Holding a prostrate posture
Inside Lord Mortimer’s bedroom, we see Sims holding on to an awkward pose in which his upper body is folded over in a bow of self-negating prostration. His cane props him up and precludes total collapse. It is a self-consciously mannered and theatrical adoption of a subservient posture, with which body language he opens himself to the full blast of the chastisement he is receiving. In the script, Lewton describes him as ‘making an elegant “leg” before his Lordship’. Lord Mortimer vents his outrage at the death of his acquaintance, Colby, in a conspicuous display which falls just short of accusing Sims of murder. His reference to ‘that murderous window’ gives a hint that this is an incident which is not without its precedents. Sims folds himself back up to a height (still slightly stooped) from which he can defend himself. He talks of Colby as having been his ‘guest’, who ‘chose to leave by the window before I could open the door for him’. It is for all the world as if he has been staying at a hotel which Sims runs. This is the language of evasion, with the use of witty, pointed phrases defusing the truth by presenting it in the form of an amusement. It is not a refutation of Lord Mortimer’s implied accusation, but a redefinition of the frame within which the events are viewed. The transformation of the harshness of the world into an amusement, viewed through a carefully contrived and positioned lens, maintains a distancing affect. This makes it easier to remain aloof from the suffering and injustice from which the viewers, for whom such entertainments are fashioned, are sheltered. Tragedy is turned into comedy, and outrage into farce. Sims knows his audience, and knows how to work Lord Mortimer’s shallow attentions, to play on his desire for everything to be light and amusing, and to avoid at all costs any matter which requires serious, moral examination.
Protesting his innocenceNell intervenes at this point, realising that Sims is beginning to turn Lord Mortimer’s weak and easily diverted outrage to his own ends. She exercises her own scathing wit on him, effectively turning their encounter into a dual. Where Sims’ language of amusement has been used to defuse the seriousness of the situation, to ease ire, Nell’s wit is deliberately inflammatory, full of anger and contempt. It is analogous to the scabrous prints and paintings of Hogarth. Beneath her carefully cultivated air of indifference, an essential bearing in this world of elegant facades, there is something within which reacts with instinctive revulsion to Sims’ obvious attempts to avoid responsibility. He is a rival for the patronage of the fickle Lord, and she is doubtless resentful at being reminded that she too is a part of his household hierarchy. She slyly suggests that he is redefining the word ‘accident’, redirecting the exchange towards the issue of his culpability for Colby’s death. She draws attention to the flexible nature of language, the way in which its skilful use can reshape meaning, and even alter the perception of reality. It can be used as weapon or shield, imposing itself at the boundary between truth and convenient fiction. Sims response demonstrates such use of language. He speaks carefully, measuring up this woman who has ostentatiously declared herself his adversary, and who now stands as an unexpected obstacle to his re-establishment of his position with Lord Mortimer. He disarmingly takes her mocking sarcasm at face value and inverts its bitter force by replying with a statement of studied reason, delivered in an even and serious tone. ‘Exactly, Miss Bowen’, he affirms, with cool politeness. ‘This was a misadventure contrived by the victim and executed by nature’s law that all who lose their grip on gutters must fall’. This is the kind of legalistically careful choice of language with which he is able to manipulate the world of appearances to his own ends. He reframes what we are well aware was a murder as an enactment of natural law, the inevitable outcome of a series of events, with any element of contrivance or intervention removed. He can equally well present sanity as madness, social discontent as dangerous psychosis. He is a very dangerous man for Nell to be antagonising.
