Thursday, 6 May 2010

The Films of Val Lewton - Part Thirty One

Bedlam - part one

Bedlam was Val Lewton’s third consecutive film with Boris Karloff, and he once more provided the actor with the opportunity to provide a performance of great subtlety, creating a nuanced character whose evil is as much a product of his social milieu as it is inherent. Lewton and Karloff were by now entirely comfortable with each other’s artistic approaches, a relationship of mutual respect having expanded into friendship. The Body Snatcher had been a huge success, both critically and in terms of box office returns. As a result, Lewton was given a much greater budget for Bedlam and allowed more time to prepare the picture. The production was even deemed prestigious enough to attract a four page article in Life Magazine. It seemed that Lewton’s time had come, and that he could at last look forward to working with a greater degree of independence and creative control. It was not to last, alas, but Bedlam does bear his authorial stamp more indelibly than any of the films which he produced. It mixes elements from his two previous historical pictures with Karloff, The Body Snatcher and Isle of the Dead. It is meticulous in the recreation of historical detail, in mannerisms and costume as much as in set dressing. It also takes much inspiration from works of art. Whereas Isle of the Dead drew on Goya and Bocklin, Bedlam takes much of its detail from the etchings and paintings of William Hogarth. The wealth of detail in Hogarth’s prints provided a rich visual source of historical detail for Lewton and his director and screenplay co-writer Mark Robson, and the film openly acknowledges this influence, displaying some of these works at intervals throughout.

The credit sequence uses a series of Hogarth prints and paintings as a backdrop. This progression emulates the sequential, narrative nature of some of Hogarth’s best-known works. His picture series such as The Rake’s Progress and the Idle and Industrious ‘Prentice tell a story in a number of carefully detailed tableaux, which mark the stations of the protagonist’s experiences, generally marking an inexorable descent into madness, degradation and death. There are many symbolic objects and significant background details which point to the moral cause, both in their character and in the wider social and political milieu, of their downfall. The paintings and etchings which Lewton uses in these opening credits might not form a sequential narrative, but they do refer to various aspects of the film to which they act as a prelude, introducing themes, characters and settings in much the same way as might the overture to an opera. They also provide an appropriate commentary or reflection on the credits to which they form the backdrop, sometimes with a slyly humorous or satirical edge.

The Company of Undertakers
The first picture is not part of one of Hogarth’s narrative series, but is the satirical coat of arms ‘The Company of Undertakers’, which he had originally intended to title ‘A Consultation of Quacks’, since these are in fact medical men (and one woman, in the centre at the top). The tips of the canes apparently contained disinfectant, which some of them wave in front of their noses, presumably to ward of the stink of decay. The utilitarian wigs and the ponderous manner in which some of them prop their chins atop the knobs of their canes, along with their general funereal air, are a model for the appearance and bearing of Boris Karloff’s character Simms, whose sombre, unadorned garb is so at odds with the obligatory gaiety and bright dandyism displayed in the upper echelons of society. This print is indeed used for Boris Karloff’s credit card. Karloff once more receives top, star billing, as he had in both Isle of the Dead and The Body Snatcher.

The Idle and Industrious 'Prentice
The second Hogarth picture is a print from the parallel narrative sequence The Idle and Illustrious ‘Prentice, stories which set out to illustrate the moral and material benefits of hard work in their depiction of the rise and fall of two characters who set out with an identical employment and social standing. The first plate in the series finds them both at their looms in a silk weavers’ workshop in Spitalfields (on the border between the East End and the City of London). One is absorbed in his work, his calmly intent features illuminated by the light pouring through the window. The other is dozing and dishevelled, the shuttle of his loom hanging idle and toyed with by a white cat. He is in shadow and leaning, mouth agape, against the wooden frame of his loom in a manner which anticipates his end on the gallows at Tyburn. The plate from the series which Lewton uses here is number 12, depicting the culmination of the industrious apprentice’s rise, as he rides through London in his carriage after having been made Lord Mayor. This street scene depicts the throng of a milling and shouting mob which surrounds his progress; a celebratory crowd but one whose mood you feel could easily turn. This forms the ‘Bedlam’ title card, and the word here seems to be used as the abstract noun, which derived from the vernacular term for the Royal Bethlehem Hospital. In this usage, it describes a state of uncontrollable chaos and disorder. The fact that bedlam is shown here erupting out in the open in society at large illustrates the blurring of the distinction between the world inside the madhouse and that beyond its walls which is central to the film. The industrious apprentice’s ascension to such a prominent position also introduces the idea of social aspiration and mobility; the idea that someone from a relatively humble background (such as Hogarth himself) could attain a position of some importance through hard work and the application of their own innate talents. The validity of such a meritocratic ideology is later called into question by the Quaker character Hannay.

