Synopsis: Nell Bowen (Anna Lee) is the young protege of the wealthy Lord Mortimer (Billy House). Nell has a sharp tongue and an irrepressible spirit, and she is distinctly unimpressed by money and prestige. Lord Mortimer is alternately amused and offended by her impertinence.
One thing Nell doesn’t approve of is Lord Mortimer’s choice of friends. The sycophantic Master George Sims (Boris Karloff), overseer of the notorious Saint Mary’s of Bethlehem Asylum – nicknamed “Bedlam”, is eager to insinuate himself into Mortimer’s company. To that end he provides entertainment to the nobleman’s parties in the form of inmates of the asylum, dressed up to costumes and forced to engage in humiliating perfomances for the guests’ amusement. One young man struggles to utter the dialogue Master Sims had forced him to memorize; he dies because his body has been thickly coated with paint. To Lord Mortimer and his Tory friends this is nothing to be concerned about, but Nell has come to pity the inmates who are so ill-used. She tries to convince Lord Mortimer that the inmates need better care, but any headway she makes with her benefactor is quickly undercut by the cruel Master Sims.
A Quaker stonemason (Richard Fraser) encourages her to act on her conscience, and Nell’s protests about conditions at the asylum become more strident. This, along with Nell’s increasingly public barbs directed toward Lord Mortimer himself, give Master Sims the opening he has been seeking. He convinces Lord Mortimer to allow an expert panel to examine Nell and assess her mental stability. With Master Sims serving as the chair of the panel, Nell’s fate is sealed: she suddenly finds herself declared insane and made an inmate in Sims’ ghastly asylum.
None of Nell’s friends have any idea what has happened to her. The Stonemason learns she has been made an inmate, but when he tries to see her he is denied admittance to the facility. Going around to the back of the building, he makes contact with her at a barred window. A terrified Nell asks the Stonemason for a weapon with which she can defend herself from the other inmates. At first the Quaker balks at doing such a thing, but he takes pity on her and gives her the trowel he has with him. He tells Nell that he will do what he can to get her released.
At first, Nell is almost frozen with terror at the prospect of an extended stay in Bedlam, and her mood isn’t helped by the fact that Master Sims enjoys coming in to gloat over her fate. But Nell is stronger and more resourceful than Sims believes; to his great consternation she overcomes her fear and begins ministering to the inmates, doing what she can to improve the conditions they are living under. She finds that many of the inmates respond positively to better treatment, and she earns the admiration and loyalty of those she has helped. But as the overseer of the asylum, Sims has many ways to make Bedlam more unpleasant — and even deadly — for the unfortunate Nell….
Comments: Bedlam was Val Lewton’s final picture for RKO, as well as his last collaboration with Boris Karloff. The two men got on well together even though Karloff’s presence had been imposed by the studio heads. Lewton initially regarded the Englishman as a ham and an oaf and took RKO’s decision to sign him as an insult, reading into it an implicit demand that he begin churning out monster rallies like the ones being made at the time over at Universal.
Lewton was a sensitive man who tended to ascribe the worst possible motives to those he worked for. In fact the studio wasn’t interested in monster rallies; it just liked the idea of a bankable horror star headlining Lewton’s already profitable films. And Lewton had no way of knowing that Karloff himself had been desperately unhappy during his last years at Universal; he didn’t want to make monster rallies either. It turned out to be a happy collaboration, and Karloff made three very good pictures with Lewton. For the first time in years, Karloff got to play something other than a monster or a mad scientist.
In Bedlam, he clearly relishes the role of Master George Sims, the sadistic, social-climbing proprietor of England’s most infamous madhouse. Sims is detestable not only because he is a sadist and abuses those vulnerable unfortunates who have been placed in his care; he is also willing to abuse those same inmates for the amusement of his rich and powerful friends, just so that he can worm his way into their good graces. Karloff, that most physical of actors, plays Sims with an insincere grin plastered to his face, his posture telegraphing an oily, obsequious charm: he leans forward in a perpetual half-bow, lowering his head in mock deference to those he wishes to win over with his catalog of lies. Karloff uses his height to great advantage, curling himself like a question mark to wheedle to the porcine Lord Mortimer or gloat over the imprisoned Nell.
Anna Lee plays an unusually strong female lead in this film, effectively conveying first her haughtiness and the terror that results from it and then, after Nell overcomes her fear, her determination and her compassion. Lee was a prolific actress with a good range, appearing in more than 120 films over a very long career. Her Nell is far more interesting than most female characters of the time, a case of a good actress making the most from a well-written part.
The film misfires in a couple of places, first with the subplot involving the Stonemason, who is introduced as Nell’s conscience early in the film and becomes her romantic interest at the very end, even though he isn’t even given a name. The conflict between his Quaker convictions and Nell’s desire to defend herself doesn’t get very much play, and aside from his curious Society of Friends speech patterns (he uses the personal pronouns “thee” and “thou” when speaking to people, decidedly out of fashion in the 18th century) he has surprisingly little personality and not a great deal to do.
The film also falls flat in attempting to depict the nightmarish asylum in which Nell has been imprisoned, which after all is the centerpiece of the picture. The Bedlam we see here is quite sanitized, compared to what was commonly known about the place. No film of the time would have been able to show the true misery of such a place, of course, but the Bedlam we’re shown here doesn’t look nearly as frightful as its reputation would suggest (Universal, it should be noted, would never have passed up the exploitation potential of the asylum itself). Moreover, Nell’s work with the inmates pays off so quickly and easily that it’s difficult for us to accept.
But to be fair, this is a movie that clocks in at just under 80 minutes. There’s something to be said for economical storytelling. And in the main this is a lively and well-made film, featuring one of Karloff’s best performances.