In the late seventeen-hundreds, there was a hospital for the mentally ill called Bedlam, a nickname for its actual title of St Mary of Bethlehem Hospital, where if you had tuppence to spare you could pay to watch the inmates as they floundered in their madness. The master of the establishment is George Sims (Boris Karloff), a cruel man who gloats over his treatment of the less fortunate and welcomes the gawpers for their patronage makes him feel that bit more important, though he fawns obsequiously over his social betters such as Lord Mortimer (Billy House) who holds the purse strings. However, there is one noblewoman, Nell Bowen (Anna Lee), who may prove a thorn in Sims' side as when she takes a look around inside Bedlam she is less than impressed...
The horror films of Val Lewton are treasured by cult movie fans for their rare atmosphere and insight into the frailties of the human mind, so it was appropriate that his last chiller for RKO should be so progressive in its faith in relating to those afflicted mentally, especially as this was the sole entry in his cycle for that studio made after the Second World War, and therefore notably more optimistic than those other movies. Nevertheless, although Lewton (who also wrote under his pseudonym) was wanting to end on a brighter note than say, Cat People or The Seventh Victim managed, there were dark times to get through before that final triumph, and true to form the ending had its grimmer aspect as well, reminding us there were still long shadows in the world.
This was the third and final film Lewton made with Boris Karloff, and they appeared to bring out the best in one another; although his performance here was not the equal of his mastery in The Body Snatcher, largely because it was Anna Lee who was actually playing the lead character, what screen time he had he made count with a villain who comes across as despicable until we recognise later he is more a product of the ignorance and fear of the day, not to mention the social injustice rife in the land, than he is purposefully wicked and twisted. Nevertheless, with his low cunning he is able to manipulate all too many others, which leads Nell to be framed into the board at Bedlam giving her an examination where because she contemptuously ate a banknote in a sandwich, she is judged to be insane.
Having spent more than half an hour in her company, we can understand she is simply a strong-willed woman who refuses to kowtow to the male establishment, which renders her a target for them if it means Lord Mortimer can seize her assets. After all, if she is condemned to be regarded as mad, they can treat her how they like, so she is powerless before their machinations, all conducted behind the scenes by Sims who in a splendidly vile reading Karloff portrays with the air of smug satisfaction a man who knows he can do as he likes, especially if that will means victimising and terrorising others in his manner of exerting his influence. They make for formidable antagonists, but Nell has something Sims never even thought of: her kindness.
She is in contact with a Quaker, Hannay (Richard Fraser), who wishes to reform the mental hospitals of the country, and he realises Nell has been locked away under false pretences, though he is seen as a useless do-gooder not to be taken seriously. Once inside, she assuredly does take him seriously, as he is her only hope of getting out, though here's an intriguing thing: being a horror movie (though it is as much a historical drama), Bedlam starts out from a position of fearing the insane, assuming we will be doing the same, yet once Nell makes an effort to relate to them and hear their concerns they begin to stand on their own two feet and grow more human. Not that this prevented Lewton including one of his most macabre endings when it came to the fate of the villain, but that was part of his overall worldview that there was always more to be done since evil was not always going to be safely locked away, it must be negotiated and contained; few were entirely good or bad, Nell certainly has her flaws, but Bedlam remained his most positive horror. Music by Roy Webb.
Workmanlike Canadian director who occasionally rose above the mainstream. A former editor, he got his break directing some good quality Val Lewton horrors for RKO: The Seventh Victim, The Ghost Ship, Isle of the Dead and Bedlam. Excellent boxing drama Champion led to more high profile work: Home of the Brave, Phffft!, The Harder They Fall, Peyton Place, enjoyable Hitchcock-style thriller The Prize, Von Ryan's Express, campy Valley of the Dolls and Earthquake.