This post is part of the Val Lewton blogathon hosted by Stephen aka Classic Movie Man & Kristina of the Speakeasy blog – see more posts at either Classic Movie Man’s Lewton page or the Speakeasy Lewton page!
The thing that fiction loves to remind you-- poking at that dark spot in the back of your mind-- is that sanity is completely relative. Worse, it's not just relative to society, but to the circumstances. The Val Lewton produced Bedlam eagerly preys upon this fear; any one among us may find ourselves reasonable, but we can easily be ostracized or worse by the will of unfriendly circumstances.
Here we have Nell Bowen (Anna Lee), a young, beautiful woman in the employ of Lord Mortimer (Billy House), a rotund and goofy fellow who has more money than sense. Mortimer has moved his copious posterior to a new town where he is intrigued by an asylum named Bedlam. That it's run by a guy named George Sims is of no consequence, but knowing that he's played by Boris Karloff makes quite the difference.
Sims is the asylum's manager, and regularly enjoys discovering the abuses he can heap upon his prisoners. He has a few perform for Mortimer, and the bourgeoisie lap it up as he cajoles his prisoners into monologues and embarrassing recitations. One man, coated in gold paint, stutters and then dies miserably from skin asphyxiation.
Nell becomes incensed by these cruelties, and decides to manipulate Mortimer into endorsing reforms. Unfortunately for her, no one can out-snake Karloff and she finds herself robbed of all of her property save for one foul mouthed cockatoo. She uses that to insult the Lord, which gets her railroaded into the asylum. Which, believe it or not, may not be a very good place to be.
Nell is the dynamic character here, a woman who begins the film entreating the Lord with some light frivolities ends it by gleefully covering up a murder. Well, okay, she's miserable for a bit in between, but there's a dark sense of humor to the woman, a nasty streak that makes her behave more like a child than an adult.
While she knows the horrors that Sims has planned for her in the asylum, she still seeks to treat others with the best feelings. However she still feels disgusted to be forced to sleep among the inmates: why?
I think it's that Lewton and director Mark Robson wanted to craft a woman character who is less a saint than a sinner trying to hide her claws. She's always arrogant and forceful, and the only reason it seems that her feelings for helping the interned arose is because a Quaker more or less pointed out her seeds of pity and she strove to prove him wrong when he declared her to be to cowardly to do anything about it.
It's rare you see a strong woman who functions like Nell, whose only moral actions in the film come directly from spite (her other actions in the film also come from spite, but they're a little less moral). When she at lasts leads the inmates to capture Sims and put him on trial for the cruelties heaped upon them, she uses the opportunity to escape, less her feelings of pity be once more used against her.
This is understandable the clearer Lewton and Robson paint Nell's world. The threat of sexual violence is always immediate for Nell. If it's not Sims drooling over her or eagerly tossing her to the wolves, than it's another corrupt Lord and the only man who could help her escape from Bedlam who must be promised 'amusements' if he is to make a fuss. The only people who take pity on her are those who have something to gain, whether it be simple moral superiority or more carnal desires.
And it's Nell's transformation (or almost lack thereof) that makes Bedlam such an interesting film to examine. At the film's conclusion, not only does she get what she wants in every regard, she manages to use the Quaker's moral imperatives to force him to help cover up a murder. She's a wily snake who does good, but while she may be the protagonist, she's not much of a hero.
But that should take me back to where I began this piece, where Nell's only glaring human flaw is a massive streak of rudeness that could cripple a good horse and carriage. Because she laughs in the face of some money that the Lord offers her, she is regarded as mad by the court and sentences to the asylum. What's interesting is that they do not show the court itself to be corrupt; Sims' goading aside, they still believe the woman to be crazy for turning down an exorbitant sum for a simple cockatoo.
Behave as we would or you're mad, the council essentially says. This is emphasized when we meet some of the inmates and we learn that some of those in the asylum are perfectly sane but simply misunderstood. One man is an alcoholic, so the asylum is a place for him to do his writing without temptation. In a different time, people would address his problem. Another man, though slightly eccentric, invents animation, which was undeniably lucrative by 1946. The people who only need a bit of guidance are stuck in the same four walled hay filled room as the rest, biding their time.
And that lastly brings us to the particular of the picture, the man for whom the audience is welcome to call villain. Boris Karloff's Sims is a cruel, unruly man, who treats his asylum like a zoo. Perhaps even a petting zoo on occasion, which shows us the depths of how far his cruelties can go.
When his trial arrives by the inmates as he is captured and held, he pleads himself insane; his barbarism, he contends, is from a cruel perversion that he cannot help. An interesting reversal, indeed, made all the more interesting by the fact that many of the inmates seem willing to buy it.
So I present to you, dear readers, a question to cap off this review: what is insanity? Is it so easy to define as to simply be something you find disagreeable, or is more deep and perverse than that? Lewton won't give us the answers, but readily presents us with the fact that those darkened corridors and frothing madmen could have their mitts on us yet, because anyone's state of mind is at the mercy to the whims of those with power.
A haunting reminder for Halloween. Oh... and Election Day.