s tone is one of psychological disturbance, rather than the implied, lingering horror that Lewton’s name is most closely associated with. Instead, what is troubling is open to the viewer, though locked within the gates of Bethlehem Hospital. One of the film’s key set pieces sees Sims introduce Nell to his twisted ‘menagerie’. ‘Ours is a human world, there’s is a bestial world, without reason, without soul. They’re animals.’ With Sadean glee, Sims parades his zoo, with Nell’s sympathy being drawn by their animalistic conditions. ‘Some are dogs: these I beat. Some are pigs: those I let wallow in their own filth. Some are tigers: these I cage. Some, like this one, are doves.’
The film has a brilliant sense of the gothic, with Karloff playing a variation on the mad scientist figure he’d made his own over the preceding decades. Earlier in the film he devises a masque to entertain grandees at Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens. Years before Goldfinger, an innocent inmate is made to recite his lines covered in thick gilt, until he is suffocated by the pores (apparently a myth).
Balancing Sims’ cruelty is Nell’s philanthropy. While the film is largely an outsider’s view of mental illness, the viewpoint is compassionate and crusading. Nell herself would be much better suited to the Victorian period, but Anna Lee’s portrayal has some useful shading, beginning as the protege of the bloated aristocrat Lord Mortimer and ending as the presumed wife of the Quaker Hannay. Across these two moral points her path is set, and Lee’s portrayal carries much of the material, from pantomime repartee to distraught imprisoned innocent. Like Olivia de Havilland in The Snake Pit, Nell is able to sop up huge amounts of sympathy from the audience, making the film an emotional experience, as well as a visual and cerebral one.