Having dammed Nell’s attempt to rechannel the course of the conversation, Sims turns back to Lord Mortimer and reverts to a lighter mode of address with which to relate his story. He modulates the tenor of his tale according to the character of his audience, adapting it to their particular tastes. He is a pragmatic artist, producing work to order. Introducing the revisionist version of his story which he is presenting to Lord Mortimer, he says ‘I could never invent one half so droll’. Amusement is once again used as a device to create distance from the world of everyday suffering. This ability to absorb outrage into a worldview of all-encompassing levity, a determined and tirelessly maintained façade of bright gaiety, is what drove satirical artist like Hogarth to ever more extreme depictions of depravity and violence in order to drive their message home. There’s a striking similarity with much of the ‘extreme’ art of the modern age, which vies for our attention in an overstuffed and desensitised world by promising to push the boundaries a little further, or to offer new forms of violent sensation, although this is more allied with marketing techniques than with any moral agenda. The anger which burns beneath the surface of cool indifference which Nell presents to the world, and which is raised by Sims’ manipulative manner and evident evasions, drives her savage wit. But as with satirists throughout the ages, there is a danger that their attentions are worn almost as a badge of honour by those who are their targets. Nell is kept by Lord Mortimer partly for this very purpose, thus demonstrating what a good sport he is. By having his own satirist on call, he pre-empts what might be more wounding attacks from those better placed to make their barbs widely felt. Similar impulses made politicians in the 80s welcome their appearance as latex puppets on the broadly satirical TV show Spitting Image, many even claiming affection for their grotesque caricatures. Peter Cook, who regularly contributed to the satirical journal Private Eye, and effectively maintained its financially viability for several years, seemingly damned his own efforts through his comments on the limited effectiveness of humour which seeks to mock the powerful or influence the course of events. When setting up The Establishment club in Soho in the 60s, he claimed to have modelled it on the Berlin cabarets of the thirties ‘which did so much to prevent the rise of Adolf Hitler’.
Animal analogues - Nell and parrotSims, introducing the characters of his story as if he is setting the scene for a play, refers to ‘two poets, Colby and myself’, thus revealing his self-perception as an artist. He goes on to further outline his credentials, providing an introduction for us, the audience, whilst also asserting his superior position of authority in the hierarchy of human value for Nell’s benefit. ‘I am not only a poet’, he pronounces, ‘but also, by your Lordship’s favour, the Apothecary General of St Mary’s of Bethlehem Hospital’. We see Lord Mortimer nod and smile at Sims’ recognition of the munificence of his patronage. He is easily flattered by any inflation of his already puffed up sense of self-importance. Sims’ approach, of tactical unctuousness, is quite the opposite of Nell’s flagrant insults. He tells the story ‘like a romance’, life and death as performance, a staged amusement tailored to his Lordship’s tastes. Lord Mortimer retorts that ‘it’s a romance that cost me 20 guineas a night of laughter’. Colby’s life is weighed in precise fiscal terms. He is part of the human currency exchange, the base rate of individual worth which is evident throughout the film. It is made quite clear that his Lordship regards art as a commodity, with financial rather than aesthetic values taking precedence. The true cause of Lord Mortimer’s distress at Colby’s death becomes apparent. He had commissioned verse from him and, as Nell points out, was ‘foolish enough’ to pay in advance. She is able to get away with such insults, even to the extent of calling Lord Mortimer’s judgement into question, because of her beauty and carefree vivacity, and Sims’ glance takes this in and makes note of it. Ultimately, her cutting remarks have no more impact than the learned phrases squawked by her parrot. She is like the exotic bird, a bright adornment, and she can say what she likes because nothing she says is considered of moment. It is all mere drollery.
Making the pitchIt turns out that Colby was due to write a masque for a fete which Lord Mortimer is to host. Sims once more adopts the mannered pose of a supplicant, his cane as his theatrical prop, and his stance provides the accompaniment to his pitch. ‘If I might offer my humble talents’, he interjects, as if the thought had just occurred to him. Nell barks out a curt, dismissive laugh. It’s a humourless sound which suggests that she finds the very idea ridiculous, or that the transparency of his scheming is absurdly obvious. Sims has effectively used incarceration and murder as a tool to create a vacancy for a position which he covets. There is an analogy with the Hollywood studios in this scene, the first of several such allusions to Lewton’s own milieu in the film. Lord Mortimer could be seen in part as Lewton’s own Hogarthian caricature of Jack Gross, the head of his production unit, whom he regarded as a heavy-handed philistine. The brief span of Lord Mortimer’s outrage at Colby’s demise, and his openness to Sims’ pitch for the work which he was to have undertaken, is perhaps a rueful reflection on Lewton’s part of the dismissive regard in which producers and scriptwriters were held, and the ease with which they could be axed and replaced.
