Boris Karloff was always publicly grateful to the horror genre and its fans for making him a star and allowing him to maintain that status, even if most of the films he starred in were far from memorable for any reason other than his presence in them. But he also made no secret of his preference for historical melodrama, a love he carried over into movies from the stage plays in which he had performed for so many years before Hollywood beckoned. He reveled in pictures like “The Black Room,” “The Strange Door" (with Charles Laughton doing his best Tod Slaughter impersonation), “Tower of London,” and two of his Val Lewton-produced thrillers, “The Body Snatcher” and this one, “Bedlam.”
Lewton, too, has come down to us as a horrorista—and like Karloff, he was a damn good one—but he preferred costume dramas. It’s no wonder, then, that they made two of their best films together.I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for “Bedlam.” The first time I saw it was late one Friday night or early one Saturday morning. I was spending the night with a pal. He and his big brother had both fallen asleep before the weekend horror movie came on television. I would have been more likely to sleep through a meal than I would have to miss an old horror picture on television, especially one starring the Master of Horror, the great King Karloff.
My friend had a TV in his bedroom, rare in those days, but I remember lying on the bed on my stomach so my face would be close to the screen and I could watch the movie with the sound turned down low. Do you remember the bitter frustration as a kid when some post-horror phase adult would make you turn off the movie in the middle because it was too late at night to still be watching television? I did what I had to do to avoid that fate.
Okay, I know I’ve drifted pretty far from the boat with these soggy memoirs, but recalling that night is part of the experience of “Bedlam” for me. I’ll stop it now and get to the film itself.
Anna Lee (“The Man Who Changed His Mind,” “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?”) stars as Nell Bowen, a pretty but too clever young woman in the London of 1761. Nell is the current favorite of Lord Mortimer (Billy House), a pudgy, would-be wit and preening fop who makes up in ready money what he lacks in charm. Nell is his jester, at least (perhaps more but if so, any more personal relationship is sub rosa). He enjoys listening to her abuse society. Her satire is as cold as her sense of justice.
One day, Master George Sims (Karloff) comes to call. Sims is head of the asylum of St. Mary’s of Bethlehem, a name abbreviated in the English manner to Bedlam. In his spare time, Sims, too, is a wit and author of poems and masques. It is hinted that he has been able to assist Lord Mortimer in the past by “accidentally” incarcerating enemies and troublemakers. We learn that an inmate we saw earlier fall from the roof of the asylum and die during an escape attempt was in fact a rival poet Sims managed to confine in the hospital.
To curry favor, Sims offers to lend his “loonies” to Mortimer to serve as entertainment at a party the peer is giving. To complete the evening, Sims will compose a masque for the Bedlamites to perform. Mortimer loves the idea, but Nell, while professing no great pity for the insane, pooh-poohs the idea out of dislike for Sims.
Soon after Sims’ visit to Mortimer, Nell pays her first visit to the asylum. For tuppence, anyone can tour the wards and be amused by the human wreckage they contain. She enters a hall filled with the insane. Some are quiet—one young woman is nearly catatonic, standing stock still by the doorway. Others babble or shriek. Many are seen in attitudes drawn from the William Hogarth plates that inspired the film, collectively titled “The Rogue’s Progress.”
The scene begins with a close-up of Nell’s face, then the camera pulls back to reveal the terrible contents of the room. Nell is shocked and dismayed by what she sees, and she leaves the place after striking Sims with her riding crop and telling him that he is “an ugly thing in a pretty world.”
At the opposite end of the spectrum from Sims is the Quaker Hannay (Richard Fraser). Hannay is a stone mason. He’s applied for a job at the asylum but Sims refused to employ him unless the upright young man would kick back some of his salary. At first, he has little use for the haughty Nell, claiming that she is as hard and shallow as Sims and Mortimer.
But her veneer breaks at last the night of Mortimer’s party at Vauxhall Gardens when a mad boy, gilded from head to foot by the unfeeling Sims, suffocates while attempting to recite his lines. Nell convinces Lord Mortimer, who is on Bedlam’s board of directors, to work to improve conditions at the hospital, but Sims reminds him that improvements cost money and will cause his property taxes to go up. Mortimer balks, and then decides to renege on his promises to Nell. In a rage, she tells him off.
Later, Sims offers to bring her before the Commission of Lunacy and Mortimer agrees. When asked by the Commission what she considers to be absurd questions, Nell uses her wit to answer. Her cleverness and contempt work against her and she is committed to Bedlam.
With Nell’s interment, Lewton and co-writer/director Mark Robson (Lewton using his Carlos Keith penname) have some fun blending black humor with the horrors. Ian Wolfe plays the self-proclaimed greatest lawyer in London locked up by his enemies, and Jason Robards, Sr. is Oliver Todd, a writer who has had himself committed to prevent him from hitting the bottle and thereby not being able to support his family. These are the People By the Pillar, the inmates closest to sanity and therefore the cream of asylum society.
Of course all will work out well for Nell and ill for Sims. Anyone watching the film for the first time will quickly figure out that his ultimate fate will somehow be left in the hands of his charges, but I won’t go into detail about what happens.
The film is interesting on a number of levels. It was Robson’s fifth film as director, all four of his previous movies made with Lewton over the course of four years after editing “Cat People,” “I Walked With a Zombie,” and “The Leopard Man.” His lighting is Expressionistic and the cast in his mad room interior represents the character types utilized by Hogarth. The film is set just three years before the birth of the gothic with the publication of Horace Walpole’s “The Castle of Otranto” in 1764, and Robson blends gothic with Age of Reason elements nicely on a miniscule budget.
Karloff delivers one of his best and oiliest performances. Sims is cynical and superior. He’s a forerunner of the kind of condescending but controlled madmen in which Peter Cushing would later specialize. It’s a pleasure to watch Karloff force smiles as Sims flatters Lord Mortimer and drops evil suggestions in his ear, only to give expression to the most withering contempt when his patron’s back is turned.
But the grand old man of horror also gets the opportunity later in the film to wheedle and plead for his life, begging the inmate to pity him because he’s just as miserable a victim as they are, forced to do what he does out of fear of the way the world would react to him if he was powerless. It’s to Karloff’s credit that this cynical and self-serving defense almost works on us.
“Bedlam,” for all its horrific content, is less a traditional horror film and more the kind of historical melodrama Boris Karloff liked so well. It’s also, in its odd way, an attack on middle managers who abuse those under them in an effort to make themselves look good to upper management. At that level, the film is timeless.