(This post is part of the TCM SUMMER UNDER THE STARS blogathon hosted by Kristen at JOURNEYS IN CLASSIC FILM! )
Boris Karloff made a trio of films for producer Val Lewton in the mid-40’s: THE BODY SNATCHER , ISLE OF THE DEAD, and BEDLAM. The Old Master of Terror was given the opportunity to show off his acting prowess in these dark, psychological horrors. Freed from the restraint of playing yet another mad scientist or creature, Karloff excels in the roles of murderous Cabman Grey, plague-ridden General Pherides, and here as the cruel martinet of Bedlam, Master George Sims.
Lewton cowrote the script with director Mark Robson , “suggested by” William Hogarth’s 8th painting in the series “A Rake’s Progress”. There are a lot of sly references to Hogarth in BEDLAM, and the artist even gets a screenwriting credit. It’s 1761 London, and the class struggle between rich and poor rages (the more things change… ). One of the inmates of St. Mary’s of Bethlehem Asylum (known to the locals as Bedlam) attempts to escape via the rooftop, but a guard stomps on his fingers, plunging him to his doom. Corpulent Lord Mortimer (Billy House) calls Master Sims, the “apothecary general of St. Mary’s” and noted poet, on the carpet for the death. The unctuous Sims, who’ll do anything to keep his position, offers to amuse Mortimer by having his “loonies” put on a performance for the Lord and his upper crust cronies. Mortimer’s “protégé” Nell Bowen (Anna Lee) is appalled when one of the inmates, a young boy gilded in gold paint, dies while doing a recital.
Nell tours the asylum, and is further dismayed at the squalid, deplorable conditions the inmates are forced to live in, and at Sims’ cruelty, referring to them as animals and even keeping some in cages. “They’re all in themselves and by themselves”, she says, and gets Mortimer to agree to make changes. But the wily Sims appeals to Mortimer’s pocket book, and Nell leaves the Lord in a fit of pique. Sims and Mortimer conspire to have Nell committed to Bedlam, and she lives in fear for her life as she becomes a prisoner of Sims’ house of horrors.
BEDLAM is more costumed drama than out-and-out horror, though there are more than enough shocks to satisfy genre fans. Director Robson made his first five films under Lewton’s aegis, and along with cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca, conveys a sense of dread throughout the film. Of course, the fact they had horror’s King Karloff as Sims didn’t hurt. Boris gives us a restrained depiction of evil as the master of Bedlam, his purring voice belying the corruption that lies within. He’s subservient to Lord Mortimer, his rich and powerful benefactor, and takes out his self-loathing on those less fortunate, the “loonies” in his charge. Sims will do anything to retain his minute amount of power, and gets no sympathy when he gets his comeuppance at the film’s powerful conclusion. It’s a bravura performance, and alongside Grey in THE BODY SNATCHER, Boris’ best of the 40’s.
Anna Lee had played opposite Boris before, in the 1936 British horror THE MAN WHO LIVED AGAIN. She became a favorite of John Ford , and was featured in seven of his films, including HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY, FORT APACHE, and THE LAST HURRAH. Miss Lee was also in the horror classic WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE, and known to millions as Lila Quartermaine on the long-running soap GENERAL HOSPITAL. She goes toe-to-toe with Boris here, and her transformation from silly plaything for the rich to enlightened woman is a good job of acting itself.
Billy House (Lord Mortimer) was an old burlesque comic who transitioned into a fine character actor, particularly in Orson Welles’ THE STRANGER. The rest of the cast isn’t well-known, but Richard Fraser does well as a Quaker who aids Nell. More Familiar Faces to film buffs include Ian Wolfe (a standout as a former lawyer, now an inmate of Bedlam), Jason Robards Sr, Elizabeth Russell, Skelton Knaggs, Ellen Corby, Tommy Noonan, and future horror/sci-fi star Robert Clarke.
This was the last of the Lewton/RKO entries, sending the series of intelligent psychological horror films out on a strong note. Karloff lovers won’t want to miss this one, as Boris adds another fine portrait to his Rogue’s Gallery. He wouldn’t get as good a role as Master Sims until the monster revival in the 60’s, and it’s his last great film of the classic horror era. BEDLAM does with its modest budget what many bigger films fail to do, sending a potent message while entertaining the audience at the same time.