Thursday, 9 November 2017
Madness in all its many forms has always been a fertile subject for horror films, in particular the encroachment of its effects by external or internal forces and the deliberate inducement of these by wicked antagonists upon some poor victim. Another terrifying strand is the examination of institutions that house and treat such souls, studying both the patients and their carers. Classics such as Milos Forman’s One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) highlight potentially cruel regimes of abuse by the latter, while Samuel Fuller’s 1953 psychological thriller Shock Corridor delves into a common deep-seated fear of being unnecessarily committed, unable to convince the authorities that one is sane enough to ever leave. Val Lewton’s final film in his tenure of nine at RKO, Bedlam (1946), taps into both elements of organisational trauma as well as touching on the historical progress made in the treatment of mental illness.
It was inspired by London’s Bethlem Royal Hospital, also officially known as St Mary Bethlehem and Bethlehem Hospital, but unofficially labelled ‘Bedlam’ –and thus forever became negatively associated with a state of mayhem. Originally created in 1247 as a very small shelter for the homeless by a Christian group near the city walls, Bethlem Royal Hospital eventually focused on the care of the mentally ill, albeit unable to retain patients for more than twelve months. The released ‘Bedlamites’ as they were called were reduced to a vulnerable life of licensed beggary on the streets. Such was the lack of attention or resources given to them that until the early nineteenth century Bethlem was the only public institution catering (very humbly) to the mentally ill in the whole of England.
Government reforms of conditions at Bethlem took hundreds of years to be undertaken. Meanwhile, Lewton’s film takes place in the later Georgian era of 1761 when monstrously corrupt exploitation of the system and its patients was still rife. Not only was the hospital used as a convenient form of incarceration for the authorities’ political enemies and private families’ difficult relatives, but the public could pay tuppence to actually spectate on the patients’ behaviour as entertainment. All of this is woven into Boris Karloff’s lead role of the hospital’s evil Apothecary General George Simms in a script by returning director Mark Robson and Val Lewton (under the pen-name of Carlos Keith).
A further inspiration strengthening Bedlam’s historical accuracy is the final eighth plate depicting the hospital in William Hogarth’s famous set of story paintings titled The Rake’s Progress engraved in 1734. The Tate website summarises the archetypal rake as ‘an impressionable young man from the country who comes to the city after inheriting money and swiftly embarks on a dissolute life… (ending in) venereal disease, debtor’s prison and death.’ Having fulfilled his mission, Scene Eight shows the hero/victim Tom at the end of the ride: penniless, stripped of dignity, sanity and coherence in the helpless arms of his fiancé Sarah while a lady aristocrat and her maid, well-lit in the rancid gloom, watch his final degradation as callous paying customers. Lewton so admired Hogarth’s rich detail that he actually credited him as a co-writer of the screenplay.
At its heart Bedlam focuses on the power struggle between Simms’ as the immoral exploiter of his poor charges and the emerging enlightened conscience of society in the shape of Nell Bowen, initially an unfeeling member of the nobility. As Bowen, Anna Lee was reunited opposite Karloff in a similar good-versus-evil dynamic to the one they enjoyed in 1936’s The Man Who Changed His Mind (see earlier review). She matches his velvety ferocity with a spirited haughtiness that becomes softened into compassion as part of her character’s journey.
The script cunningly ensures that Simms is not simply a two-dimensional villain either. Part of this learned man’s lust for power derives from self-protection of his side-line as a poet. Like all artists of the time he needs wealthy patrons to fund him, so he positions Bethlem as a home for his benefactor’s unwanted opponents while allowing him to quietly dispose of competitor talents (as he does indirectly at the start after an escaping one falls to his death from the roof).
Karloff deftly glides between horrendous cruelty of the inmates and the oily politicking of his patron Lord Mortimer, a perfectly rotund and genial Billy House who unsurprisingly went on to play Friar Tuck in Rogues of Sherwood Forest (1950). Mortimer makes a splendid contrast to Simms, being an open book of plain gluttony and good humour, resembling one of Gillray or Cruickshank’s bombastic satirical caricatures of little Englander John Bull. To begin with, he even enjoys the mockery of Bowen’s parrot that he is “like a pig. His brain is small, his belly big”.