A Harlot's Progress plate 4 - Scene in Bridewell
The third picture backs the credit for the actress Anna Lee, who plays Nell Bowen, the film’s heroine. It is plate 4 of ‘A Harlot’s Progress’, entitled ‘Scene in Bridewell’. Here, the protagonist of this tale of moral degradation and individual and social exploitation, Moll, finds herself in Bridewell Prison, having been arrested for common prostitution. She is obliged to join the ranks of prisoners who beat hemp cloth on stumps of wood, overseen by the cruel-faced jailor, who holds his cane at the ready to thrash any who are recalcitrant in their labours. This anticipates Nell’s incarceration in Bedlam, and the cruelty with which its director Simms oversees his charges. The social status of the prisoners in the print, with an ordered downward ranking from left to right, also anticipates the social divisions which exist within the central hall of Bedlam. The credits for the cast are appropriately backed by the print ‘Strolling Actresses Dressing in a Barn’. This also makes reference to Nell’s past incarnation as an itinerant actress in a group of strolling players (a background perhaps suggested to Lewton and Robson by this very print). The chaos which is barely kept in check (and going by the fire which has just broken out in the rafters, won’t be for very much longer) suggests the tenuous nature of such a profession, as well as the air of dubious repute with which it tended to be associated, partly as a result of such insecurity. The formal pageant which this largely female troop seems to be rehearsing anticipates the masque which Simms prepares for Lord Mortimer’s banquet in Vauxhall Gardens.

A favourite, and entrusted by his master
The fifth picture is another from the Idle and Industrious ‘Prentice series, this time plate 4. We are once more following the prospering fortunes of the industrious apprentice, here seen in the silk weaving workshop where he is evidently taking on a more supervisory role. This is a depiction of a harmonious workplace, the owner looking on with appreciative approval at the order which the apprentice has created, with workers assiduously spinning and weaving at their wheels and looms, each at their assigned position in a workshop filled with light. His gesture seems to indicate that he is happy to leave the apprentice (as was) with the responsibility for supervising the work. This scene is given the title ‘A Favourite, and Entrusted by his Master’ and forms the backdrop for the credit of Jack Gross as ‘Executive Producer’. Gross had arrived at RKO from Universal Studios and had become Lewton’s boss during the making of Mademoiselle Fifi, the historical drama based on two Maupassant stories which had preceded Isle of the Dead. Lewton hated his interfering management and what he saw as his vulgar attitude towards film and particularly the type of horror picture which he was trying to make. The imposition of Karloff, which Lewton intitially resented, seemed to epitomise Gross’ intention to import the values of the Universal monster factory into RKO. In a letter to his mother, Lewton referred to him as ‘an abysmally ignorant and stupid gentleman’. It’s perhaps typical that even in his most vituperative put downs, an element of gentility remains. Gross had interfered constantly in the making of The Body Snatcher, pushing Lewton to include more scenes of a graphic and shocking nature. Lewton felt himself to be far from the ‘favourite’ of his ‘master’ and regarded him with a barely disguised contempt. It’s probably safe to say that the choice of this Hogarth print to accompany Gross’ credit (which comes before Lewton’s own) was made with pointed ironic intent. The weaving workshop also resembles the printers in which Nell makes her rendezvous with the Whig politician and reformist John Wilkes. The notion inherent in this picture and the series as a whole, that work is good for the soul and carries its own inherent rewards, is one which is also elucidated in the film by the Quaker stonemason, Hannay. In the centre of the picture, the cat arching its back in a gesture of aggressive defensiveness at the passing dog adds a nice incidental nod to Cat People, as well as indicating the key symbolic role which pets and animals in general play in the film. Hogarth, like Lewton, may be expressing his own dislike of cats here (perhaps his best known self-portrait is of himself with his pet pug Trump). A cat is associated with the idle apprentice in the first print in the series, and in this industrious and prospering workshop, the cat is here seen to be on the defensive. Indeed, it may well be about to be chased out by the dog, which loyally accompanies its master in his labours as he carries in rolls of finished silk.

