Friday, September 14, 2012

Classic Films in Focus: BEDLAM (1946)

In the 1730s, the celebrated English artist William Hogarth created a series of paintings called A Rake's Progress, which rapidly became some of the most famous images of the age. A little more than two centuries later, the visionary film producer Val Lewton took the last of Hogarth's series as the inspiration for his curiously erudite horror film, Bedlam (1946), although the studio heads at RKO probably had no idea what Lewton was up to, since they were really only paying him to churn out a series of cheap horror pictures that nobody was meant to take seriously. What they got instead were some of the most elegant and intelligent horror films ever made, including Cat People (1942) and I Walked with a Zombie (1943). While Bedlam is less well known today than some of Lewton's other pictures, it remains a visually striking and wonderfully effective example of his work, even if it takes a doctoral degree in eighteenth-century studies to appreciate every nuance and allusion that the film contains.

The final scene of The Rake's Progress
Bedlam makes its relationship to Hogarth, and especially The Rake's Progress, very plain at the beginning of the film. The opening credits appear over a series of ten Hogarth prints, ominously beginning with “The Company of Undertakers” and even more ominously ending with “The Idle 'Prentice Executed at Tyburn.” The final scene of A Rake's Progress is actually the sixth piece to appear in this procession. Over it, the credits proclaim that the film was "suggested" by the image that is shown. The other images hint at the events and characters of the film. "The Scene in Bridewell" from A Harlot's Progress and “Strolling Actresses Dressing in a Barn” both prefigure the heroine, a young actress and social climber evocatively named Nell Bowen (Anna Lee). Scenes from the career of the Industrious 'Prentice suggest the hero, the Quaker brick mason Hannay (Richard Fraser), while the opening and closing images allude to Apothecary General Master Sims, the villainous keeper of the Bedlamites, played by the incomparable Boris Karloff. Hogarth's prints reappear throughout the film as interstitial pieces between scenes, so the audience's attention is repeatedly brought back to them as the plot unfolds.

One can imagine original theater audiences of Bedlam being a bit stymied by this parade of pictures; one does not usually expect a low-budget horror film to contain a series of quick lessons on eighteenth-century art, and television runs of the film in later years routinely cut the Hogarth images out. Lewton's use of Hogarth is, however, entirely in keeping with his approach to the RKO films, which frequently turn on literary themes and reveal an unexpectedly sophisticated aesthetic sensibility. Lewton's The Body Snatcher (1945) is an adaptation of a short story by Robert Louis Stevenson, Mademoiselle Fifi (1944) takes its inspiration from the works of Guy de Maupassant, and even I Walked With A Zombie turns out to be a post-colonial revision of Jane Eyre. Thus Hogarth's presence as the driving force behind the film makes perfect sense within the context of Lewton's own ideas about the true nature of his cinematic efforts.

Anna Lee as Nell Bowen
Lewton's use of Hogarth as the film's point of origin encourages the conscious viewer to look more closely and critically at the film itself, much as one views an actual Hogarth print, in which every detail appears for a purpose and furthers the creator's ideological ends. The inmates of the asylum, for example, function as powerful symbolic figures, from Dorothea the Dove, Dan the Dog, and Tom the Tiger to the Gilded Boy. Even their names indicate their archetypal significance. Lewton pitches the fight for sanity as a kind of epic, a sexualized power struggle waged deep within a literal and psychological Underworld between the strong-willed Nell and the sadistic Sims. The imprisoned maiden's persecution by the leering and masculine master also gives the whole film a strong Gothic flavor, which makes sense given that the Gothic was another creation of the eighteenth century. As the film unfolds, Lewton adds more layers, at times recreating Hogarth's images in cinematic tableaux or mixing in references to other period texts, including the 1604 play The Honest Whore and Christopher Smart's Jubilate Agno, written in the mid-eighteenth century when that English poet was himself an inmate in a madhouse.

Lewton, who wrote the screenplay for the movie under the pseudonym Carlos Keith, knew that very little of this aspect of Bedlam would ever be recognized by its audience. Thus he ensures that the film makes perfect sense without this knowledge, relying as it does on the familiar enough plot of the sane person thrown among the mad. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975), and Gothika (2003) have all explored this territory, as well, though none of them with Lewton's intensely literate sense of the idea. Lewton and his director, Mark Robson, also make great use of Boris Karloff's craggy features and mannered villainy; there was something about Karloff that Lewton must have recognized as perfectly suited to his kind of horror, for he used him in The Body Snatcher and Isle of the Dead (1945) as well as Bedlam. If the people in the theater seats never understood the full meaning of what they saw, they at least knew enough to shiver at Karloff's delicious evil, and perhaps shadowy monsters of the subconscious stirred in the dark corners of their psyches, awakened by the strangely disturbing images that flickered there on the screen.

For even more films from Val Lewton, try The Leopard Man (1943), The Seventh Victim (1943), and Curse of the Cat People (1944). After his collaborations with Lewton, Mark Robson went on to direct Peyton Place (1957) and The Inn of the Sixth Happiness (1958), both of which earned him nominations for Best Director. You’ll find more of versatile actress Anna Lee in How Green Was My Valley (1941), Fort Apache (1948), and The Sound of Music (1965). Boris Karloff is best remembered for his monstrous character in Frankenstein (1931), but he’s also fun to watch in Scarface (1932), The Mummy (1932), and The Comedy of Terrors (1963).

An earlier version of the review originally appeared on The author retains all rights to this content.

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