Face offSims, alerted by her dismissive bark of non-laughter, faces up to Nell, and they are shot in profile, Lord Mortimer now excluded from the frame. They are like pugilists sizing each other up before the bell rings to start the bout. Both vie for the attentions of a man for whom they have nothing but contempt. She holds her horsewhip between her hands (she is clearly prepared to go out riding, but has lingered to enjoy what she had assumed would be Sims utter humiliation) and flexes it with barely controlled rage. She evidently wishes to use it. Sims talks of Bedlam as a place where he offers ‘wit and laughter’, as if it is the theatre in which he stages his dramas, and where visitors find the entertainment is worth ‘the tuppence they paid’. This is the cheap entertainment of the masses, the pulp fiction or exploitation cinema (or indeed reality tv) of the day. It is at the opposite end of the scale from the exclusive, purpose tailored masque which Sims is preparing for Lord Mortimer. The co-option of the theatre of Bedlam for such a supposed piece of high art reflects Lewton’s own attempts to use the popular form of the horror genre, generally perceived as base entertainment, for higher ends more in line with the genre’s literary antecedents. The range of amusements offered in Bedlam for such a paltry price also position it as the shadow realm to the bright, glittering world of self-absorbed wit which will be celebrated by the masque.
Nell shrugs off his claims with a disdainful ‘you do not entertain me, Master Sims’, the ultimate put-down in these environs. He turns her implication that his wit does not meet the required standard around by taking a passive aggressive stance, observing that ‘most people laugh at my ugliness’, a response which invites pity or at least a polite negation. Nell simply replies, with brute affirmation, ‘it offends me, sir’. There is in fact a deeper and less readily perceptible ugliness which is offending a part of her she wishes to remain suppressed; her moral sense. Its emergence would upset the carefully maintained balance of shallow, superficial jibes enlivened by bold asperity which, combined with her beauty and cleverness, has gained her advancement in these circles. The way in which Sims draws attention to his own ugliness demonstrates an awareness of the values of surface appearance prevalent in this world. We have already heard the small black boy mocking his ugliness before was ushered in, so his self-perception is fairly acute. His plain, dark clothing and lack of powder or elaborate wig make his intrusion into these glittering surrounds all the more apparent, and his attempts to adopt its elegant gestures merely accentuate his incongruity in Nell’s eyes. Sims is aware that by raising her ire, he is making her stand out and betray her roots, cracking the protective shell of her frosty hauteur. He gives a bow, as if conceding the point, and thus brings this opening bout, a practice spar, to an end. ‘To move a lady so beautiful in any way’, he concludes. The camera pulls back to include Lord Mortimer in his bed within the tableau. His laugh adjudges Sims to be the victor of this preliminary exchange, having maintained an even manner and fashioned his language with pointed precision throughout. ‘He’s gallant too’, his Lordship points out, prompting the immediate response ‘I am as you wish, milord’. Sims’ tactical unctuousness and calculated subservience has won him an elevation in the ranks of the Lord’s esteem.
Childish delightNow he can make use of such favour by suggesting a performance by his ‘company of wits’, an idea which clearly delights his Lordship (‘have your loonies perform?’ he exclaims like an excited child). Lord Mortimer introduces a party political element by animatedly musing that ‘not John Wilkes himself nor his whole Whig party could think of anything so clever as that, eh Nell?’ Wilkes is a historical personage of the time, a Whig politician who was one of the genuine characters of the age, a popular hero to some and an embodiment of the devil to others. He was something of a radical reformist within the parameters of the parliamentary system. He is included amongst the film’s characters not only because of his association with the impulse towards social change, but also on account of the caricature which Hogarth produced of him, which we see later on. The way in which Lord Mortimer talks of upstaging him with this novelty performance suggests a Westminster Village mentality which has more to do with personal rivalries than a principled espousal of a particular social or political agenda. Nell points out to him that he didn’t think of the idea either, but he responds that ‘my friend here thought of it’. Sims and Nell both act, through his patronage, as extensions of himself. They provide the second hand wit of which he is bereft, and which is guided towards his meeting his own ends. Sims is aware of this, and accepts it as part of an essentially venal view of the world and its workings. He knows the value of flattering the powerful, and says ‘let us say you inspired the thought, milord’.
