Tuesday, 10 May 2011

The Films of Val Lewton Part Thirty Seven

Bedlam - part Seven

The mob awakens - Night of the Living Dead visuals
Sims enters with ‘good news’ for Nell of a new hearing, a sign that Wilkes has been as good as his word. He is back in his wig, observing an official formality for this announcement, and giving his subsequent demands the weight of authority. To ensure its success he orders his ‘most beneficial remedy’. It is a phrase which causes everybody to stop what they are doing and look fearfully on. He reveals that it is a cure of his own invention which has been tried out on the tiger man, and which, by implication, has caused the clouding of his mind. Nell’s insistence that ‘I need no cure’ is of no avail. Sims has failed to break her strength of spirit through psychological means, so now he will do it physically, a bludgeoning approach attacking the physiological matter of mind. He becomes insistent in the face of her intransigence and threatens to use force, confident in his power. But the inmates are beginning to stir, rising up and shuffling forward, shadows looming larger on the walls. It is like a scene from Night of the Living Dead, the Bedlamites milling somnambulently towards something which has attracted their attention. As with the zombies of Romero’s film, they are a representative cross-section of the powerless strata of society, the confused masses beginning to awaken.

The dog has its day - Dan restrains Sims
Nell points to the gathering crowd, who are beginning to sense the strength in unity given by their sheer weight of numbers. ‘Do you think your friends will help you?’, Sims scoffs. ‘I have helped them’, she replies. This is when it becomes evident that Nell’s efforts have been recognised, her character and example of positive action having made a definite, transformative impression. There is a reciprocity which is not instantaneously made evident, but which finds its expression when the appropriate circumstances present themselves. ‘You expect them to band together and overwhelm me?’ Sims asks with scornful disbelief. ‘If they could reason so they would not be here’, he states, still testing her beliefs. But revolution and insurrection area as much a matter of instinct and reflexive reaction as they are of reason. Again, inside mirrors outside, something which Sims, complacent with power, fails to recognise. The commonality, sufficiently aroused, agglomerate to form the street mob, a nigh on unstoppable force. They would gather in London to defend Wilkes, perceived as their champion, during his trials. Peter Ackroyd, in his book London: The Biography, quotes a German visitor to the capital who remarked ‘now I know what an English mob is’ when he witnessed it celebrating Wilkes’ release from prison in 1770. he characterised its components as comprising ‘half-naked men and women, children, chimney sweeps, tinkers, Moors and men of letters, fish-wives and elegant ladies, each creature intoxicated by his own whims and wild with joy, shouting and laughing’. A major factor in Wilkes’ own decline in popularity was his decision, when in a position of authority, to order the army to fire on the mob during the anti-Catholic Gordon Riots of 1780, killing several people. Nell is the equivalent figure to Wilkes in Bedlam, and is sufficiently aware of her status to feel that she can issue a warning to Sims. Her influence has been gained through kindness and compassion (‘Quaker nonsense’, Sims spits) but this can be turned indirectly into violence. Sims is grabbed from behind and restrained by many arms. He cries out, but she tells him that the warders will ignore him. They are used to such cries in here, particularly when Sims himself is present. Sims cruelty and violence are revisited upon him just as Nell’s kindness creates a co-operative environment whose inhabitants come to her aid. Nell plucks the keys from Sims’ person with an undisguised gesture of triumph.

The dumb speak - Todd and Nell
Todd runs over and speaks to her. His dumbness turns out to be a matter of choice, a way of filtering out the distracting noise of language. He directs her to the window exit which Colby had used, ‘and others before him I dare say’. He explains his own circumstances. ‘I’m not mad, Mistress Bowen. I have been placed here by my family to keep me from drink so that I may write to support them’. Here is the other side to the story, the important detail withheld which completely alters one’s perspective. It is not only wives who are incarcerated when they become a domestic inconvenience. Alcoholism and other addictions represent another route to madness, one which blends psychological and physiological elements. There almost seems to be an element of personal choice to Todd’s incarceration, as if he is using its strictures to escape the imprisoning power of his compulsions. The dangers of drink, and specifically of cheap and plentifully available gin, are dramatically displayed in one of Hogarth’s best-known prints, Gin Lane, a portrayal of social and personal dissolution in which only the pawnbroker thrives. Knowing the dangers of the escape route to which he is directing her, Todd suggests that Tom could lift her. Thus we learn from this supposedly voiceless writer the name of the man who has so long been caged as a brute beast. Tom is a name long associated with Bedlam. A Tom o’Bedlam was the name for a harmless street fool, a beggar with an antic manner (sometimes genuine, sometimes affected for professional purposes). There is also a well-known anonymous ballad called Tom o’ Bedlam’, dating from the early 17th century, which indicates the antiquity of the association of place and name. It includes the lines ‘come dame or maid, be not afraid/poor Tom will injure nothing’, which serve to describe the Tom of Bedlam whom Nell has befriended. The Steeleye Span song Boys of Bedlam, included on their Please to See the King LP, is also taken from a ballad from this time, and includes the line ‘for to see mad Tom of Bedlam/ten thousand miles I’d travel’. And, of course, the protagonist of Hogarth’s Rake’s Progress series, who ends up in Bedlam, is a Tom – Tom Rakewell. Generic name it may be, but in regaining it, the ‘tiger’ also reclaims his humanity, his sense of self.

