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Movies E.C. McMullen Jr. Review by
E.C.McMullen Jr.
Bedlam
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BEDLAM - 1946
RKO Pictures
Rating: N/A

Is a picture really worth a thousand words? Because BEDLAM is the only movie I can think of that was based, or at least suggested by, a painting. Artist

Willliam Hogarth's painting bedlam, Plate 8: "The Rake's Progress" was the inspiration used by screenwriters Carlos Keith and Mark Robson. Robson was Producer Val Lewton's goto guy for directing as well as writing.

In 1946, while Bela Lugosi's career was sliding down, Boris Karloff, thanks in part to his association with the wildly popular Val Lewton, was rising. In the marketing argot of the period, Boris made Horror movies for discerning adults, while Bela was in his "Poverty Row" period of Horror film making, for adolescents only. Keep this in mind should you ever see Tim Burton's excellent movie, ED WOOD.

In retrospect, Boris' movies of this time aren't actually scary and despite the breathless prose on the posters, aren't horrific either. It's Bela's that largely stand the test of time. BEDLAM is a good example of why.

A man attempts to climb a wall. A nightwatch upon the roof sees the man climbing and steps on his hands, forcing him to fall screaming to his death.

Lord Mortimer (Billy House: INNER SANCTUM, WHERE DANGER LIVES) is taking a nice carriage ride with his fiesty protoge, Nell Bowen (Anna Lee: THE MAN WHO LIVED AGAIN, THE SECRET FOUR, THE GHOST AND MRS. MUIR, WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE?, PICTURE MOMMY DEAD, THE BEASTS ARE ON THE STREETS), whose insolent manner amuses him. Passing through the streets and by a looney bin, St. Mary's of Bethlehem Asylum (Bedlam), the carriage is stopped by te mass of a crowd. In short order, Lord Mortimer discovers that he not only knew the dead man, but that the asylum inmate even shared the company of Lord Mortimer himself not more than a week before.

Concerned, Lord Mortimer calls for Insane Asylum director Master Sims (Boris Karloff: THE SEA BAT, FRANKENSTEIN, BEHIND THE MASK, THE MUMMY [1932], THE GHOUL, THE BLACK CAT, BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, THE RAVEN, THE WALKING DEAD, SON OF FRANKENSTEIN, THE APE, HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, ISLE OF THE DEAD, FRANKENSTEIN - 1970 [1958], THE RAVEN, THE TERROR, THE COMEDY OF TERRORS, DIE, MONSTER, DIE!, BLACK SABBATH, TARGETS) to explain the atrocity. While Mortimer and Nell believe Sims culpable, Sims wins Mortimer with syrupy flattery until the dull-witted Lord is overwhelmed, thinking him a "Capital fellow!". Nell Bowen isn't fooled for a moment, easily seeing through Sims "Uriah Heep" two-faced character.

As was the style of the time, Sims invites the Lord to one of his plays, where the inmates perform under pain of punishment. The real Sims spends that afternoon writing a play that will curry favor with Lord Mortimer. As he does so, he holds audience with The Stonemason (Richard Fraser: THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY, THE FATAL WITNESS, SHADOW OF TERROR). The Stonemason works well and cheap as befits his calling as a Quaker. Sims finds this well as he is given 18 pence per worker and The Stonemason cannot accept more than 16. This works well for Sims who will pocket the other two after he gives it to the Stonemason. The Stonemason doesn't comprehend a bribe and Sims cannot comprehend anyone who doesn't. It is, after all, a simple common, business transaction.

Nell makes a surprise visit to the asylum. She wishes to take a tour of the asylum, which Sims is only too eager to provide.

Once the door opens to a world of insanity, screaming and suffering, the self-contained Nell can only look on in horror.

"They're all so lonely! They're in themselves and by themselves."

Nell is so disgusted by it all she strikes the leering Sims across the face in view of the Stonemason.

Later, the Stonemason chides her for her actions, as Master Sims will take his anger out on the patients. Nell affects an air of unconcern for the patients, but she can't fool the Quaker.

That evening, during the show, a young boy, portraying The Gilded Boy (Glenn Vernon: I BURY THE LIVING, I SAW WHAT YOU DID, THE SCREAMING WOMAN, SO I MARRIED AN AXE MURDERER) in Sims' play, dies because of Sims and his beatings and torture. As the Lords and Ladies laugh with great delight at the death of a looney, Nell cannot contain her outrage with Sims or her disgust with Lord Mortimer and the assembled Lords.

Soon Nell will find her righteous anger and values have jeopardized not only her lifestyle, but her life. And the silently angry Sims, holding a facade of smile, flattery, and obsequiousness, waits for his moment to add Nell to his collection.

Director of Photography Nicholas Musuraca creates worlds of light and dark depending on the setting. The light of Lord Mortimer's house is fractured, lending itself to the bland toxicity of his life.

The light of Master Sims insane asylum is scarred with shadow and light, all within the settings of Art Directors Albert S. D'Agostino and Walter E. Keller.

Master Sims is droll with dry British wit and sews discord into the thoughts of Lord Mortimer.

Nell Bowen isn't helped by her servant, Varney (Skelton Naggs: TORTURE SHIP, THE GHOST SHIP, THE LODGER, ISLE OF THE DEAD, HOUSE OF DRACULA, TERROR BY NIGHT). Like Sims nurturing the weaknesses of Mortimer, so Varney encourages Nell to pursue the "Merry life".

So Nell seeks the patronage of Master Wilkes (That Devil Wilkes!). But unlike Lord Mortimer, Master John Wilkes (Leland Hodgson: THE MUMMY [1932], THE WOLF MAN [1941], THE GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN, SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE VOICE OF TERROR, THE INVISIBLE MAN'S REVENGE, THE FROZEN GHOST, TERROR BY NIGHT) expects more than mere company from Nell.

As the machinations turn, it is clear that the better contained Master Sims will win. He has placed his own sister, Mistress Sims (Elizabeth Russell: THE CORPSE VANISHES, CAT PEOPLE, A SCREAM IN THE DARK, WEIRD WOMAN, THE CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE) into Lord Mortimer's company as his new protoge.

More of a dark drama than actual Horror, and ably assisted by Special effects by Vernon L. Walker, Val Lewton's last Horror movie (the discerning adults were moving on) stands well as cinema, but never rises to actual horror, though there is plenty of oppressive darkness to be found, especially in the chillingly statuesque Dorothea the Dove (Joan Newton).

Thanks to the state of the art RCA sound recording of the time, what was recorded then is capable of being digitally enhanced and improved upon today.

Three Shriek Girls.

Shriek GirlsShriek GirlsShriek Girls
This review copyright 2012 E.C.McMullen Jr.

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