Prideful countenanceHe goes further by adding that they have both inspired him, ‘milord and the beloved of milord’. By including Nell with apparent generosity, he is underling his ascendancy, from which height he can now bestow his patronisation upon her. The shifting of their positions is given physical embodiment by the fact that he is now placed by milord’s bedside, whilst she has drifted off into the middle distance. His reference to her as the beloved of milord is made with deliberate provocation, and she immediately responds to his goading words. She sets him straight with a refutation into which he has manipulated her. ‘I am milord’s protégé’, she says with a look of defiant pride. ‘I entertain him and he takes no more freedom with me than any other man’. Lord Mortimer’s grinning face drops quite suddenly at this declaration of independence, and Sims gives a cough, seemingly of embarrassment, but also to slyly draw attention to the indiscretion implicit in Nell’s self-definition. She displays a degree of self-deluding presumption as to the importance of her position which is in contrast to the self-awareness displayed by Sims of the contingent nature of the Lord’s favours. He knows that there are certain codes to be observed in order to build and maintain those favours. There is a suggestion that Nell may be something of a smokescreen to disguise Lord Mortimer’s real inclinations, which is seemingly confirmed later in the film, but it is a clumsy social blunder to make this so apparent. Nell can’t bear anyone to think that she is milord’s mistress even on a notional level. Her pride has lost her the point and further relegated her in the ever-shifting balance of hierarchical influence and favour. Sims, on the other hand, has transformed what was initially a summons for a stern dressing down into an audience from which he has been able to gain himself an important commission. His talent for tactical subservience, delivered with a silver tongue, has paid dividend.
He assures Lord Mortimer that he will ‘prepare a masque of madness that will set you howling’, a line which could be seen as a bit of self-reflexive commentary on Lewton’s part. He was, after all, no stranger to the kind of hyperbole which adorned the posters of his films (the tabloid style byline ‘sensational secrets of infamous madhouse exposed’ is splashed across the top of the Bedlam poster) and he himself had laboured under soubriquets such as the Sultan of Shudder, Titan of Terror, Maharajah of Mayhem etc (although I suspect that he may have made some of these up himself). Sims gives a cursory bow to Nell as he passes her on his way out. He’s left with exactly what he wanted, and has subtly undermined her position in the process.
A world of surface appearancesLord Mortimer is a picture of quivering jollity, declaring Sims to be a ‘capital fellow’ and his use of the Bedlamites ‘a merry notion’, amusement and novelty being an end in itself. Nell re-adjusts her appearance in her mirror, collecting herself after the duel. As she does so, she lambasts Sims, largely in terms which set him apart from the powdered and perfumed climes of Lord Mortimer’s bedroom. ‘He’s a stench in the nostrils’, she begins in a matter of fact tone, ‘a sewer of ugliness, and a gutter brimming with slop’. ‘But witty’, Lord Mortimer appends, as if this obviates any such base characteristics. The vehemence of her portrayal, arrived after only the most cursory of encounters, suggests that Sims has aroused uncomfortable feelings within her. As she looks in the mirror, she readjusts her appearance to try to regain the sense of poise which he has upset. He has given her a reminder of her own essential servitude. She takes up Lord Mortimer’s suggestion that she go and see how funny the Bedlamites really are, a look of calculation fixing itself upon her face as she muses ‘perhaps I will’. Not being one to leave a meeting at a disadvantage, she sets off to further this adversarial encounter, and face the challenge that Sims now offers to her standing in moneyed society and to her perception of it.