Triumphal exit - Nell leaves Sims to his fate
Sims is now held by Dan the dog and another Bedlamite. The dog has turned upon its master, Dan casting aside the subservient bestial character which has been imposed upon him, rediscovering his human strength. Sims appeals to the ‘reason’ of Sidney, turning to the authority of the apparent head of ‘the people of the pillar’, what amounts to the establishment in the main hall of Bedlam. He holds out the threat of reprisal and plays up the angle of class solidarity, attempting to separate Sidney from the mob. ‘They’re lunatics’, he points out, as if Sidney himself is not. ‘They’ve been tried and found incompetent by fair trial’. This is nonsense, of course. We have witnessed the ‘fairness’ of these trials. Trial is a trigger word for Sidney, however, prompting him to issue forth a stream of Latin verbiage of dubious meaning. Sims placatingly presents a respectful front, saying ‘I’d forgotten you were a lawyer’. ‘A lawyer, sir’, Sidney replies, affronted. ‘I was a judge. I, the most skilled of them all’. The re-iteration of his catchphrase marks a swing in the delicate balance of his mind from reason to madness. He points with dramatic theatricality and adds ‘and you shall be judged’. The world is turned upside down, the insane and rejected become the establishment, and the judged and condemned the magistrate and jury. Nell sweeps by, putting on her cloak in preparation for her departure, and laughs at Sims’ appeals, sarcastically instructing the mob to ‘give Master Sims a fair trial’, as if it is within the power of anyone to control it. And with that, she makes her exit, leaving him to his fate.

Halfway between the gutter and the stars
The next scene offers one of the most resonantly poetic images in all of Lewton’s oeuvre. Nell looks out of the small window to the ground far below, and upwards towards the roof whose eaves she must reach. Tom climbs up and reaches down, grasps her hand and begins to pull her up. But he hesitates and looks up at the night sky, full of bright stars ,and is lost in wonder. It is a still moment of transcendence, of conceptual and spiritual breakthrough, a universe opening up after an age of confinement in obscure darkness. Tom, having regained his name, seems to be reaching out for what he has forgotten, a universal truth which perhaps stands in a wider sense for a fundamental understanding which mankind has misplaced. Meanwhile, however, Nell is left dangling between the gutter and the stars, a precarious position symbolic of the human condition. She could go either way; a precipitous descent onto the streets below or an ascension to the heavens. The key lies, as ever in Lewton’s films, in human connection. Nell calls out to Tom, and he returns for the time being from his reverie. Spiritual pursuits must always take into account more immediate earthly necessities. He pulls her up and they move across the rooftops. But the image of the man, newly raised from guttural brutishness, gazing at the stars, and the woman seeming to float between sky and earth, her cloak billowing around her, remains in the memory as a beautiful pictorial composition. It reminds me of the woodcut engraving known as the Flammarion Engraving, an anonymous work first used as the cover illustration for the popular scientist and early science fiction author Camille Flammarion’s L’Atmosphere: Meteorologie Populaire. This depicts a man kneeling upon the earth but thrusting his head through the skein of stars to gaze at the secret machinery of the cosmos beyond. It is often used as an image to represent the numinous, quasi-religious pleasures of science fiction, a depiction of conceptual breakthrough which is the modern-day analogue of divine revelation. Indeed, it is on the cover of the latest British Library programme, which looks forward to the Out of this World: Science Fiction But Not As You Know It exhibition.

Breaking beyond the boundaries - The Flammarion Engraving
Back in the hall of Bedlam, the trial has been set up. One of the inmates has dressed himself as a mock judge, a dirty sheepskin over his head for a wig. The roles which the Bedlamites take on in their madness, and which are depicted in Hogarth’s print, now gain temporary legitimacy through force. If this man declares himself judge, then judge he is. Another stands behind, affectlessly declaring ‘I’m Solomon the Wise – split him in two’; an alarmingly literal interpretation of part of the Biblical morality tale which focuses on the promise of bloodshed without adopting the wisdom which ensures it won’t be realised. It’s somewhat akin to Vincent Price’s vengeful Shakespearean actor Edward Lionheart in the film Theatre of Blood revising The Merchant of Venice so that a pound of flesh actually is extracted. These two members of the impromptu judiciary promise lunatic justice premised on an unpredictable internal logic. Fortunately for Sims, Sidney, lucid once more, asserts his authority and takes over proceedings. He is in his element, taking on the role he’s longed to play. He delineates Sims’ abuses before concluding ‘for all these crimes, I ask justice’. ‘Kill him’ comes the reply, the voice of mob justice. Sims now looks terrified as his status as the accused is given this formal statement. He will now have to defend himself. ‘Let me speak’, he pleads. He is overwhelmed by the mob, and sounds pitiful and afraid, all authority and strength gone, a diminishment emphasised by the snatching away of his wig.