Simms invites Mortimer and Bowen to a high society masque performed by the Bedlamites which neatly demonstrates his bullying humiliation of them and gives an insight into the mood of the times.
The period, known as the Age of Reason for its embrace of a rational perspective on religious freedom, is ridiculed by personifying Reason as a Gilded Boy (Glen Vernon) stuttering his lines through a fatal onset of gold paint asphyxiation a la Shirley Eaton in Goldfinger (1964). He dies in front of the uncaring Simms and his guests – who represent both the era’s duelling Tory and Whig political factions. No more awful denunciation of their combined inhumanity is needed.
After Miss Bowen pays a visit to Bethlem though, instead of amusement the sight of the Bedlamites causes her revulsion and pity in equal measure, amplified by Simm’s hideous voyeurism: “Look at the frolic this one treats himself to!” She is unexpectedly jolted into a private plan of selfless action for the inmates, allying with kindly Quaker stonemason Hannay (Richard Fraser) who had recently endured gorilla thriller White Pongo (1945) yet more happily appeared with Lee in 1941’s celebrated How Green was My Valley.
Hannay becomes the moral compass to guide Bowen through her new landscape of social responsibility. Meanwhile Mortimer has a more selfish public concern for his self-image and aims to seize her rude parrot – an oddly trivial sub-plot in such a serious picture. Bowen schemes to hold onto it with the aid of her man-servant Varney (Skelton Knaggs, given more screen time than usual with an airy foppishness). Bolstering the cast is the welcome return of Elizabeth Russell, a feline alumni from the evocative Cat Woman films who’s somewhat wasted here (in more ways than one) as Simms’ boozy conniving niece. Together with Mortimer and Simms, the threesome plot to have Bowen committed and thus remove her and her offending bird from society.
From this point, Bedlam dives headlong into the grim waters of conditions inside the hospital. Nicholas Musuraca’s camera frames a powerfully unsettling scene of Hannay passing along the row of cells in the dark, accosted by unidentified arms vainly trying to grasp him. A still image of this in Denis Gifford’s book A Pictorial History of Horror Movies haunted me as a boy. Bowen is even forced to ask Hannay for his trowel to defend herself, despite her genuine care for these wretches.
Bowen’s committal allows us and her greater insight into the plight of the abandoned as well as those like herself that were incarcerated for others’ expediency. She happily joins in a card game playing with three different victim types of some privilege - known as the Group around the Pillar: Ian Wolfe’s disgraced Crown Solicitor Long whose calm kindness to her offsets a flaring paranoia and raging superiority complex about his fellow professionals, an excitable young man obsessed with dogs, and a silent companion who later reveals he was dispatched there by his family simply to stop his drinking.
Knowing of Lewton’s wide range of cultural influences, it feels like a deliberate echo of Victorian heroine Florence Nightingale when Bowen’s altruistic Lady of the Lamp wanders among the forlorn inmates. Her previously hidden goodness shines out later as well when Simms orders this growing troublemaker to share a cage with a hulking mute. She soothes his frustrated amnesia while Simms seethes at the scuppered bloodshed he had anticipated.
The scene is set for a revolt as the lunatics literally take over the asylum and force Simms to undergo a mock trial, no worse than those which banged up many of them, accompanied by the grisly declaration of Solomon to ‘Split him in two!’ However, director Robson is careful never to reduce the inmates to a crude monsterdom. While the kangaroo court is in session, Bowen’s freed cell-mate takes a moment during their escape to enjoy the innocent wonderment of the night sky’s stars. It’s a poignant reminder of the terrible loss the prisoners have endured in their hell-hole.
Simm’s sentence is judged to be death by being bricked up alive in the very wall he had attempted to bribe Hannay to build at the film’s opening. When the authorities finally arrive and cannot find Simms, Hannay touches the wet mortar knowingly. Bowen is surprised to find she has no need to plead with him to keep quiet. To him: “The inmates are not answerable for what they do” – and so ends Simms: chiselled, as it were, by a stonemason’s equipment and arguably flexible morality.
As Bedlam’s epilogue card points out, eventual reforms took place in the slow progress toward humanitarian treatment of the mentally-afflicted. In the fabricated madhouse of 1940’s Hollywood, Val Lewton decided that his time served in elevating B-movies was also enough and opted to spend his remaining few years devoted to less satisfying A-pictures.