Disdaining the neighbourhoodThere is a dissolve to a street scene set to the side of Bedlam’s imposing façade. Lavender sellers sing their wares and a woman scrubs the steps of the doorway which leads to Sims’ office, both implying an attempt to ward off the stink and dirt of a grimy, impoverished neighbourhood. The script suggests that plate one of Hogarth’s The Harlot’s Progress is a reference point for the set design, but there seems little actual resemblance, aside from the notional matching of the passing cart. The buildings in Hogarth’s print are cracked, with plaster having sheared off in geological slabs. The set through which we now see Sims walking is perhaps a little too well-dressed. It all seems quite genteel, when a little Dickensian squalor would have been more appropriate. Sims walks through these streets with a look of scornful distaste, as if he finds the everyday commerce and human transactions of the commonality unbearably coarse. He enters the office, pausing to frown down at the cleaning woman to let her know that he finds her presence an unacceptable impediment to his progress. His bearing in general suggests that he considers himself lord of this particular manor. His obsequious manner in Lord Mortimer’s presence has been inverted and the keen awareness of social position which it displayed now converted into a general disdain for those he considers his inferiors. It’s an attitude which serves to shore up his sense of his own status, his self-perception as an intellectual artist leading him to regard the more corporeal pleasures on offer (which are certainly more evident in Hogarth’s print) with a lofty contempt.
The labour of artHe enters his office and once behind his desk, takes off his wig. This is his inner sanctum and he feels secure in his position, and feels no need to observe the formalities and attentions to appearance necessary for the negotiation of the social maze beyond these doors. Unlike Lord Mortimer, who seems to take a genuine delight in the careful preparation of his outward appearance, the choice of peacock finery with which he will, in all due time, strut out of his bedroom into the world, Sims seems only too eager to cast such dandyish fripperies aside. He certainly feels no need to maintain any pretence of formal etiquette in the presence of his subservient clerk, a man blessed with the Dickensian name, indicative of his mindlessly functional role, of Podge. He calls for Podge to fetch his rhyming dictionary, which suggests that his is not a natural wit, and that his masque will be more of an artisanal work, relying on labour more than inspiration. His mind is now focussed on his ‘important commission’ and he has no time for the ‘snivelling quaker’ stone mason who he is told is waiting outside to inquire about work. His bitterness and anger at his treatment by his patron find momentary release as remarks that ‘I waited four hours before Lord Mortimer would give me a dog’s word’. Hierarchies of power are related to the treatment of animals, with which particular people are related (a recurrent Lewton theme). Sims’ experience is not translated into any empathy or fellow feeling for his supplicant, however. Rather, he takes pleasure in being able to treat someone with the same contempt which he has been shown. It is only when the cheapness of the quaker’s rates are mentioned that his interest is piqued. Once more, the currency of human exchange, the fiscal valuation of a person’s life, comes into play.
The quaker, in contrast with the tense posture of chin on cane in which we had seen Sims waiting earlier, sits calmly with folded hands. He rejects Sims’ frankly offered bribe, and offers to turn a blind eye (or deaf ear) so that ‘I can believe no evil of thee’. The adherence to a moral code which such a rejection indicates (not to mention the implied superiority) enrages Sims, for whom such backhanders are ‘simple business’. He has accepted that the world is inherently corrupt and that you make your way in it by adapting to its ways. The quaker earns his contempt through his high-minded idealism, which he sees as a self-defeating refusal to accept the self-evident nature of society. The idea that change could be effected within the world is seen as absurd. As we have seen, Sims is acutely aware of the limitations of his own power. The quaker, for his part, sees such financial wrangling, which comes before any mention of the labour involved, as an abstraction, and tries to direct the conversation back to the physical actuality of the work at hand (‘my friend, about the stone-masonry’). The relationship between finance and labour is already beginning to come adrift.