At the mercy of the mob
We cut to Nell in the Quaker meeting house telling Hannay that ‘the loonies’ have Sims and ‘are trying him in mockery’. ‘They will kill him’, she predicts, as if this will be a satisfactory conclusion. Hannay tells her that she must save him by speaking to the ‘poor afflicted ones’. Sims is now almost seen as an inmate himself as Hannay counsels kindness to him as well, ‘to those whose sickness forces them to hurt their fellow men’. The distinctions between the world inside and that outside the asylum walls are not clearly drawn. ‘Has not Sims a madness that thee can pity?’ he asks. He is counted amongst the wretched and downcast, and as such even he deserves compassion. She thinks, her vengeful delight at his downfall tempered through reflection in this contemplative setting. They both leave to fetch Wilkes and go back to Bedlam.

Lunatic justice - the Bedlam assizes
Back at the trial, Sims defends himself. After initially weakly asserting that ‘I did not want to hurt you’, he threatens reprisal, through which they ‘shall really know what cruelty can be’. Todd now speaks, providing the calm voice of reason, one lettered and learned man talking to another. The trial now essentially becomes a dialogue between these two, with Todd asking questions with a writer’s curiosity for the psychological motivations behind behaviour and character, and also a writer’s distance from the object of scrutiny. Todd’s name echoes that of the doctor in The Body Snatcher, and there is a similarity in the following exchange to the scene in which Karloff’s character in that film, Gray, is confronted by him and bares his bitter soul. The Bedlam Todd notes ‘your vengeance isn’t our present concern’, with an equanimity which blocks off such an attacking approach, and he directs the trial in a different direction, away from Sims’ attempts to control it. ‘What you have done concerns us’, he prompts, ‘why you did it’. Sims begins with an argument based on determinism, an inherent propensity towards certain behaviours which effectively reduces, or at least lessens the individual’s culpability. ‘Because I had to’ he says, ‘even as you drink’. In religious terms, this could be seen as an advocacy of a Calvinist idea of predestination, of a world in which all proceeds according to God’s predetermined plan. It’s an inherently conservative theology which encourages an acceptance of the status quo, and is thus the opposite of the Quakers’ active engagement with the idea of social change in order to realise an ideal vision of universal brotherhood. In the harsher, more unforgiving philosophy of the Calvinists, mankind is still indelibly stained by the shame of original sin, his nature essentially debased and morally tainted.

Courtroom drama - Sidney inhabits the role
Sims, by comparing his compulsion towards violence and cruelty to Todd’s addictions, is ascribing a different kind of madness to himself. This is a reactive madness, motivated by constant fear, as he explains by adding ‘I was frightened’ to his plea of inherently rooted behaviour. It is the fear which put the glint of wild-eyed insanity into Nell’s regard when she was first admitted to Bedlam. But Todd presents him with his own terrorising actions, seemingly born out of contempt and revulsion for those in his care rather than out of fear. He has used fear as his tool to instil obedience and keep people in their lowly state. ‘Did you beat us out of fright?’ Todd asks. ‘Did you starve us out of fear?’ ‘Split him in two’ repeats the mad Solomon, and the mob has to be held back from doing just that. ‘Is that why you still threaten us?’ Todd asks, a rhetorical question which points to the change in his position. His threats may at this moment be motivated by fear, given that he is now in the power of the Bedlamites. But that his motivations were the same when they were so completely powerless and subject to his total control is more difficult to justify. Todd now asks him to do so, saying ‘you speak of fear. Fear of what?’

The thin line of civilisation - holding back the forces of chaos and violence
This gives Sims his chance for a great self-revelatory speech, in which he makes clear his place in the hierarchy of society, and the way in which his brutal actions are the price he pays for his position, and the means by which the wider social order enforces its stability. He is one of the operators of the grim subterraenean Piranesi mechanisms which underlie and maintain the glittering pageantry of the enchanted world above. His fear is of ‘the great world of this age that gave me my place. The comforts and the authority. What little I have of riches. What I know means nothing. I’ve had to fawn and toady and make a mock of myself till all I could hear was the world laughing at me’. There is genuine anger in this speech. He is talking of an anti-meritocratic age in which wit and intelligence is of no avail without the right parentage, or the requisite charms, neither of which he was blessed with. There is a close up of his face as he adds ‘but once I had what I wanted, this my place here’. This is his protected domain, and like petty autocrats throughout the ages he enjoys exercising every little bit of power it affords him. ‘You were afraid to lose it’, Todd concludes for him, with a degree of understanding.