The Rake's Progress part 8 - Scene in a Madhouse
The screenplay credits are backed by plate 8 of Hogarth’s best known narrative sequence, The Rake’s Progress, the story of the self-inflicted decline and fall of one Tom Rakewell. This is entitled ‘Scene in a Madhouse’, which is, of course, Bedlam. This is the key Hogarth work from which the film draws its detail and the painter is given the most prominent billing at the top of this screenplay credit to emphasise the primacy of his inspiration. It states that the film is ‘suggested by’ the painting Bedlam (which is not actually the title by which it is known) although this might implicitly include the works of Hogarth as a whole, which were the primary source for its look and tone. The picture is, as the credit states, taken from the series of paintings rather than the prints of The Rake’s Progress. These can be seen (and I did indeed recently see them) in the wonderfully eccentric house of the architect John Soane, which is now a museum and a hidden London treasure. They have to be uncovered by an attendant in the picture gallery, Soane having used his ingenuity to design a system of folding panels to solve the problems of space caused by his obsessive collecting and hoarding tendencies. This may also have been convenient in covering their controversial content from the eyes of his more genteel guests. The painting provides several details for the set of the Bedlam interior later in the film. These include the globe sketched on the wall (a recurring image from previous paintings or plates in The Rake’s Progress series) with its lines of longitude and latitude. This is both a symbol of rationalism, and of the idea that Bedlam contains a world unto itself, albeit a constrained one which offers few opportunities for travel. At the bottom of this card, Lewton himself takes writing credit, alongside director Mark Robson, using his adopted pseudonym of Carlos Keith, which he had also used on The Body Snatcher.

The Idle 'Prentice - betray'd by his whore
The 7th picture takes us back to the Idle and Industrious ‘Prentice sequence. This time, we focus on the idler as he is about to meet his fate in plate 9. As its title points out, it depicts the idle apprentice ‘Betray’d by his Whore and Taken in a Night Cellar with his Accomplice’. The whore is pointing to the apprentice as the magistrate and his guards enter to arrest him, but she might also be pointing to Lewton’s crew, for whose credits this forms the backdrop. He jovially paints them as a band of rogues, co-conspirators who have somehow managed to get away with it thus far, and huddle over their ill-gotten gains in the cellar room of a pub. The brute chaos underlying the surface appearance of order, reason and rationality is highlighted, along with the venal and predatory side of human nature which Hogarth so mercilessly exposed. This gives us a hint of the murky depths of society into which we will be guided.

Beer Street
The 8th picture is a detail from the print Beer Street, which bears Lewton’s own producer’s credit. This print depicted the contrary state to that illustrated in Gin Street, in which the same locale had fallen into physical and social decay and dissipation, with only the pawnbroker prospering (in Beer Street, his premises is the only one in a state of disrepair). The scene here is full of bustling life, with one inn being repaired, and another having its sign freshly painted. The artist with his palette stands in for Lewton himself, as if he is making the point that this is above all his creation. The 9th picture takes us back once more to the Idle and Industrious ‘Prentice series. This time we see the industrious prentice in plate 2 ‘Performing the Duty of a Christian’. He is piously singing from a hymn book which he shares with a young woman who leans over from the neighbouring pew, who rather conveniently happens to be his master’s daughter. Hogarth himself had married the daughter of the prominent artist Sir James Thornhill, at whose academy in Covent Garden he had been a pupil, so there may be an element of autobiography to this scene of blossoming romance. This is the print which is used for Mark Robson’s credit as director, and may be Lewton’s way of telling his apprentice that he is doing a good and righteous job. The church setting, with the apprentice and the young lady sharing their hymnbook, also makes reference to the Quaker Hannay’s attempts to guide Nell towards a recognition of the value of compassion towards and concern for her fellow man, the social engagement which for him is underpinned by his religious beliefs.

The Idle 'Prentice - executed at Tyburn
The final picture is also the final print from the idle ‘prentice’s story, plate 11 of the series, in which he is carried in a cart towards the triple tree of the Tyburn gallows, making last minute penances before the Methodist preacher who accompanies him. A packed and lawless crowd eagerly awaits the entertainment which his hanging will provide them. This is the London mob, the unruly mass force which also surrounded the industrious apprentice’s Lord Mayoral carriage in the first print of the series, which headed the credits (after Boris Karloff’s standalone card). The mob offers the everpresent possibility of the explosive eruption of social chaos. It is the aspect of 18th century society which underlies the ordered veneer of civilised sophistication, the rarefied circles of the wits, dandies and political progressives who populate the guarded interiors and gardens of the city. The mob is the force of the streets, the lawless territories in which the laws of nature, of the survival of the fittest, prevail, and where morality is an unaffordable luxury. These two worlds, the world of wealthy society and of the street, are contrasted in Bedlam, and Nell’s incarceration is in some ways a descent from one to the other. The barbarous scene at Tyburn forms the backdrop to the title card in which Lewton provides us with his historical introduction to the film’s period setting. He indicates time and place (London, 1761) and offers ironic quotation marks around the statement that this is what was called ‘The Age of Reason’. The picture of the hanging and the chaotic air of festivity which surrounds it suggests a desperate revelry in the face of death. The sense of an abyss lying beneath the surface of civilisation is metaphysical as much as it is social. We are given a glimpse of the dark depths, both of the city and of the human soul, into which we will be guided.

