I had no Netflix movies last night, so I was left to pick among the pile of movies I own but have not yet watched. And from these I decided I might want to see something from my Val Lewton horror collection boxed set, which usually come through and also have the additional virtues of offering the full satisfaction and dense content of a full film in 20-50 minutes’ less time. Some of the other notable Lewton features are Cat People, Curse of the Cat People, I Walked With a Zombie, and The Leopard Man. They are all mysterious and compelling, with brilliant set-pieces, stunning photography, and rich subtexts, and many of them are among my favorite movies of all time.
This film proved to have all of the aforementioned Lewton attributes in spades. It was apparently inspired by a William Hogarth painting, Bedlam, Plate 8: The Rake’s Progress [below]. Another Lewton film, The Isle of the Dead, was also inspired by a painting.
We begin in London, 1761. A man is trying to escape Bedlam, hanging onto a precipice, when a guard comes by and steps on his fingers, forcing him to fall. The next morning Lord Mortimer and Mistress Bowen are passing by, and become aware of the accident / murder. They call Sims, Bedlam’s manager, played by Boris Karloff, to Mortimer’s side to get to the bottom of this. Mortimer finds watching the “loonies” of the asylum to be inherently hilarious, so Karloff promises to prepare a play to be performed by the inmates. In exchange for this, Mortimer forgets the death of the boy.
Mistress Bowen accepts Lord Mortimer’s suggestion and goes to see the inmates for her amusement. She is greeted by Karloff, who has been visited by a Quaker. Bowen is taken into the asylum and horrified by the treatment if the inmates [the scene reproduced from the Hogarth]. Karloff is unrepentant about his treatment of them: “Some are dogs, those I beat. Some are pigs, those I let wallow in their own filth.” Bowen is repulsed, and the Quaker notes that she was moved to pity, which she denies. She slips immediately back into her royal persona of contempt for the common.
Then Karloff does his show for Mortimer. There is a young inmate, covered in gold. We are told—through a clumsily-placed piece of exposition—that if you gild every inch of a person’s body, they will be unable to breathe and die [did this film inspire the same death in Goldfinger?]. So the amusement of the party is in watching this boy die, whereupon Karloff tells his assistants to put the body in a burlap sack and dump it in the river. Once more, Bowen is outraged. Karloff argues that it was really the boy’s choice; after all, he didn’t HAVE to breathe.
Once more Bowen denies her kindness and pity to the Quaker, but is obviously attracted to him, and soon enough is converted. She throws a huge, haughty scene [in a poor approximation of the 18th-century British Royal talk] that makes Karloff roll his eyes. Anyway, she makes a total break with Mortimer and laves him, seeming to adjust fairly well from leaving her royal life in palaces, etc. for dark hovels. Mortimer then further needles her by taking away her furniture.
SPOILERS > > >
But Bowen makes some trouble for Mortimer in that she has a parrot that has been taught to say he’s a pig. He wants the bird, but she refuses, and Karloff offers a solution: lock her away in Bedlam. After some hugger-mugger he does, and Bowen is told that she submitted a petition to be let into the institution, and is taken away. The Quaker comes to see her, but Karloff won’t let him in. By this time Bowen is really starting to lose her mind. There’s a great sequence in which, after the Quaker has snuck in, he calls her name, and all of the insane inmates start repeating it, so she doesn’t know that the Quaker is there to help her.
< < < SPOILERS END
It all goes on and resolves itself in a very satisfying way that I have no reason to spoil for anyone. As with almost all the Lewton movies, this one contains jaw-droppingly gorgeous black and white photography. There were so many frames I would have liked to have pulled out… The one below with the shadows and the dress was a particular favorite, and much better to see in motion.
Another classic Lewton touch [and he actually wrote this script, with the director Marl Robson] is the way the subtext seems much more meaningful and dark than the text. After talking about “some are dogs… those I beat” he goes up to a beautiful woman and says “some are beautiful…” and leaves the thought of what he does with them in to your imagination. This particular thing gains further resonance by his wish to have Bowen in his asylum. As usual with these movies, there are several dark undercurrents like this one.
The commentary on this disc is somewhat interesting, but avoids any serious discussion of the themes, technique or construction of the movie in favor of factual tidbits about everyone involved. We find out a fair amount about the other works of art that inspired certain elements, and also that the dress Bowen wears when she visits the asylum IS the same dress that Scarlett O’Hara made out of her drapes in Gone With the Wind. Huh.
Anyway, you should watch all of the Lewton films, but this one is better than some of the others. Very satisfying and, as usual, dark, moody, brilliantly photographed, and full of dark subtext.