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Bedlam (1946)

1 rating: 3.0
A movie directed by Mark Robson

   Nell Bowen, the spirited protege of rich Lord Mortimer, becomes interested in the conditions of notorious St. Mary's of Bethlehem Asylum (Bedlam).      Encouraged by the Quaker Hannay, she tries to bring support … see full wiki

Director: Mark Robson
Genre: Action, Adventure, Drama
Release Date: January 1, 1946
MPAA Rating: Unrated
1 review about Bedlam (1946)

Karloff cracks the whip as master of the insane

  • Apr 24, 2011
  • by
Rating:
+3
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 movies.
 
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 huge 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 strides 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 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. All the ward needed was Boris Karloff.
Karloff cracks the whip as master of the insane Karloff cracks the whip as master of the insane Karloff cracks the whip as master of the insane Karloff cracks the whip as master of the insane

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