Directed by Mark Robson [Other horror films: The Seventh Victim (1943), Isle of the Dead (1945)]
What an amazing film on so many levels.
Once a well-to-do lady becomes concerned about the state of a local mental institution, with a little help from a Quaker, and finding that neither Tory nor Whig seemingly care about reforms, she takes it upon herself to fight for what she believes right. Unfortunately, the head of the institute, played by Boris Karloff, has little interest in the welfare of his patients (which seems too generous a term to describe them, truth be told), and instead plots to throw the lady herself into the asylum, so she can no longer speak out.
There’s a lot in Bedlam to really like. What’s easy is the cast. Boris Karloff (who really needs no introduction at this point) is fantastic as the sinister head of the asylum, and has a pretty satisfactory story arc come the conclusion. Anna Lee, too, is fantastic as the lead character, and she definitely has a passion in her throughout the film. At times, her character is unlikable, but for a woman who is starting to see the poor and maligned people as people for the first time, I think that’s understandable. Billy House (who plays an amusing, mostly inoffensive, pompous lord) and Richard Fraser (who plays a straight-laced Quaker wonderfully) both add a lot to Bedlam.
It’s the story that really makes things work. A woman of high standing, Lee’s character slowly becomes moved by the plights of the mentally unsound, but even when in the institute, she can’t get past her deep fear and mistrust of the insanity surrounding her. And when she does make friends in the institution, they’re the higher class of patients (beautifully comparing her previous life of abject apathy with her new life locked up).
There’s a line in the film that really got to me. “Why should we help.” asks one of the upper echelon of patients to Lee’s character, in reference to the cruelty others are facing, “We are the people of the pillar.” I think it’s at that point that the character finally realized exactly the type of person, even locked up, she tended to be, and then set out to change it, by making beds, and tending wounds, of those who couldn’t do it for themselves.
Earlier in the film, there’s a member of the Whig Party who purports to care (as opposed to the Tories, who, much like many modern-day Republicans, revel in the despair of the poor and unfortunate), but later we see him laughing with the rest at a mockery of a play, using the patients themselves as actors. Like many modern-day Democrats, he gives lip service to the issue, but as a man from the upper class, he doesn’t truly have a concern for the welfare of those beneath him.
It takes a Quaker, one opposed to violence of any type, and not prone to lofty ideals, to really bring the idea of equality between all men, poor and rich, peasants and lords, insane and sane, to Lee’s character. At the same time, this Quaker sets too much faith in the laws to really hold a revolutionary view of the best way to help those who need it the most.
Bedlam has a lot of political ideas, and that deeply interests me, but if you can somehow separate the politics from the film, I still think most people would see what a great and clever film this is.
All of my praise aside, I do wish there had been a few more suspenseful and tense scenes. The trial at the finale was fantastic, and the scenes afterward were damn amazing, but it wasn’t enough to make up for the lack of great suspense beforehand. In some ways, Bedlam’s a slow-burn, but I don’t really know, as great as the ending is, if it makes up for what the movie was lacking previously.
The 1940’s is probably, in my opinion, the worst decade for horror films since the creation of the genre, but there are some really great films that came out in this ten-year range, and Bedlam is definitely one of them. I loved this when I first saw it many years back, and the movie still has so much to offer.