Directed by Mark Robson
Written by Val Lewton (as Carlos Keith) and Mark Robson suggested by the William Hogarth painting “Bedlam”, Plate #8 of “The Rake’s Progress”
RKO Radio Pictures
First viewing/Netflix rental
Nell Bowen: If you ask me, M’Lord, he’s a stench in the nostrils, a sewer of ugliness, and a gutter brimming with slop.
This was the last of the horror films Val Lewton produced at RKO. He went out on a high note.
Nell Bowen (Anna Lee) is the “protege” of Lord Mortimer, a sort of resident fool who keeps the vain fat man amused with her cockatoo and quips. She and a Quaker witness an inmate falling off the roof of the insane asylum at Bedlam and are sure it was murder. It turns out that the victim was a poet Lord Mortimer had hired to write for a fête. The overseer of Bedlam George Sims (Boris Karloff) is a bit of an amateur poet himself. Although it seems fairly clear that Sims wrongfully committed the poet and set him up for the fall, all Mortimer really cares about is the fête. Sims offers to feature some of his inmates in the entertainment and Mortimer is satisfied.
Although Nell is a thorough cynic, she cannot help but being disgusted by the evil Sims. He offers to give her a tour of the premises, which are open to public for tuppence. Nell is further disturbed by the squalid conditions of the place and the obvious cruelty with which the inmates are treated. Later at the fête an inmate who has been covered in thick gilt paint to give a recitation dies and Nell tries to convince her boss to get money from the City Council to reform Bedlam.
Sims convinces Mortimer to leave things as they are and Nell quits with an angry tirade. She tries to retaliate by selling her cockatoo, who has been trained to spout rude rhymes about Mortimer, to his political opposition. Sims persuades Mortimer to sign commitment papers and before she knows it Nell is an inmate herself. Nell’s friendship with the Quaker enables her to survive her ordeal.
Karloff shines without horror make-up as the cruel yet oddly pathetic villain of the piece. Anna Lee is not too convincing as a vixen but does better as the angel of the hospital. For me, the highlight of the movie was Nicholas Musuraca’s wonderful atmospheric cinematography and the art direction that made every frame look like something out of a Hogarth painting. It is really amazing what Lewton’s team could create on a shoestring budget.
The DVD contains an informative commentary by horror scholar Tom Weaver.