Cinematographic etching
This scene of a hanging dissolves into another. At first, we seem to be looking at another print. The dark façade of a looming, gothic building stands starkly etched against a star speckled night sky. The gateway to the left is topped by two statues, which reflect Lewton’s usual scrupulous historical research. These are the figures of the raving and the melancholic states of madness, one looking down and one gazing upwards, which stood at the entrance to Bedlam at the time. Hogarth echoes these contrasting states in the figures of Tom Rakewell and the religious maniac praying in his cell in the Scene in a Madhouse from The Rake’s Progress, which will be reproduced later in the film. The camera zooms in on this façade as if we are examining the print more closely, and a patch of bright whiteness against the gloomy walls is revealed as the shirt worn by a figure who is struggling to climb onto the roof, from the guttering of which he is hanging. As the camera moves in, he seems initially out of proportion to the size of the building, as if he is a giant. It’s as if this is a theatrical flat, to whose trompe l’oeil height and depth we are still visually adjusting after the curtain’s rise. An official with a lantern appears, but rather than help the struggling man, he sends him plunging to his death below with casually callous deliberation. According to Tom Weaver’s commentary on the dvd, the ensuing scream is taken from one of the sailor’s on the soundtrack of King Kong (another RKO production), which is appropriate given the confusion in scale. This scene of a hanging man has ended with the same finality as that of the idle apprentice. The camera pans around as people rush to discover his body and focuses on the sign attached to the gatepost: St Mary’s Bethlehem Asylum.

streets of fire
We see a fire in the street which a carriage passes by. The fire is an indicator of the atmosphere of chaos and disorder which smoulders in the streets, and which can easily be sparked into a full blown conflagration given the right prevailing conditions. An open fire in the street is depicted in Hogarth’s painting and print Night, from his The Four Times of the Day series, although in this case it causes the passing carriage to crash. Lewton returns to this picture for inspiration later in the film. Inside the carriage, sheltered from external disorder, all is good cheer. A dark haired woman with a veil, who we later discover is the film’s heroine, Nell Bowen, talks to a parrot, and it is through the bird that we are introduced to her travelling companion, Lord Mortimer. Lewton memorably describes Lord Mortimer in his script as ‘a blandly stout man, puffy as a Yorkshire pudding, with a belly that would do honour to Silenus’. Nell’s pet parrot is indicative of the important role which animals play in the film. She talks through the parrot, which thus takes on human characteristics. Nell in her turn has something of the parrot about her in the way that she tends to talk in short, curt phrases of a brittle, sharp brightness. Similar transformations happen out in the world, with people taking on, or being ascribed animal characteristics and being treated accordingly. The parrot spouts a bit of doggerel which casts Lord Mortimer himself as an animal: ‘Lord Mortimer is like a pig/His brain is small and his belly is big’. Both he and Nell turn and laugh at each other. Laughter and gaiety are a disguise and a distraction, a way of diverting attention from the unpleasant aspects of the surrounding world, and also of getting away with bald insults under the guise of amusement. As Lewton writes in his introduction to Nell in the script, ‘she is bold as a frigate, merry as a flag with no more thought for right and wrong, or the problems of the future, than the parrot on her wrist. She would rather say a bright word than do a good deed’.

