Sunday, January 10, 2010

Horror Movies That Don't Suck: Bedlam (1946)

Of the Val Lewton Collection I got for Christmas, Bedlam is not the greatest, but it was certainly the most delightful surprise. Having already seen most of the classics like Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie, and the underrated Leopard Man, not to mention Karloff's finest performance in The Body Snatcher, I was largely under the impression that the remaining films would be much lesser inclusions, but Bedlam is simply amazing. It's a period film set in the late 1730s inspired by the works of Hogarth, and while it's morality might seem a little preachy in its morals, it is a film I could not say really talks down to the viewer.

Anna Lee (Nell Bowan), a moody and sometimes irrational woman who has charmed her way into high society, becomes the rival of Master George Sims (Boris Karloff) when she aims to reform his cruel methods of running Bedlam asylum. When her political influences prove a genuine threat, Master Sims has her committed for her at times spontaneous behavior. Once inside, the film becomes a theatrical showdown. Imagine if you will, a cross between One Flew Over the Cuckcoo's Nest and Marat/Sade without the post-modernism, and even a shade of Shanley's Doubt. Where from her comfy place in society it was easy for Lee to judge his cruel methods, she now finds herself among the beasts, begging a Quaker friend to forsake his vows and give her a weapon to defend herself in the dark. Soon however, she learns to see the inmates as lost souls and rises above her fears to find humility where Sims could only find cynicism.

Sims never makes it easy for her and in the film's most powerful scene he thrusts her into a moral test that goes to the very heart of Lewton's psychological approach to horror. He presents to her a man, a hulking brute caged for being too violent to have among the others and tells her she is to share his cage, that it was one thing to pity the pitiful, but was she really willing to show compassion for someone who could endanger her, who was deeply disturbed, a seemingly true beast, or was all of her idealism just talk. It's a wonderful scene, beautifully shot, where both actors step up their performances and the script suddenly becomes something of literary consideration.

I can't get over how intelligent this film is, and how much credit it gives the viewer to figure things out. It never has the characters stop and explain the politics of the period. It is filled with characters and shots right out of Hogarth paintings, and so much information is conveyed subtly through acting and withing wide shots as opposed to explicit close ups. Take for example the simple cue that Anna has a spade hidden in her skirt to defender herself with during a card game. Any other film of the time would have done a close up right on it, but this simply shows her fingers touch it under her fabric, almost unnoticeable. Director Mark Robinson trusts you to be paying attention and catch it. I don't want to spoil too much, but when the spade is finally used note the implied motive for why. This stuff is startling for a 40s film.

Val Lewton produced and wrote the final drafts (uncredited) for several masterpieces, but as I hear The Leopard Man more and more getting recognized as much, much more than a feeble attempt to milk the Cat People 'franchise' one last time, I feel this is the new under appreciated gem to consider from Lewton's great series of films.

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