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Set in London in 1761, Bedlam is a departure from previous Val Lewton productions in its focus on horrific social conditions instead of supernatural occurrences. The central character, Nell Rowan, is an actress and protege of Lord Mortimer, who attends a performance given by the inmates of Saint Mary's of Bethlehem Hospital for the Insane. When one of the inmates dies after being gilded with gold paint for the play, Nell is outraged and begins campaigning for asylum reform. Her crusade wins her more enemies than supporters and she eventually finds herself committed to the same madhouse where she gets a close-up look at the appalling conditions.
Bedlam was Val Lewton's last film for RKO and his final collaboration with Boris Karloff. The screenplay was largely inspired by William Hogarth's painting "Bedlam," which is Plate 8 in his series, The Rake's Progress. Other Hogarth illustrations are also used throughout the film as transitions between sequences and as a background for the credits. The interior of Bedlam was actually the set of the church built for The Bells of St. Mary's (1945) and collectors of arcane trivia will notice that Anna Lee is wearing one of Vivien Leigh's dresses from Gone With the Wind (1939) in one scene.
While not well received by critics or the public during its original release, Bedlam can be appreciated today as a feminist horror film. The central character, Nell, is punished for her intelligence and outspoken nature at a time when women had very few rights. The male authority figures decide the best way to deal with this difficult woman is to brand her a lunatic and lock her up in a madhouse. And what is more frightening for an independent woman than being oppressed and rendered totally powerless by men who make the rules?
Director: Mark Robson
Producer: Val Lewton
Screenplay: Mark Robson, Carlos Keith (a pseudonym for Val Lewton)
Cinematography: Nicholas Musuraca
Editor: Lyle Boyer
Art Direction: Albert S. D'Agostino, Walter E. Keller
Music: Roy Webb
Cast: Boris Karloff (Master Sims), Anna Lee (Nell Rowen), Billy House (Lord Mortimer), Jason Robards, Sr. (Oliver Todd), Ian Wolfe (Sidney Long), Elizabeth Russell (Mistress Sims).
by Jeff Stafford