Running on my excitement from Isle of the Dead last night, I decided to finish off the film it was paired with on Warner's release of Val Lewton's films, this one: Bedlam.
As you might expect by now, this is far from a standard horror film. However, somewhat strangely, this isn't a horror film at all. Now, the extraordinarily sympathetic might balk at my claims, being as this is based on the real British mental hospital, St. Mary Bethlehem, here called "St. Mary's of Bethlehem." Indeed, the mistreatment is horrific in a real context, but it's portrayed as a sad and despicable fact, rather than a horrific one. Mark Robson (having a hand in this script after helping to edit prior Lewton productions, as well as directing The 7th Victim, Isle of the Dead and The Ghost Ship), though attempts to pull horror from our own perceptions and fears of mental patients, as seen through the eyes of protagonist Nell Bowen (Anna Lee). In the antagonistic role, we again have Boris Karloff, this time as Master George (or James, as written) Sims, based on real Bethlem Hospital (its name has changed many times over the years, but this name will make the most sense in a moment) administrator John Munro. For the treatment (or lack thereof) Bethlem was known for it was known as–you guessed it–Bedlam.
Nell Bowen is the jesting assistant to Lord Mortimer (Billy House), relying primarily on a parrot's trained sing-song quip to entertain him. A young man of Mortimer's acquaintance is killed trying to escape Bedlam, leading him to question Master Sims, who offers his "loonies" as an entertainment for Mortimer. When Nell sees Sims' idea of entertainment with these people, which includes laughing at the failed singing of one and chuckling at the collapse of another due to "skin asphyxiation" (source of the idea that someone coated in paint would suffocate, an inspiration for Ian Fleming's Goldfinger, and eventually the rumours of the, as of writing, still living, death of Shirley Eaton in the film adaptation of said book). She stumbles across a stonemason Quaker named Hannay (Richard Frazer) who appeals to her disgust and suggests it is sourced in compassion and pity for the mad-folk used and abused for the entertainment of Mortimer and his fellow Tories. He suggests how she can use her position to enact better treatment for these people, and she takes this suggestion to her Lord, who is conducive until the opportunistic Sims frowns at Bowen and shoots down her idea over its cost. Petty as he is, he begins to take revenge on Bowen, eventually managing to commit her to Bedlam, where she must contend with her fears and the compassion her Quaker friend is instilling in her.
The film manages to use historical facts and low budget (Quakers were indeed instrumental in the reform of mental health standards) to bludgeon the audience with its message of compassion for the less fortunate, endlessly reminding us through Mason Hannay that compassion is the most important virtue. Karloff's Sims acts in opposition to this, working purely out of self interest and petty inferiority complex. An excellent performance from Karloff, sleazy to the ends (hardly a surprise, I must say, on the quality front), some pretty good ones from the rest of the cast, but an awkward and wooden reading from an early actor is painfully out of place in my experience of Lewton films. It was, unfortunately, not a fluke in my opinion of the film's overall quality. Certainly, the sets, direction and performances otherwise are fantastic. Of note, Jason Robards, Sr. returns to service for Robson and Lewton as inmate Oliver Todd and Ian Wolfe as aspiring (and committed paranoid) lawyer Sidney Long. All adding up well for the budgetary limits consistently imposed on Lewton and his directors, but behind that is a rather weak script. As I say, it's a bit overbearing in its morality, and the character of Hannay is absurdly false, following his beliefs honestly and believably, but not seeming quite fervent enough as a character with regard to them. Not lacking in energy, but lacking in conviction. Similarly, Nell's change in character is weak and difficult to believe, going from self-centered to, as commentator Tom Weaver says, "Florence Nightingale" of the madhouse.
Now, my greatest quibble is here, with the ending of the film. I am not about to break my rule of wantonly spoiling films, but the ending simply must be discussed by my mark, and so I now insert the best I can manage to maintain my rule and continue this discussion: SPOILERS FOLLOW.
The final fate of Sims is to be tried by his own inmates, found not guilty of insanity, showing himself as a pitiable and weak man, fearing for his social position, hard to keep and a necessity for survival in some sense. Despite this, he is killed by an inmate, and so they brick him up in a wall–his eyes opening in terror as the last of the large bricks is pushed into place. Here we see Hannay scolding (politely, of course) Nell for her vindictive response to Sims, saying he, too, deserves compassion. When faced with the possibility that, if found, Sims' imprisonment will be cause for punishing the inmates, they agree, happily, to keep his location a secret (Hannay's background in masonry leads him to the still went cement). This sticks in my craw, frankly. Here we are being beaten to wobbly light-headedness by the morality of compassion…and we are to be happy with a man being bricked in alive for whom we've just been made to feel sympathy? We're supposed to believe that our model of morality Hannay is fine with this? Doesn't this contradict or violate the lesson he was teaching Nell? "Hey, it's okay, nevermind, he's dead, don't worry about justice or compassion for him anymore." Gross. Such hypocrisy can ruin a film for me, and very nearly did for me here. If you're going to hit me over the head with such things, you had better make good on it, or make your twist on it ironic or pointed in some way. Here it seems instead to be a cop-out justification of killing him anyway. It makes one feel dirty, as they had been hoping for it, but now have been made to feel sympathy for him, and to see him buried alive, and to be scolded for hoping for a character's death–only to have it justified. It's similar to the overly easily solution to Eye for an Eye–gosh, capital punishment is necessary, but we're going to let self-defense justify the instance in our movie so that you don't have to deal with the moral quandary of feeling someone was justified in cold-blooded murder.