Re-wiggingBefore the exchange can go any further, Nell sweeps into the room, obviously having cast aside any attempts at a more formal announcement of her arrival. The importance of appearance and the concomitant play of words reassert themselves, and Sims quickly reaches for his wig and smoothes it into place. His tone reverts to an unctuous formality, his manner adjusted according to the perceived social standing of his company. ‘I have a curiosity to see the loonies in their cages’, she announces imperiously. This is like a visit to the zoo, the human inhabitants regarded as no more than animals. The link between the world of Bedlam and the moneyed world in which Lord Mortimer and his peers move is made through the constant reference to humans as animals. Right at the start, Lord Mortimer has been likened to a pig, and Nell’s parrot familiar is effectively an extension of herself. Sims has just likened his treatment to that of a dog. As we shall see, some animals are treated better than others.
Taking the entrance feeSims asks Nell to hang up her crop, as there are ‘no weapons’ allowed. He has evidently noted her flexing it with barely suppressed violence at the earlier encounter. This disarming foreshadows the later smuggling in of a supposedly defensive weapon later on, and Sims explanation of why such confiscations are necessary also turns out to be an accurate anticipation of how it will be used. He casts this explanation in the form of a literary quote, which he ascribes to ‘Dekker, a second rate dramatist of the last century’. Nell makes a disparaging remark about forgetting that he was ‘a man of letters’, one of several script additions suggested by Karloff, according to Tom Weaver’s commentary on the dvd. Sims demands his tuppence entry fee for the personalised tour. The rate of human exchange is debased here, the inmates worth measured in devalued currency. Their incarceration takes them out of society, and therefore even such pitiful value as they can still command goes directly into Sims’ pocket.
The act of seeingAs he leads her through the corridor leading to the hall of Bedlam itself, Sims’ face takes on a gloating look of control, full of the certitude of his own power within this domain. The shadows of bars are cast across the passageway, sketching in the confinement of the cages which they are approaching. Their insubstantial form suggests confinement which is as much mental as it is physical. Shadows in Lewton’s films often hint at the existence of a world which parallels that of daylit reality, but which is nonetheless connected to it. Shadow worlds suggest the contingent nature of consensus reality or social assumptions. By stepping sideways into them, there is a sense that characters become at one remove from the normal operations of the everyday world, which in itself becomes shadowy. Once they’re through the door, the camera focuses on Nell’s face, her eyes wide with fear whilst she consciously makes an effort to maintain a semblance of composure. We see Sims carefully observing her reactions with evident enjoyment. The hall is filled with the echoing sounds of human chaos; screams, moans and shouts. These are the uncontrolled forces of the street penned up within a circumscribed space. The sights are initially withheld from our view, and we gain an impression of their horror and piteousness from Nell’s reaction. They are conveyed through the mirrors of her eyes. We see how the scene affects her, and sends a trembling convulsion through her air of aloof disengagement. Then the camera slowly pans back to reveal, stage by stage, the world of ‘the loonies’ which we’ve caught an emotional preview of in her gaze. Straw is cast upon the floor to further underline their status as animals.
Restaging Hogarth - The PietaThe scene which we see reproduces the main figures from plate 8 of Hogarth’s The Rake’s Progress, placing them on a wider and deeper stage. The fact that this is the final scene of Hogarth’s narrative furthers the impression that Bedlam is an endpoint, a place where the stories of its inmate’s lives reach a permanent conclusion, sometimes tapering off into vacuous stasis, sometimes ended with brutal finality. It is a hospital in which a cure or release seems a remote possibility. The soundtrack of the asylum’s main hall is provided by a discordant fiddle, the music of detuned wit and sense, played by the figure from Hogarth’s painting who wears his sheet music for a hat, and who is given embodiment here. Sims points to a young man intently spinning a cat’s cradle, ‘all day long weaving nets to catch peacocks for the royal dinner’. He’s another figure who’s stepped out of Hogarth’s painting. We gain a glimpse of the dream logic behind this character’s mad actions, and perhaps of the story which led him here, just as we know of the events which have led to Tom Rakewell’s presence here. In the foreground, where the gradual expansion of the frame is completed with the halting of the camera’s slow backward track, we see a scene which resembles a pieta. This is the central focus of Hogarth’s painting, in which his protagonist, Tom Rakewell, is comforted and wept over by his rejected fiancée (and mother of his child) Sarah Young. It is evident, however, that Tom is cut off from her, utterly locked into the fixed orbit of his madness. Nevertheless, compassion can still be found even in these despairing depths, and Nell will later demonstrate that such care can bear fruit.
