I get the impression that I liked this more than most people. As far as I can tell it's generally regarded as one of the lesser Val Lewtons, but I thought it was interesting. I like its version of the 18th century, especially the characters' language, and I don't mind the fact that despite one's expectations it's not a horror movie. The ending's mildly evil and the social attitudes on display are certainly horrifying enough, but essentially this is what both Lewton and Boris Karloff referred to it as: a historical picture.
The film's set in the year 1761 and concerned with the institution now known as Bedlam. It still exists today and it's the oldest psychiatric hospital in the world, incidentally, although it prefers to be known as the Bethlem Royal Hospital of London and it's been moved to Beckenham. It was founded in 1247 as a priory, became a hospital in 1330 and first started admitting the mentally ill in 1357. It's mentioned in Shakespeare, with Edgar pretending to be a Bedlam beggar in King Lear, and it used to be a byword for inhuman treatment of its lunatics. Lewton's film was banned in the UK for decades and critics warned it would shock and repulse audiences, but it's actually a toned-down version of what really used to go on. It's true that people in the 18th century would pay money to go to the "show of Bethlehem", peering into the inmates' cells and laughing, but don't expect explicit details about the sex and violence. There's also no mention of visitors being allowed to bring long sticks to poke the inmates. Apparently entry was free on the first Tuesday of the month. Fun for all the family!
This is pretty extreme material, yet the film manages to be relatively genteel. It was made in 1946, after all. It also puts a positive gloss on its subject matter by saying that reforms began twelve years later in 1773, but what it doesn't mention is that these reforms didn't exactly turn Bedlam into a place of light and civilisation. It didn't stop being a peep show. 96,000 people came to see the inmates in 1814 alone.
The film's actually inspired by Hogarth's The Rake's Progress. At one point they even reproduce the original image in live-action with actors doing it for real. Obviously the film's facing the insuperable problem of trying to tell a story that could never be told under the Hollywood Production Code, but they still manage to make it worth watching even without explicit sex and brutality. I'd even go so far as to say that these restrictions in themselves make it more interesting, albeit in a Johnson's dog kind of way. Lewton was a highly intelligent writer of great subtlety and a passion for authenticity in his films, which helped give this one several qualities of interest.
Firstly, he gives us the horror of people's attitudes. He can't show us any real violence, but he can show a gathering of the rich and famous treating it as a matter of no importance that they've just witnessed Boris Karloff causing an inmate's death through skin suffocation right in front of them. Karloff doesn't even try to hide the fact! He merely cracks an 18th century witticism and gets a laugh from the assembled company! A surprising amount of this film isn't set in Bedlam at all, but is instead concerned with the political maneuverings of politicians and aristocrats. Karloff's character is the director of the asylum, but he's also a poet and a wit who loves crawling before his betters. The corruption and hypocrisy is breathtaking. Bedlam's full of madmen, yes, but it also contains a good number of people who were simply inconvenient. It's a fine way of disposing of your political enemies, as Karloff himself suggests.
Secondly, there's Lewton's subtlety, which indeed seems to have gone past quite a few reviewers. There's never any overt reference to sex, for instance, but by the end you won't be in much doubt that Karloff's character was taking sexual advantage of his "dove". Similarly Anna Lee's lead character is essentially another take on the protagonists of The Leopard Man, in that she has a tender heart and yet will go to great lengths to deny this fact. For some reason she wants everyone to think she's a bitch. The only difference between this and The Leopard Man is that this time there's no heavy-handed dialogue spelling out this subtext for the audience. This makes her a more ambiguous and interesting character, to the point where quite a lot of people seem to think she makes a Damascene conversion from evil to good halfway through. Maybe she does? There's room for interpretation on this point, but it's certainly true that she appears to display compassion early in the film, but then denies it in the strongest terms when it's pointed out to her.
Thirdly, there's the cinematography. The use of lighting here is sufficiently remarkable that it's likely to strike even people who don't normally notice that kind of thing. I've seen the cinematographer described as the "legendary" Nicholas Musuraca and it's noticeable that in his hands, the hospital of Bedlam itself would seem to have moods. It gets darker. It swallows you. Check out the harsh, blinding shadows cast on the madman in the cage, then the significance of the way in which they're softened. Most memorable though is Richard Fraser in the corridor of clutching hands, which must be one of the defining images of the Lewton canon.
Finally there's the simple fact that the film feels honest. All the dialogue is written in 18th century language, as if taken from a stage play of the era. I can see how that might put off many people, but I loved it. It's a dream role for Karloff, at least, who's always been at his best when allowed to be theatrical. He's clearly relishing every line and delivering them as if no other mode of conversation is even conceivable. It's a joy to see him bewigged and frock-coated. I've tended to find that Americans will know English 18th century history better than the English, for understandable reasons, and I was as convinced by this film's setting as I always am with Lewton. The odd actor will occasionally let their American accent show through, but in a natural way that doesn't break the illusion. No one's torturing the ear. Besides, if you're going back that far then a modern American accent is closer to how people really spoke than the cut-glass Alexandra Palace vowels we've been led to expect from English costume drama.
The cast aren't lovable. That's one of the film's two problems for a casual audience these days, along with the lack of supernatural horror elements. Richard Fraser's Quaker stonemason is a model of religious probity, which makes him a better man than the people he meets but also a less engaging one. Boris Karloff is openly evil, but in a realistic way that's an honest reflection of what the film's portraying. This is no comic book character. Anna Lee's character is a shrew who doesn't want to be liked, not to mention letting the side down performance-wise in the scene where she's begging Richard Fraser for a weapon. That could have been a scene fit to tear down the rafters, but she's only okay in it. Shame. However this is a better Lewton film than some of them for us actor-watchers, given the presence of Boris Karloff, Lewton regular Elizabeth Russell and an uncredited Skelton Knaggs (of the walnut face). Ian Wolfe's good too.
There's the usual dodgy acting from cameo players, this time concentrated in one chap who shows up at the four minute mark and delivers his lines as if under hypnosis. There's also a goof in Anna Lee owning a cockatoo nine years before Captain Cook discovered Australia. Those two quirks are pardonable, but a further flaw annoyed me. It's nice to see a movie that knows what the difference is between "you" and "thou" ("are we lovers, that you 'thee' and 'thou' me?") but they then undo it all by not knowing the grammatical difference between "thou" and "thee".
This isn't a warm film. It's a tale of callous people and an appalling institution, but it's being told in a brittle, intellectual kind of way that's tending to strike at the head, not the heart. Anna Lee's character is also a good deal more complicated and difficult to engage with than we're used to in movie protagonists. However in its own way, there's plenty here that's shocking. "You have no idea what a great responsibility it is to be rich." "Everyone who goes to Bedlam expires with laughter." "I have a curiosity to see the loonies in their cages."