Sims is now eager to explain himself, to reveal his inner workings to this sympathetic listener, and perhaps to articulate previously unexamined feelings. ‘I had to please those to whose favour I owed everything. I was afraid.’ In the Body Snatcher, Gray explains why he torments Dr McFarlane (Todd), his social superior. It gives him ‘pride to know that I can force you to my will. I’m a small man, a humble man, and being poor, I’ve had to do much that I didn’t want to do. But so long as the great Dr McFarlane jumps at my whistle, that long am I a man. And if I have not that, I have nothing’. Gray and Sims’ power is exercised in different directions, Gray’s upwards in the social spectrum, and Sims’ downwards. But when pushed, they are both honest about what drives them, and display an unsparing sense of self-awareness. There is a whiff of the ‘I was only following orders’ excuse to Sims’ soul-baring, his confession of doing terrible things in order to maintain his position in society. His whole speech would have been particularly resonant for a time in which the world had just emerged from a global conflict, and in which those many citizens who had occupied the lower positions in the hierarchy which had kept fascist political systems operating were having to come up with their own excuses. Ironically, relics and memorials of that conflict are to be found in the old site of Bedlam (the one built after the time in which the film is set) which now houses the Imperial War Museum. ‘You had to strike us’, Todd suggests, again elucidating Sims’ unspoken point. We have been shown the true nature of the beast, the heart of the monster. This is the third of Karloff’s three portraits of monstrous characters for Lewton; first General Pherides in Isle of the Dead, then Gray in The Body Snatcher, and now Sims. Each proves to be, if not sympathetic, then understandable, and each has been granted their justificatory speech in which they lay bare their soul, the fear and hatred which drives them to terrible acts; the monstrous anatomised.

Murderous Madonna - divine retribution
‘Let me go and there will be no punishment’, Sims promises, rather optimistically calling on them to trust him. Todd, who now appears to have become the primary legal and moral authority, declares ‘he is sane.’ He goes on to explain that ‘there is a fear within him. A fear that strikes out, that claws and tears at the world like a singed cat.’ Thus Sims gets his own animalistic attribution. He has, in effect, been found ‘guilty’ of sanity, in accordance with the topsy-turvy perspective of this court. His behaviour is sane in the context of a wider world which is itself filled with a violent insanity, and in which he struggles to gain and maintain his own place. The pocket society of Bedlam and the society which lies beyond it walls become inverted. As Sidney holds back the mob and insists ‘you cannot harm him’, lunatic justice is revealed as being more sane and compassionate than the establishment model. Sidney declares that ‘it is the order of the court that he is sane and that he shall be free’. Just as the ‘tiger’ man was tamed with kindness and restored to his humanity, perhaps there is hope for Sims, too. Maybe, in being shown judicial mercy, even from those whom he has maltreated for so long, he will change, transformed in a moment of scorching self-revelation forged in the extremity of terror. Sims is released and backs slowly away, still wary of turning his back on the unpredictable beast which is the mob. He comes within the orbit of the catatonic Madonna, who slowly and deliberately raises the trowel and plunges its sharp apex into his back. There are other forms of justice, amongst which is revenge. Sims would never have been held to account for the abuse which he has visited upon her, so she takes it upon herself to administer this summary execution. It is a sign that, despite her blank, affectless façade, which maintains even in the act of committing murder, there is a spirit flickering within which has borne an unbearable weight of suffering in complete silence. Her religious bearing, with its serene Marian radiance, along with Sims’ giving her the animal designation of the dove, also hints at the working out of divine justice; the weighing up, balancing and executing power of a higher and more unforgiving moral authority.

Living foundations - Poe endings
The use of the trowel is another instance in Lewton’s work of a tool becoming a weapon, a reversal of the notion of turning swords into ploughshares. The trowel has come to the Madonna from Hannay via Nell. The murderous ends to which it is put are an indirect expression of the violent impulses which both have chosen to suppress. They are both indirectly culpable for the killing of Sims, however. The rage of the Bedlamite mob is suddenly calmed. They gather round, and Sidney soberly observes ‘they will punish us for this’. The declaration is made that ‘the Apothecary General is dead’, an announcement which is akin to crying ‘the king is dead’. And so he is carried through the corridor of arms, and the trowel is once more put to use. He is placed behind the half built wall whose stones Hannay helped to carry in, and the Bedlamites complete the job. Just before the final level of bricks is about to be put in place, we see Sims’ eyes flicker open, registering a moment of silent terror as he becomes aware of the Poe-like fate to which he is being consigned. He is to become the living foundation for the new Bedlam, and for the new society, which will be built upon his bones. Such dreams of a new society, of an end to exploitation, insanity and violence, reflected the contemporary vision of a post war world to which the film’s 1946 audience were looking hopefully. Sims becomes an inadvertent sacrifice, an offering to propitiate the spirit of the future.

