Bedlam is about a third of a good picture. It’s like writers Val Lewton and (director too) Robson didn’t quite know how to make it work, what with having to have Boris Karloff in it. Karloff’s the villain, the head of a mental institute in the eighteenth century. Karloff’s so evil–and surrounded by so many bad people (the aristocracy has inmates perform for them)–the film’s always unpleasant.
But Karloff’s not the lead; the lead’s pretty Anna Lee and she learns being rich and comfortable is nothing compared to caring for one’s fellow man. She’s even got a Quaker love interest (Richard Fraser) who helps her find the right path.
Maybe half the film is Lee figuring out she should do something to help the people in the institution. Then the second half is after Karloff institutionalizes her.
During that second half, the film shines. Lee discovers she is capable of actively helping her fellow man instead of just advocating for his or her help. She’s got a great narrative arc, but Lewton and Robson have no idea how to write it. They give her awful patron–Billy House in a weak performance–way too much screen time.
As for Robson’s direction, he’s disappointing. Most of the film either takes place in House’s house (sorry) or the institution. The budget doesn’t exactly show, not until one realizes how unimaginative it gets.
Maybe if Lee were better. She’s okay, nothing more. And Karloff’s a caricature.
Bedlam is an unpleasant disappointment.
Directed by Mark Robson; screenplay by Val Lewton and Robson, suggested by a painting by William Hogarth; director of photography, Nicholas Musuraca; edited by Lyle Boyer; music by Roy Webb; produced by Lewton; released by RKO Radio Pictures.
Starring Anna Lee (Nell Bowen), Richard Fraser (Hannay), Boris Karloff (Master George Sims), Billy House (Lord Mortimer), Ian Wolfe (Sidney Long), Jason Robards Sr. (Oliver Todd), Leyland Hodgson (Wilkes), Joan Newton (Dorothea the Dove), Robert Clarke (Dan the Dog), Elizabeth Russell (Mistress Sims), Vic Holbrook (Tom the Tiger) and Skelton Knaggs (Varney).