Thursday, February 21, 2008

Val Lewton's "Bedlam" (d. Mark Robson-1946)

I'm slowly working my way through the Val Lewton box set I bought in December. Of course nowadays it's become a lot more difficult to get through a feature length movie. Baby E. is still completely unpredictable in his sleeping patterns. But once in awhile I can outlast him, and reclaim my lair downstairs when he goes up to bed. Last night I decided to watch Bedlam (1946), which was directed by Mark Robson and starred Boris Karloff, Anna Lee, and Billy House. It's a period piece about the infamous British insane asylum, set in 1761. Perhaps you have seen William Hogarth's etchings of interior scenes taken straight from the historical Bedlam? From all accounts it seems like it was an extremely horrific place.

Technically the madhouse was named the Bethlem Royal Hospital, and was built in London in 1247 to be used as a priory. It became a hospital in 1330, but it wasn't until 1403 that it first admitted mentally ill patients. Conditions inside were notoriously poor. Although there were less than 30 sick inhabitants at any one time (for the first few hundred years), it was said that simply visiting the place could drive one insane. Even before it was expanded and relocated outside of the city (in 1675), it was known for the excessively cruel treatments keepers inflicted upon the unfortunates who were kept there. In the 18th Century, people were encouraged to go to Bedlam to see the "freaks". This was a popular amusement and visitors actually prodded the "patients" with sticks, inciting them to further paroxysms of madness. On the first Tuesday of every month, admission was free.

The prevailing notion of insanity in those days was that it was caused by "moral weakness". This was ironic given that sightseers were attracted to the spectacle of inmates having sex and engaging in other ferocious physical encounters. Eventually more compassionate minds concerned themselves with improving the plight of the mentally ill, and reforms were put into place to protect their rights. In 1815 Bedlam was moved to Lambeth, where conditions were said to be much improved. There was a great ballroom, a library, and a chapel for patients to enjoy. Those who were lucky enough to be released from the asylum were believed to be licensed as street beggars, although there were many more who claimed this distinction than were actually ever in residence at Bedlam.

Lewton's Bedlam is presided over by Karloff, who represents the type of externally-fawning and internally-raging administrator that must have been particularly hellish for those stuck with him. Ann Lee serves in the court of a nobleman who comes to see a theatrical production starring the patients. Their exploitation is meant for the amusement of the wealthy, and it is clear that the spectators view the performers as little more than animals. Lee finds herself commiserating with the exploited, and seeks a way to help them. She tries to talk her lord (Billy House) into ponying up some money for improvements, but Karloff resists her efforts and eventually finds a way to incarcerate her in Bedlam as a 'patient'. While in this dire predicament, Lee undergoes a radical personality transformation and works to alter the lives of her fellow prisoners.

The setting inside the asylum is shot with dismal lighting, and exudes a filthy menace that is made especially effective through the black-and-white film stock. The roles are all portrayed with competent professionalism, as one might expect in a Lewton film. There are a range of strange and eccentric bit players, and they add to the general atmosphere of the tale and its times. There is a strident message of anti-violence running throughout the movie, embodied in the character of a conscientious Quaker stone mason. It's an interesting story, made especially intriguing by the social commentary at its core. Society was still struggling to provide humane treatments for the mentally ill in 1946. The perspective at the core of Bedlam is that bringing normalization into the lives of those suffering from psychological disorders is the most effective way to stimulate a possible recovery.

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