6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
With sad irony, Bedlam, one of the Val Lewton-produced B-movie quickies, was not successful at the box office yet was probably the best constructed of his films. Along with The Body Snatchers, I think it stands up as a compelling story with solid dialogue and better acting than we've come to expect from Lewton's films.
Boris Karloff, in a performance of skill and complexity, plays Master George Sims, the ruler of St. Mary's of Bethlehem Asylum in London...a forbidding hulk of a stone building. Bedlam, for short. The time is 1761. Bedlam is the place where the insane are sent, as well as inconvenient or embarrassing relatives. The violent ones are kept in chains and in cages. The quieter ones are housed in a huge ward, male and female all together, the floor covered with filthy straw, where the inmates mutter or cry or ceaselessly walk or stare at the walls. But they all cower when Master Sims comes in.
Nell Bowen (Anna Lee), is the smart, privileged and arrogant protege of a fat English lord. When she meets Sims her dislike is instant. But Sims counts her patron as one of his sponsors. While many of the upper-class willingly pay a shilling to visit Bedlam and laugh at "the antics of the loonies," Nell finds herself repulsed and outraged. When she sets out to improve conditions, she finds herself blocked by the clever Sims. In a major miscalculation, she aims her furious temper at her protector, Lord Mortimer, leaves him and sets out to make him a laughing stock. Before long, she finds herself an inmate in Bedlam, too. Can she survive in Bedlam by showing kindness? Can she win over the inmates before a confrontation with Sims becomes inevitable? Will she ever be released? Will she find love in the arms of a Quaker she met...and if she does, can she curb her tongue with him? Will Sims ever be brought to justice? All rather mundane questions, but director Mark Robson and the Lewton production team, plus a larger than usual budget, set most of these questions in a fine and repellant reconstruction of an 18th Century insane asylum.
As unsettling and threatening as the movie looks, Bedlam is in no way a horror film. Bedlam is a well-balanced character study pitting the obsequious, envious and dangerous George Sims against the resourceful and unintimidated Nell Bowen. Karloff and Lee are more than up to the task. Anna Lee gives us a Nell Bowen who is remarkably quick with her temper and with her tongue. Her description of Sims is pungent. "If you ask me, my lord, he's a stench in the nostrils, a sewer of ugliness and a gutter brimming with slough." Boris Karloff gives us a fascinating portrait of a man who fawns over his superiors and abuses his inmates. It's a masterful job. Watch the difference in how he walks into Lord Mortimer's bedroom after being kept waiting for hours and how he strides into his own empire, Bedlam. Watch how he compulsively touches his pig-tailed wig to make sure it's on straight whenever he meets Lord Mortimer. Watch the difference in his stare when Nell Bowen is seen as just Lord Mortimer's plaything and when she's seen as a threat to him. There are several times when Karloff's face registers anger, resentment and satisfaction in just moments and with just a slight movement of his lips. And unlike many of Lewton's films, in Bedlam there are a number of capable actors in smaller parts.
With two strong actors, it's good to see that they were given a well-written script to work with. When Sims is accused of abetting the death of an embarrassing "guest" at Bedlam, a sane young man who could cause problems for Sims' sponsor, he simply smiles and says that the man's fall from the roof was "a misadventure, contrived by the victim and executed by nature's law that all who lose their grip on gutters must fall."
Was the treatment of the insane in Bedlam just an historical fact which we have corrected in our modern age? If you are naive enough to believe that you might want to read up on Titticut Follies, a Frederick Wiseman documentary he filmed in 1967. It shows the routine mistreatment and humiliation of the mentally ill by the guards and doctors at the State Hospital for the Criminally Insane at Bridgewater, Mass. Or you might sign up for a sociology class in college that could take you to visit a state hospital for the insane. I can recall my own visit years ago to a ward for men which was filled with patients wearing only untied hospital gowns. The men shuffled about or came up to stare and try to touch or simply rocked back and forth. The ward smelled strongly of human waste.
ISLE OF THE DEAD:
This Val Lewton-produced Poverty Row programer is a good example of why B movies are B movies. The story could be interesting: A small group of people in an isolated setting (in this case, a small Greek island) are forced to deal with a threat to their lives (in this case, a nasty pestilence called septicemic plague), and in the course of the movie some will live and some will die, some will prove brave and some will go mad, some will swear there is an evil force and some will blame things on the wind and the fleas. And yet, while Boris Karloff does a fine job as the aging General Nikolas Pherides, the rest of the cast demonstrate why they never broke out of Poverty Row.
It's 1912 and we're in the middle of the Greek wars. The General has won a victory, but there are many dead on the darkened battlefield. He is a hard man, driven by duty and patriotism, yet by his standards fair. He's not without warmth and friendliness. He and Oliver Davis (Marc Cramer), an American reporter, visit a small island, used for decades as a place of burial, where his dead wife lies in a crypt. The island is just off the coast where the General's army is encamped. They find the crypt has been forced open and the body missing. But on this isolated little crag of an island they find a large stone house where there is a Swiss archeologist; his severe Greek housekeeper from whom he bought the house; Thea (Ellen Drew), a beautiful young servant; and three guests...soon to be just two. One of the guests, in the middle of dinner, declares he feels ill and staggers to his room. He is soon dead of the plague. The General has an army doctor come over who confirms their worst fears. The General is determined to fight the plague and keep it from infecting his army. He takes charge of the house. He insists that no one may leave the island. They all can only wait and hope the plague strikes no more of them down. And all this time the housekeeper whispers about death and demons. She sees the work of the dreaded vorvolaka, a wolf spirit in human form, and she insists the vorvolaka has taken the shape of the servant girl. As people die, we have noble death, madness, a live burial and, in at least one case, the triumph of superstition.
What to make of this? The first half of the movie is a taut look at people reacting under pressure, led by the excellent performance of Boris Karloff. We start out on a Greek battlefield at night, filled with the groaning wounded and the dead in carts being hauled to speedy mass burials. "The rider on the pale horse is pestilence," explains General Pherides to the reporter, "and he follows the wars." Then we're off on a small boat to the dark, well-imagined mountainous island, full of rocky, steep paths, threatening trees, a mouldering crypt and crashing waves below a cliff. We meet the cast and, at dinner, see their tentativeness. We can take a measure of their characters. But then the second half of the movie is upon us. We're in the middle of a corny Hollywood horror story with awkward acting (except for Karloff) and even cornier dialogue. "The vorvolaka still lives," whispers the crone of a housekeeper, "rose-cheeked and full of blood!" We're in the poverty-row world of white gauzy gowns slipping around corners, of creaking caskets, a mad death scene, a vicious-looking trident and a leap off a cliff. It's become predictable.
The movie has great atmosphere and Karloff. It's enough for a strong beginning but, in my view, not enough for a strong ending. I particularly enjoyed two members of the cast, in addition to Karloff. One, Skelton Knaggs, is only on screen for a couple of minutes. Knaggs had a distinctive-looking face, weak, ugly and unhealthy. Combined with his whiny voice, he was hard to ignore. In another Val Lewton-produced movie, The Ghost Ship, he plays a deaf-mute who, it's true, narrates the story. The other actor I like is a woman named Katherine Emery. She plays the ill wife of a British diplomat. She has a cultured, precise and unhurried voice. Close your eyes and you'd swear you were listening to Mercedes McCambridge. To see her in full dominant mode, watch Eyes in the Night.
Bedlam looks just fine on the DVD disc it shares with Isle of the Dead, There is one extra, a commentary by Tom Weaver, identified as a film historian. The DVD transfer of Isle of the Dead is good but at times is too dark during night scenes.