Bedlam (1946)

Director: Mark Robson

So this last part of Val Lewton’s RKO output featured one of his best films (The Body Snatcher), one of his poorest (Isle of the Dead—of which Tom Weaver says on his DVD commentary here that even Lewton called it a mess), and quite possibly his strangest, i.e. Bedlam. By the time he started working on it, the studio executive who’d been his main advocate had died and RKO were left a bit high and dry generally; however, Boris Karloff was still on hand for one last go-round. I hadn’t seen Bedlam before tonight, and will confess to finding it a somewhat odd experience. It has probably the best female role in any of the Lewton horrors (some of which are kind of thankless in that respect); Anna Lee as Nell Bowen is a damned spiky heroine, starting out as the “protegé” of Tory politician Lord Mortimer, becoming one of the inmates of Bedlam when she gets on the wrong side of Bedlam’s manager Sims (Karloff), who imprisons her there when she threatens to get Mortimer’s Whig opposition to instigate reforms at the asylum. What’s curious is the tonal variability of the thing, kind of set even before the film starts—the music under the RKO ident graphic is rather jolly before abruptly changing to something heavier during the credits proper. Similarly, some scenes have a semi-comedic quality (particularly the stuff with Sims’ niece) of the sort Lewton’s films otherwise eschewed, and which sit ill with the much more grim business in Bedlam itself, particularly the “trial” of Sims. And the initial mystery of what exactly was Mortimer’s friend Colby doing in Bedlam (from which he gets killed trying to escape at the film’s start) seems to just get dropped as Mortimer apparently loses interest in it himself. For me at least, it didn’t really hang together as well as some of the other Lewton Nine, and it’s unfortunate that the Production Code wouldn’t let the actual Bedlam scenes be as realistic as they probably could’ve been; but I will say the good things in it do tend to be very good. Richard Fraser’s a bit wet as the Quaker stonemason, but Lee is terrific, Karloff’s obviously relishing the villainy again, and some of the lunatics are pretty good too, making the trial scene the film’s highlight; on the whole, an uneven but not uninteresting (if also sadly premature) way for Lewton to end his RKO tenure (here’s a good article on him).

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