Friday, January 4, 2013
I continue my look at Val Lewton's macabre movies with Bedlam. In this, it is London of the 1760s. The paramour of a decadent British noble comes to despise his treatment of those less fortunate, particularly those with mental health issues. For her trouble, she finds herself locked up in that most infamous of mental health facilities, Bedlam. With the help of a Quaker friend, she overcomes her fears of those with whom she shares living space. Yet, her survival is threatened by the de facto head of the hospital, played by Boris Karloff.
The film was inspired by Hogarth's A Rake's Progress. This is a series of paintings and engravings that show the descent into madness of a young wastrel, who ultimately ends up in Bedlam itself. It's an interesting group of pictures, and is an early example of sequential art that would lead, ultimately, to graphic novels and even film storyboards.
This film differs quite a bit from the other Lewton films I've discussed. Instead of the specter of death hanging over the narrative, it is madness that seems to lurk around every corner. The inmates of the hospital seem not so much different from the decadent and venal society on the outside. There is even levity, with the usually-sinister Karloff having an air of the buffoon at times here.
Yet Karloff brings a believability to his character that may have been overlooked or overplayed by another actor. His doctor chafes at having to bow and scrape to those who occupy strata of society above his, saving his anger and frustration for his charges, whom he exploits to curry favor with those he considers his betters. Scheming and vengeful, he doesn't hesitate to use his position to gain power over his enemies. In the end, though, he is a petty, scheming man, with no concern for those he is supposed to be helping.
This film does not evoke the kind of dread of death that most of Lewton's films do. Certainly there are shadows, and there is a body count, but in this film they are more set dressing than the main attraction. The corruption of society is pervasive, with the few stalwarts of morality in the film either too pacifistic to lend more than spiritual help (the Quaker), or gone for much of the narrative of the film (the "Devil Wilkes").
Perhaps instead of dread, Lewton meant to evoke a feeling of irony here. The actions - or, more accurately, inactions - of the Quaker, and the reputation of the hoped-for savior Wilkes (seriously, read about him at that link), are almost the quintessence of irony. Further, the microcosm of society that has been assembled in the general population of Bedlam is even more irony - the line between sanity and insanity, as drawn by Lewton in this film, is nebulous at best, and nonexistent in many cases. So it is irony instead of dread, corruption instead of death...but in the end, Lewton is still dealing with death and horror. Here, though, it is the horror of a society where insanity is determined more for the sake of convenience than for any real affliction, where corruption runs so deep that, in the end, even the best in society have a shadow of it in their hearts. That signals the death of a society, and death was always a subject close to Lewton.