Official visitations - the conservative and reforming establishment
We now cut to a scene of official visitation, the chaos having been quelled and a studious semblance of normality restored. Nell and Hannay are present, along with Wilkes and the Commissioner, who has a glowering look of disapproval. Wilkes puts forward a narrative of recent events in which Sims, having been tried for his violent abuses, found sane and released, has been driven by his own guilt to flee, probably for good. It’s a conveniently exculpatory explanation which serves to obscure the continuum between Sims’ behaviour and outlook and that of the social hierarchy in which he had tried to attain and maintain his position. He takes the sole blame for the condition of Bedlam, and by extension, of the social conditions of which it is the symbolic representation. He thus becomes a kind of anonymous martyr in this whole inverted schema. He is the sacrificial offering, his body the foundation upon which a new edifice can be built – the necessary monster who can be displayed and vilified, taking on the sins of others so that they might remain unblemished. Hannay, with his builder’s eye, notices the fresh mortar between the bricks and immediately realises what has happened, and where Sims will really be found, and Nell notices his significant glance and draws the same conclusion. The Commissioner, meanwhile, is taking a more retributory stance, bringing the solemn voice of the establishment to bear in opposition to Wilkes’ reforming outlook. He suggest of the Bedlamites that ‘they killed him and hid his body somewhere’. He takes a similar view to Sims, regarding them as little more than dangerous animals. He is right in his suspicions, of course, but it is the least animalistic, the most passive of the inhabitants who has struck the fatal blow – the ‘dove’, as Sims had designated her, who has rejected peace and forgiveness where others had, reluctantly or not, accepted it. He threatens severe punishment if and when the body is found. Nell pleads with her eyes for Hannay not to reveal the hidden grave and provide him with that opportunity. Wilkes is delivering a speech about the need for reform, stating that ‘what you need here is a better man to fill the post that Sims has fled from’, someone who will provide ‘all the kindness and care for these poor, sick people’. Someone like Hannay, perhaps? Once more, Sims provides the singular counter-example motivating reform, the dictatorial figure-head whose demonisation excuses the functionaries who have kept the system running alongside him, and those who have sustained his power and accepted or turned a blind eye to his abuse of it.

Happy/sad - alternative endings
Hannay makes to speak, to reveal what he has perceived, but Nell holds him back, asking ‘is it not worth a little silence to save them suffering’. But Hannay insists upon observing his principles, asserting ‘I must tell the truth’. Nell still has her quick verbal agility at the ready, however, and deflects Hannay’s high-minded inflexibility by pointing out ‘but no one’s asked you’. A destructive truth can be left unspoken. She flirts with him, using her practised charms to deflect him from his purpose, and adds a biblical reference to further tailor her appeal to his particular beliefs. ‘Silence can win you a lost lamb, Master Hannay’, she says, presenting herself as an offering in a mildly blasphemous analogy. She is also announcing, in a lateral fashion which also suits her present machinations, her adoption of his worldview, and maybe even his religion, a conversion marked by her sudden shift into his Quaker mode of address. ‘I should never have thought that of thee’, she says, with a half-amused, half-besotted upward gaze. ‘I should have known that thy hand would not add to the weight that they must bear. Thee has too much heart for that’. This change in nature is mutual however. Hannay has modified his own strict principles of truthfulness in order to make accommodation with the ways of the world, ways demonstrated to him by Nell, who has taught him that means must be sometimes be adjusted slightly beyond the boundaries of the acceptable in order to allow beneficent ends to blossom. Together, they achieve a balance between worldliness and idealism, a fruitful marriage of different qualities which creates a whole transcending, whilst not eliminating, its separate parts. It is the emblematic Lewton relationship, both on a personal and social level, banishing the spectres of loneliness, isolation and madness which haunt so many of his characters. Hannay offers Nell’s words back to her, the hint of a smile lightening his sober features. ‘Are we lovers that you thee and thou me?’ he asks. It’s a recognition of their connection, of the fact that they now share something of each other’s natures. It also shows his appreciation of her independent spirit, her bright and combative wit, which is one of the main things which attracted him to her in the first place. This is to be a partnership of equals. Nell laughs at his novice attempt at wit, and we fade out for one last time on Hogarth’s Rake’s Progress plate of Bedlam, which offers a contrast to the smiling faces with which it is temporarily combined in double exposure. Hogarth’s conclusion offers a bleak dead end for its foolish and luckless protagonist, but a paragraph of forward looking historical context is overlaid upon it here, telling us of the improvements made in the treatment of the inhabitants of Bedlam and the building of a new hospital. Happy endings are general across the personal, social and political spectrum, an unusual outcome for a Lewton picture.

Well, that’s all for now folks. My survey of the RKO horror films of Val Lewton is finally at an end. Now it only remains for me to get a hold of copies of his Guy de Maupassant adaptation Mademoiselle Fifi (with Cat People’s Simone Simon in the title role) and his ‘social problem’ film Youth Runs Wild…

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

The Films of Val Lewton Part Thirty Six

Bedlam - Part Six

Dreams of cinema - Sidney and Gray
From Sims’ contemptuous dismissal of Nell, whose ‘Augean labours’ he implies will never be enacted, remaining nothing more than an idle ideological fancy, we cut to an exterior of a street scene. The street outside Bedlam, in fact, where Nell and Lord Mortimer had pulled up in their coach at the beginning of the film. A street seller hawks hot rolls, the fresh product of the baker’s early rising efforts, and the impression is thus given of time passing. Night has turned into day, possibly more than once. Back in the main hall of Bedlam, someone is demanding his theatrical script from Todd, still rooted to his desk. The Bedlamites are a cheap and readily exploitable source of labour, lowly and powerless. There is a definite sense that this overbearing and demanding visitor to the ‘closed set’ of Bedlam is a satirical caricature of a movie producer, or at least an antecedent of the type. The script or screenwriter is effectively a slave, his work seen as something which can be made to order, the art and care which have gone into its creation casually disregarded. He is little more than a scribbling or latterly typing monkey. It is the complaint of many an author who has strayed into Hollywood’s outwardly alluring web.

