*. You don’t often hear a movie being criticized for being overwritten these days. But up until about thirty years ago it was still a pitfall to be avoided.
*. Bedlam is overwritten. Of course Val Lewton had a literary bent (you can tell that much from his playful epigraphs), but even by his standards this one is excessively talky, and filled with the kind of unnatural dialogue that works better on stage than on screen. Long before we get to the trial scene at the end we know we’re in a theatrical world, recalling the upside-down asylum in Poe’s short story “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether.” It makes sense that it’s presided over by the grim poetaster Master Sims, the kind of guy capable of rendering off-the-cuff judgments on playwrights of the previous century.
*. The inspiration came from the visual arts, and something of the spirit of the original is maintained. William Hogarth (who receives the largest writing credit, for his painting “Bedlam,” the eighth plate of A Rake’s Progress) was a narrative painter of the eighteenth century and Lewton was making a B-movie in the 1940s, but they both were interested in working up sensational melodramatic plots. There is no jarring mixture of high and low then, and if anything I think it’s Bedlam that comes off as a bit too heavy and serious.
*. Boris Karloff’s Master Sims is a great character, brought to life in a great performance. He has many different levels, armoured in a camouflage of strange psychological angles. Beneath that slick wig is a shock of violent white hair and a pair of bristling dark eyebrows. We can see that under the surface he’s an unruly type.
*. In many ways he’s like Cabman Gray in The Body Snatcher, though higher up the class ladder. The same resentment drives him. He’s angry at having to play the obsequious toady, and compensates with a Satanic desire to rule in hell and lord it over others he considers subhuman beasts. Perhaps it’s just the similarity in their titles, but I sensed a connection between his Apothecary General and another cynical despot from a historical horror film: Vincent Price’s Witchfinder General. Both are bitter, corrupt, sadistically lecherous hypocrites out to exploit any power they can grab.
*. I like how he’s going to make the Quaker wait outside his office as a way of getting a measure of justice (or at least revenge) for being made to wait to see Lord Mortimer. And I like how he’s both a miser, and a wannabe poet. There may be some real insight here into the psychology of the artist before art became broadly commercial and poets depended on a patron.
*. That said, does such a figure belong in a movie like this? He’s too big, too complicated for the picture’s frame. Set beside him, Anna Lee as Florence Nightingale, Richard Fraser as the Quaker With No Name, and the comic figure of Lord Mortimer (Billy House, who at least looks passingly Hogarthian), seem ridiculous.
*. It’s usually classified as a horror film just because this was the genre Lewton worked in at RKO. Karloff, however, rejected the label, calling it a historical picture. Hogarth wasn’t a painter of horrors but an illustrator of social and political issues, which is what this movie is primarily about. Nell is a social justice warrior fighting corruption and the asylum’s inhumane conditions, though I doubt any of this was intended as a comment on mental health care in the U.S. or England at the time. It’s not quite a feminist, 1940s version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, though you can view it that way. Luckily Nell avoids getting “the treatment” that finishes McMurphy off.
*. But it is a horror film too, and was originally intended to be more sensational and darker. The title was going to be Chamber of Horrors before Joseph Breen shut the first draft script down as “repellent and repulsive.” But we still get to see Sims walled up alive in another nod to Poe.
*. This was Lewton’s last movie for RKO (in other words, pretty much his last movie), and he wasn’t getting better. in fact I think it’s clear he was getting worse. His first two RKO movies, Cat People and I Walked With a Zombie, were his best.
*. Skin suffocation by body paint? Was Ian Fleming watching, and taking notes? And how creepy a scene is that, with the assembled aristos at Lord Mortimer’s fete laughing at the murder of a young man for their entertainment? Was this intentional? Yes, the upper classes saw the inmates of Bedlam as sources of fun in the eighteenth century, but I don’t think it went this far.
*. Alan Parker considered Hogarth’s series to be a precursor to the storyboard, but it’s not used here for any narrative function but rather just as a copy book for the mise-en-scène. Mark Robson even called Hogarth the art designer on the film, and there are several direct references throughout. But it’s not a perfect fit. Hogarth wasn’t the Val Lewton of his day, and as much as Lewton seems to have responded to his work, they really don’t share the same sensibility.
*. The age of Hogarth would find a more congenial home with very different directors like Tony Richardson (Tom Jones) and Stanley Kubrick (Barry Lyndon). Lewton, I can’t help feeling, should have stuck with Poe.