Weaving the peacock's netNell’s reaction to encountering these figures is very direct and personal, and demonstrates a deep and instinctive sense of sympathy for their plight. There may be a degree of empathetic connection sparked off by a recognition that she is herself disconnected from the world in which she moves. Her caustic manner has melted away, and she is full of compassion as she observes, to herself as much as to anyone, ‘they’re all in themselves and by themselves’. It’s a state familiar to characters in other Lewton films; Irena in Cat People; Jacqueline in The Seventh Victim; Captain Stone in The Ghost Ship; and Amy in Curse of the Cat People. In the contemporary world of Cat People and The Seventh Victim, such isolation and its attendant crises attracts the coolly appraising attentions of the modern arbiters of madness, psychiatrists.
The compassionate gazeSims defines his patients as being a different order of being, claiming ‘they have their world and we have ours’. It is of course the same world. His is a social as much as a clinical (or philosophical) diagnosis. We will discover how similar this enclosed world and the circumscribed circles within which Sims and Nell hustle for position are. Nell muses that they are ‘like separate dreams’, an observation which calls to mind Edgar Allan Poe’s couplet ‘all that we see or seem/but a dream within a dream’. Both describe the contingent and fragile realities of Lewton’s shadow worlds. Nell’s comment is also an admission, made whilst her defensive armour of bright cynicism has been lowered and she is in her truth-speaking reverie, that the world in which she has gained a foothold is based on the illusory reflections and glamours of mirrors, powders the spells of language.
Sims now goes on to elaborate on what he sees as the basic division between the world of the mad and that of the sane, the world inside and that without. ‘Ours is a human world’, he muses. ‘Theirs is a bestial world. Without reason, without soul. They’re animals’. He is like a petty god, defining the terms of being. In reducing his patients to such a dehumanised state, he can treat them as he would animals. He elaborates on the nature of that treatment. Hogarth produced another narrative series of plates called ‘The Four Stage of Cruelty’, in which he depicted, in unsparing detail, the natural progression from the pleasure taken in childhood from the torment of animals to the unthinking and pitiless use of violence against human beings. Here, such a progression is concentrated by making a direct connection between animals and human beings from the outset. The Nazi propaganda Jew Suss, in which Jews are likened to swarms of scurrying rats, is another notorious example of such dehumanising analogies being made.
The Four Stages of Cruelty - plate oneAs Sims continues his tour, he dispassionately divides his patients into taxonomic subdivisions, as if they are representatives of different species. The divisions of the animal kingdom provide a suitable symbolic reflection of the divisions of power in the world outside these walls, the world of which Bedlam is the shadow cast. ‘Some are dogs’, he observes, raising his arm to send a young man cowering out of the way on all fours. ‘These I beat’. The first plate of ‘The Four Stages of Cruelty’ depicts some children, including the protagonist Tom Nero, who will go on to lead a short and brutish life which ends at the gallows and the dissection room, torturing a dog to death. ‘Some are pigs’, he continues. ‘Those I let wallow in their own filth’. We see a man, mostly in shadow, sprawling on the floor, his stench causing Nell to wrinkle up her nose. Her reaction once more causes us to imagine what we cannot see, although in this case, it’s a sight which remains hidden. The historical vagaries of censorship mean that we are shielded from the kind of scene which Hogarth wouldn’t have flinched from depicting in merciless detail if he thought that it would serve a moral purpose. The cool detachment with which Sims outlines the degradation of a man lying in his own filth, and his utter indifference to such a state of suffering, brings to mind Pasolini’s controversial final film Salo, his satirical display of disgust at the modern world and its systems of power and coercion as filtered through the madness of the final days of fascism in Italy. As in these and future scenes in Bedlam, Salo encloses its characters within a large building in which strict hierarchies of power dividing master, servant and prisoner are observed, providing a distilled and magnified model of social structures beyond its walls.