The World seen through a window
The carriage draws up by the gathering crowd in Bedlam gardens, which causes an inconvenient delay to their progress. The crowd is seen by them through the frame of the carriage window, which is a screen within the larger screen of the cinematic frame. They are watching the world outside from a distanced perspective. It is a world through which they wish to pass without their attention being distracted, without any contact being made. But the unpredictable behaviour of the crowd forces external events to impinge on their consciousness and temporarily intrude upon their self-contained world of wit and charm. The woman’s response to the news that the delay has been caused by one of the ‘loonies’ is a bright ‘a prank? A jest?’ This is the reflexive response of someone for whom the tireless search for the next amusing diversion is the primary raison d’etre in life. When she sees the building, she remarks, with a dismissive disappointment, ‘it does not look so merry a place, milord’. Lord Mortimer begs to differ, saying ‘you’ll have to pay Master Simms tuppence to see all the loonies in their cages’. This introduces the idea of Bedlam as a human zoo, and a place where suffering is offered as entertainment. Human beings are regarded as animals, and can thereby be easily dismissed as a lower order of existence. The idea of the currency of human exchange is also raised, the way in which men and women are bought and sold, attempt to increase their value in the social marketplace, or lose it altogether and become offered as exhibition for the gain of others. Lord Mortimer is indifferent to the death of the ‘escapee’ and evidently eager to move on, but his attention is caught when he finds out that dead man, ‘young master Colby’, was an acquaintance of his. He immediately becomes business-like, adopting a serious and admonitory tone. Upon learning of his absence, Simms is blamed for ‘dining out with Colby’s blood on his hands’. Some lives are worth more than others, it would seem. The master of Bedlam is summoned to wait upon Lord Mortimer’s pleasure the following morning. Hierarchies are thus established. Simms is effectively being asked to pay court.

The waiting game
The first of the film’s inter-titles follows, a device familiar from previous Lewton pictures. Whereas in previous films these had tended to focus on symbolic objects which drew attention to the undercurrents of the story, in Bedlam they take the form of Hogarth prints, details from which are then reproduced in the following scene. The work shown here is The Company of Undertakers, which we have already seen at the beginning of the film, bearing Boris Karloff’s lead credit. And here, the picture dissolves to reveal Karloff as Simms, sombrely bewigged and dressed in dark, heavy clothing which would perfectly suit an undertaker. His appearance contrasts markedly with the light and elegant surroundings. He leans his chin pensively atop his cane in a manner which is a direct echo of the characters in Hogarth’s print. The pose suggests that he has been waiting here some time. The muffled sound of the parrot croaking ‘Lord Mortimer is like a pig’ comes from the room beyond the door, followed by bright laughter; a world of merriment from which he is excluded, and which causes a frown of frustration to cross his face. Footmen pass through and ignore him, followed by a small black boy in a turban. This is a figure familiar from Hogarth pictures. Such a figure can be found in plate 4 of Marriage a la mode, ‘The Countess’ Levy’, and in the satire on Society pretension, ‘Taste in High Life’. Simms stops the boy and asks him to remind Lord Mortimer of his presence. The boy puts on a theatrical air of haughty superiority and enters the room, leaving Simms to scowl and wait.

armed with a looking glass
Inside the room, Lord Mortimer is delicately sipping tea in bed, dressed in a frilly silk nightshirt. Nell leans on the corner bedpost, dressed mannishly in a tricorne hat and jacket, with cravatte. There is a sense of role reversal in their appearances, Lord Mortimer taking the passive, supine position and appearing more feminine than Nell, who looks prepared for some sort of practical activity. Lord Mortimer furthers this impression by carefully attending to his beauty spots, using a hand mirror to place them just so. This is a world of mirrors in which attention to appearance is of paramount importance. Appearance combined with wit are the qualities which determine one’s standing, and the need to create an impression is vital. The looking glass becomes like a sidearm, the dandy’s weaponry for the cutting showdown. Nell casts a look (unnoticed) of undisguised contempt as she watches Lord Mortimer’s attempts at beautification. The boy makes a face in the mirror, which he says is like that of the visitor in the hallway. It is thus made clear that Simms singularly fails to meet the standards required for this company. The bedroom is a protected interior world like that of the carriage, and Simms is the intruder from barbarous realms beyond. Lord Mortimer calls him in, and Nell sardonically echoes his summons in a way which asserts her sense of security in her position within this protected enclave. ‘First course for milord’s rage’, she adds brightly, as if she is looking forward to the spectacle of his dressing down. Her every word is gilded with an aura of arch self-awareness, a feeling that every utterance must be witty and light; and as a result, utterly inconsequential, even when important matters might incidentally be addressed.

Out in the corridor, Simms looks worried. He enters with a bow-legged and stooped gait, which suggests both age and the possibility of a deformity caused by dietary insufficiency, such as rickets. He pats his wig, basic though it is, into place, recognising the importance of appearance in the glittering world he is about to enter. The footmen close the doors and then crouch to listen in, eager, like Nell, to enjoy his humiliation. Once more, human suffering is offered up as entertainment. The black boy comes out and gives them a look, and they scatter. They know their place in the hierarchy. Unlike them, we will be a privileged spectator at Simms’ audience. The footmen’s dismissal gives us a heightened sense of voyeuristic pleasure and anticipation. Simms is clearly in for a rough ride.

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