Mark Robson, 1946
Starring: Boris Karloff, Anna Lee, Billy House
Val Lewton’s final film that can loosely be described as a horror movie (he made two romantic comedies and a Western before dying of a heart attack in the early ‘50s), Bedlam is one of his lesser efforts, but is still an interesting attempt to blend horror, suspense, and historical drama. Based on artist William Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress, this series of 12 incredibly detailed paintings charts the rise and fall of Tom Rakewell, the heir of a wealthy merchant who travels to London, blows his money on drinking, gambling, and prostitutes, and winds up first in jail and finally in Bedlam, the nickname for Bethlem Hospital for the insane. The eighth and final panel (as seen above) is what specifically inspired the film.
Bethlem was a real hospital founded in London in 1247 by King Henry III. It is Europe’s oldest institution dedicated to the study and treatment of mental illness, though for many years it was associated with the incredibly poor treatment its patients received and filthy conditions. Lewton’s film concerns a young courtesan, Nell (Anna Lee), who becomes aware of the treatment of the Bedlam patients by their apothecary general, Master Sims (Karloff) and is determined to help. Her meddling begins with her beneficiary, Lord Mortimer. Mortimer loses patience with her when she rebukes him for his indifference and he revokes his financial support. Determined to carry on, Nell asks a local politician for help, but Sims has other ideas. With Mortimer’s support, he has Nell committed to Bedlam for "moral depravity." Though at first terrified and repulsed by the inmates, she learns to help them and eventually turns them agains Sims.
Though Bedlam has some wonderful cinematography, courtesy of one of Lewton’s regular collaborators, Nicholas Musuraca, it will probably not be of interest to most horror fans. Though often described along with Lewton’s many excellent genre films, this is really a historical drama and morality tale with some dark and violent undertones. There are good performances all around, particularly from Karloff, Anna Lee (The Ghost and Mrs. Muir), Billy House as Lord Mortimer, and Richard Fraser as Nell’s Quaker friend. The film is also awash with excellent side characters and bit parts. The script is smart and literary, and is nearly drowning in references. There is fine direction from one of Lewton’s main collaborators, Mark Robson, who manages to include several excellent suspense scenes and hint at the dark nature of what is happening to the prisoners at Bedlam, things Lewton could not show due to the Production Code (such as sexual molestation). One of the finest scenes of the film involves Sims covering an asylum boy in gold paint and making him perform at one of Mortimer’s parties. The paint causes him to suffocate to death, which Sims calmly and coldly asserts is the boy’s own fault before throwing his corpse in the Thames.
Despite these fine moments and the wonderfully chilling conclusion, there is simply not enough here to compare to Lewton’s other films. The film does have some flaws. Most of the humor falls flat (except Karloff’s) and Nell can be an extremely grating character. Her constant sense of moral superiority is pretty tiresome and even though we are glad for the sake of the mental patients that she triumphs over Sims at the end of the film, it would be nice if someone took the wind out of her sails a little. As with The Ghost Ship and Isle of the Dead, I think this film is simply too ambitious and tries to be too many different things at once. There are some great moments of suspense and horror and these perhaps should be the emphasis of the film, but they are sadly not. The moral argument is frustrating simply because it is so obvious.
I don’t think I can recommend Bedlam, though fans of historical drama and films set in mental institutions, as well as Karloff completists, will want to check it out. Bedlam is available on a split DVD with Isle of the Dead and as part of the must-have Val Lewton Horror Collection box set. If you do get around to watching this, be sure to check out the fascinating and informative commentary track.