The satisfaction of purposeful labour - with discorporate onlookers
Sidney points out to the visitor that they have ‘been busy’ helping Mistress Bowen. She has managed to penetrate the aloofness of the people of the pillar, dissipating the haze of their indifference and engaging them in her efforts. She is proving a catalysing force for a more egalitarian environment, involving everyone who is able in general labour which would usually be considered menial and demeaning, the invisible provenance of the lowest social classes. All unite to better their own conditions. Nell is making up beds, and we see the spectating shadows surrounding figures on the wall. They are cast by the Bedlamites, but they could equally be those of a more spectral audience, watching and weighing her actions from a more ineffable plane. Sidney corrects Master Gray, the visitor, who assumes that she is a new warder, informing him that she is an inmate, and that ‘she is an angel in this darkness’. We have already seen her enactment of this symbolic role as the lady with the lamp, venturing into the darkest of shadows to soothe away the pain and terrors of the night.

Early motion pictures
Sidney explains what she can do via crude illustrations doodled at the corners of the law book which he has been pretending to study, and which form an animated flick book. It is a very primitive kind of motion picture, but Sidney has visionary notions as to how he might expand on these rough beginnings. ‘If I could only get a light behind these pages, I could throw them large as life upon the wall’. And so he dreams of the medium through which the audience initially watched Bedlam, anticipating the birth of cinema some 130 years before the event. Gray, the parasitic producer who appropriates other people’s creative labour, immediately sniffs the potential financial gain to be made from the idea, speculating as to how ‘one could charge admission’. The idea of the movies as business is made clear, with the attendant dimension of exploitation. It is difficult not to suspect that Lewton is producing his own mildly Hogarthian portrait of the studio tyrants who attempted to interfere with his work at RKO. His hated head of department at the time was Jack Gross, a surname not too far removed from Gray. The cinema, even in early dream form, is an uneasy marriage of commerce and art, an unequal union characterised by bickering and a laying down of the law by the dominant, finance-providing partner. Todd is once more cast as the slaving screenwriter as Gray suggests ‘you could even tell the story Todd’s writing that way’.

The calculating producer - exploitation cinema
The cinema is a natural extension of the Vauxhall Garden spectacles, the masques full of stage magic and mechanical illusion. Todd could even be writing the story we are currently watching as it unfolds before our eyes, the self-reflexive tale which tells itself. It’s a rather dizzying aside, one which momentarily leads us to distance ourselves from the action and become aware of ourselves as spectators of a mechanically produced and projected work of art. Sidney ends this playfully modernist reverie with a reminder that ‘it’s because of these pictures that I’m here’. Creativity, genius and madness are close bedfellows, and the truly innovative can, in its very newness and initial incomprehensibility, be taken for simple derangement. Sidney’s signature ‘crazy’ catchphrase kicks in to end the exchange and effectively discredit his ideas. Gray excuses himself with an embarrassed cough, having been infected with the excitement of Sidney’s mad dreams: dreams which he fed off for a few intoxicating moments. In a reactive gesture, he reflexively reasserts his power by threatening the mute Todd with a withdrawal of support for his family should he fail to deliver the next chapter by the stipulated deadline. The power of the moneyman calling the shots. Todd is a ghost writer, unheard and unseen in the world beyond the walls, his voice stolen for another’s ventriloquial purposes. It’s

Dreams of travel - Nell and Dan
Nell is still asking about the trowel, thereby alerting us to its continued narrative import. She approaches Dan the Dog, who crouches down below a picture of a ship sailing on ocean waves, a manifestation of his romantic dreams of travelling to far off places. He makes a sweeping romantic gesture, offering to build her a wall. It’s a rather redundant offer, given that they are surrounded by confining walls, but we are reminded of the Quaker ideal of building the foundations of a new society. It’s a promise of constructive action, made as an apparently empty gesture, which is realised in an ironic form at the end of the film. Dan will indeed help to build a concealing wall with the trowel. Meanwhile, his romantic outburst is an indication of a new confidence, his outspread arms an unfolding from his cowering crouch. Sidney responds to Nell’s continued enquiries about the trowel with the diplomacy of one used to dealing with delusory behaviour. When the presence of madness is assumed, the distinction between the real and the illusory becomes less clearly defined. Nell wonders if she is indeed going mad, but with a self-deprecatory laugh which expresses the opposite, a sense of self-discovery through meaningful activity. This is a different sort of madness, a spirit which possesses her and fills her with purpose. When she suggests that she is doing all of this for the benefit of ‘people who don’t even know I’m trying to help them’, Sidney tells her ‘they know’. The effects of and responses to the actions in which one is intuitively engaged area not always immediately apparent. She has to rely on her sense of the rightness of what she is doing – to have faith.