Cages of the soulNell and Sims pass a large cage standing on its own at the end of the hall, and Sims indicates its hulking occupant, chained within. ‘Some are tigers. These I cage’. This is the most obvious literalisation of the metaphorical (if only barely so) notion of Bedlam as a zoo. It reminds us of the zoo cage in Cat People whose limits the panther paces out; and of Charlie’s mobile cage in The Leopard Man, which also contains a panther. The caging of the wild beast carries obvious symbolic overtones, as Doctor Judd is only too happy to outline to Irena in Cat People, alluding to the suppression of the wilder, untameable aspects of the human psyche. The cage containing the wild man, the unbounded id, is a particularly apt metaphorical symbol made real to apply to the world of carefully controlled appearances in which Nell exists. We have already seen how she barely suppressed her rage in Lord Mortimer’s bedroom. Of course, as Hogarth so clearly illustrated in his narrative sequences, such a refined milieu existed alongside a world of considerable license, where such wild impulses could be easily indulged (for a price), and there was regular traffic between the two.
The Virgin - holy innocentSims now guides them to a woman, who stands with catatonic immobility against the wall, like a sculpted relief. ‘Some are doves’, he says, touching her unresponsive face. He leaves it to our imagination as to what he does with these. Her utter withdrawal from outward sensation means he can do what he will. The prospect of such abuse is too horrific for Nell to contemplate, and she calls the tour to a halt at this point, saying ‘I’ve seen enough’. Enough to know that Sims runs the hospital like the autocratic lord of his private fiefdom. ‘But you haven’t seen the other cages’, he protests with mock distress. The varieties of prisons for the human soul are innumerable. As they leave, the camera focuses on the face of the catatonic woman, her raised skyward and filled with light. She looks like a portrait of the Virgin Mary, with her veiled head; a holy innocent privy to what ecstatic visions we cannot know. The idea of the holy fool is taken up in Roberto Rossellini’s film Europa 51. This is a depiction of a woman, played by Ingrid Bergman, who might once have been declared a saint, but whose behaviour in the modern age leads to her being put into an asylum. The resemblance of the catatonic woman to a religious icon is here largely ironic, given her apparent vacancy, and will prove even more so in the light of future developments.
Moral outrageNell strides out of the door, with Sims struggling to keep up with his almost comical bow-legged scuttle (although any such comedic potential in his character is snuffed out by what we’ve just discovered about his nature). He persists in telling her how amusing his ‘loonies’ can be, with an implicit mockery of the shallow preoccupations of her social circle. Having been handed back her riding crop, she immediately uses it to strike him on the cheek, with a gesture which more harshly echoes his stroking of the catatonic woman’s cheek. It was the blow which she had itched to administer in Lord Mortimer’s bedroom. She treats him as if her were a beast, using the crop with which she would strike a horse, in just the way he has demonstrated he would treat the patients whom he regards as animals. ‘Amusement!’ she spits out. ‘From that mad girl with the staring eyes’. It is this woman with whom she identifies, and who becomes for her the embodiment of all that is wrong with Bedlam. She is like a mirror twin, a reflection of her deepest fears over what she might become, the state to which she most dreads being reduced. A woman who is a vessel of mute passivity, locked into her mind behind a blank, wide eyed gaze. A holy fool or innocent, maybe, or just an empty presence upon whom such qualities, or any others, can be projected. Sims immediately takes up a defensive position, preserving his anger for a more considered and pre-planned response; the cold meat of revenge. ‘If I have offended you, Miss Bowen’, he meekly offers in the meantime. She storms out, followed by the quaker, whose half-focussed outline we have noticed in the background observing the encounter. Sims looks after her with a look of pensive calculation, fingering the welt on his cheek raised by her blow, as if only now permitting himself to feel the pain which her blow has inflicted. Nell has created a very dangerous enemy.