Refusing to flinch - the dog stands up to its master
Sims enters and makes to strike Dan, but the young man no longer cowers like a dog. He has gained in strength through his acquaintance with and acceptance by Nell, and his assistance with her labours. Sims pushes him aside, but such a resort to brute force where previously a mere gesture would have sufficed carries with it an admission of defeat. His sarcastic compliment to Nell contains within it a threat of permanent incarceration and a reminder that she is still under his power. ‘What wonders you will not accomplish in a lifetime’, he sneers. He offers her ‘a pretty chamber’ in which to sleep as a reward for her efforts, a mocking reminder of her former accommodations. It is, of course, a poisoned gift, a new trial to test her ideals. She is to be left in the room in which the bestial ‘tiger’ man is caged. Sims’ duel with Nell has progressed to the level of ideological conflict. He may have defeated her in the social arena, but this is not enough for him. She troubles him on a more metaphysical level, and he needs to discredit the benevolent view of human nature which she professes and has begun to translate into action. His bitterness and suppressed rage roil beneath the surface as he spits back at the challenge to his comfortably misanthropic worldview. He is placing her with the most savagely animalistic of his inmates to demonstrate ‘that all those mawkish theories you learned from the Quaker are lies. Men are not brothers, men are not born good and kind. Even the mindless are savage and must be ruled with force’. It is a statement of belief made with sufficient force, with an underlying trace of desperation to indicate that it has come to define his nature, and is something which he needs to defend in order to justify his life. It is the outward expression of his own fearful soul. Putting Nell in the cage with the tiger man amounts to an extreme test case.

Inarticulate pain - trying to remember
‘Gentle him with a word’ he taunts. ‘Conquer him with kindness’. This is in fact exactly what Nell does. She slowly approaches this huge man, made more frightening by the shadowy conditions in which he is kept. She calmly faces him, looking up into his eyes, and says ‘my friend, you do not wish to hurt me, nor I you’. He has emerged from the shadows from which we have previously seen him ferociously lunging, and he no longer seems like a vicious beast. We can now see that his face is filled with pain and confusion. He cannot talk, but is desperately trying to articulate some half-formed idea or explanation, making sounds which never quite cohere into language. ‘I will listen to you’, Nell tells him, indicating an openness to communication which goes beyond words. She doesn’t pressure him, but empathetically voices his bewilderment for him. ‘I know you’re trying to remember’, she says. ‘Someday you will. You will remember’, she re-iterates with supportive conviction. He makes a supplicatory gesture of gratitude, of relief at this recognition of his fractured but still present humanity, which Nell grants him once more. The camera looks out from the interior of the cage to focus on Sims, who is framed by the bars. The prison suddenly appears inverted and, as with Hannay’s surreptitious visit earlier, it is momentarily unclear who is on which side of the confining bars. Nell and the tiger have found connection and release whilst Sims is left alone with his comfortless worldview. His face is filled with the hateful knowledge of defeat. He must retreat to plan his next move.

Inverted prisons - the jailer jailed
The next scene switches to the outside world, and a return to the printers press. As the place where words and images are prepared for general promulgation, this is the democratic heart of society. Here are gathered Varney, Hannay and Wilkes. Each wears contrasting headwear which reveals something of their character and social position. Wilkes’ tricorne hat is raffish, with brocaded brim, the affectation of a dandy with means. Varney’s is of a similar style, but without the decorative filigree, a more down at heel dandy. Hannay’s Quaker hat is simple and plain, without the folds or embellishments of Varney and Wilkes’ tricornes, its broad brim shading the wearer from the ungodly glare of the surrounding city and its manifold vices. These are the three very different men who are working towards freeing Nell from her arbitrary imprisonment. Wilkes was indeed instrumental in revising the law which allowed the government to issue General Warrants based on a particular offence (usually involving sedition) to be issued for the arrest of unnamed individuals. This was an action at least partly prompted by the initially successful outcome of his own arrest and trial over the publication of issue 45 of his North Briton magazine. Wilkes, who has obviously been brought up to date on Nell’s disappearance, observes that ‘apparently Sims fears an investigation. Men have rid themselves of unwanted wives by that sweet expedient’. The means of dealing with personal and political trouble are one and the same, with the personal and political often indistinguishable anyway. Sims seeks to ‘forestall criticism through imprisonment’. This criticism, coming from Nell, also embraces the personal and political, threatening not only his social and professional position but also his view of the fundamentally adversarial nature of human existence.

Men with hats - and a common purpose
Wilkes’ comments about the ‘sweet expedient’ with which men dispense with and silence their wives shows that he’s not exactly a beacon of morality when it comes to sexual politics. Wilkes was well known for being a rakehell and prolific womaniser, and was a member of the infamously debauched Hellfire Club, which had its out of town headquarters amongst the erotically landscaped gardens of Medmenham Abbey and West Wycombe Park in Buckinghamshire. Wilkes himself wrote about the symbolism of West Wycombe's gardens in the Public Advertiser in 1763, rather betraying their supposedly secret nature. He commented on the Parlour of Venus, located beneath the Mound of Venus, noting that it was designed to resemble ‘the same Entrance by which we all come into the World, and the door is what some idle Wits have called the Door of Life’. Perhaps these are the kinds of country retreats to which Lord Mortimer was planning to retire with Varney. Dan Cruickshank, in his Secret History of Georgian London, notes that ‘they remain an outstanding example of the libertine vision of antiquity, a perfect fusion of nature, the classical world, ancient British traditions and virtually ungoverned sexual encounter’. Even the National Trust, current owners of West Wycombe, acknowledge this aspect of their property. Wilkes also co-wrote, around 1754/5, a pastiche of Pope’s Essay on Man entitled Essay on Woman. This took satirical and deliberately obscene (and, potentially more seriously, blasphemous and libellous) aim at the prominent cleric the Reverend Dr William Warburton, whose self-promotion and naked ambition had irked Wilkes and, more particularly, his fellow author Thomas Potter, a typically wayward son of the clergy (in this case the Archbishop of Canterbury). Wilkes’ efforts to get this scabrous piece of lewd and lubricious verse published led to a tragic-comic trial in 1764 (3 years after the period in which the film is set), during which passages were read out in the House of Lords. As is the way with official condemnations of and outraged expressions of disapproval over ‘obscene’ art and publications, this resulted in the Essay receiving massive publicity and a far wider circulation that the handful of copies for friends which Wilkes had originally intended. It was his prosecution (for libel and obscenity, but not in the end for blasphemy) for the publication of the Essay on Women, which trailed with it further citations of the royal baiting issue no.45 of the North Briton magazine, that led him to a four year exile in France followed by a two year term in prison. It’s a perfect example of the way in which sex and politics were intricately entwined at the time; and indeed, in all times, power and desire tending to closely orbit one another.

Erotic landscape - The mound of Venus at West Wycombe Park
The libertine Wilkes muses on the character of Nell, ‘with that bright quick mind of hers’, which makes her ‘saner than either a politician or a Quaker’. His feelings for her are a blend of admiration and desire. He grasps his lapels and delivers a politician’s speech, patriotically painting England as a land in which laws operate to protect the common man. It’s as if he is rehearsing for a parliamentary address. He switches back to an informal and light-hearted vernacular as he pledges to get Nell out ‘in a twinkle’. We fade from his reassurances to Hogarth’s Bedlam etching, the last plate from the Rake’s Progress which offers a rather less rosy view of England. This final use of the print which is the centrepiece of the entire film is an indication that the story is reaching its climax. As far as the protagonist of the Rake’s Progress, Tom Rakewell, is concerned, of course, Bedlam is where his tale finds its woeful and permanent end.

Reading Smart - disputing The Word
Squatting on the floor of the main hall, a man reads with excited and tongue-tripping semi-coherence from a battered book to a wild-haired woman who violently demurs from its declarative verses, shouting ‘that’s not right’ after each line. The words have a definite biblical cadence, and are in fact taken from Christopher Smart’s lengthy and ecstatically visionary poem Jubilate Agno. Smart was confined in St Luke’s Hospital asylum in Bethnal Green between 1759 and 1763, during which time he wrote the poem. He had only his cat Jeoffry for company, to whom he dedicates several verses, such as ‘For God has blessed him in the variety of his movements./For, tho he cannot fly, he is an excellent clamberer./For his motions upon the face of the earth are more than any other quadrupede./For he can tread to all the measures upon the musick/For he can swim for life./For he can creep.’ The poem wasn’t in fact published until 1939, when it appeared under the misleading title Rejoice in the Lamb: A Song From Bedlam. As with Sidney’s dreams of the cinema, it often takes time for the value of the art of the ‘insane’ to be recognised and appreciated. Smart’s poetry certainly fits in surprisingly well with the declamatory modernist verse of Eliot and Pound, and would be the perfect anthology partner to some of Allen Ginsberg’s work. The lines which Wallace, the reader, quotes are ‘Let Hull, house of Hull rejoice with Subis a bird called the Spight which breaks the Eagle's eggs’, ‘Let Scroop, house of Scroop rejoice with Fig-Wine - Palmi primarium vinum. Not so - Palmi-primum is the word’ and ‘Let Hollingstead, house of Hollingstead rejoice with Sissitietaeris herb of good fellowship. Praise the name of the Lord September 1762’. Taken out of context, they have the authentic sound of the meaningless babble of self-absorbed madness.

Christopher Smart - the 'mad' poet
The disputation between Wallace and his vocal audience, Betty, centres on the nature of the ‘word of truth’, which she insists is peace, as she makes a violent grab for the book. Their pointless altercation is a vignette of religious and political conflict, and the power of words to rouse men to violence based upon barely understood ideas. The paradoxical nonsense of fighting for peace only truly makes sense in a madhouse. Bedlam, like the ship of fools in The Ghost Ship, contains a representative panoply of human behaviour and belief, her cast in warped caricature which throws its underlying absurdities into sharp relief. Thus far, we have encountered figures representing art, religion, the law and politics. It’s a similar satirical inversion of the varied manifestations of society and the establishment to be found in Hogarth’s Bedlam print, with its bishop fools, naked monarchs, musicians playing cracked compositions and scientists looking up through the wrong end of a telescope.

Tamed tiger - Nell and her guardian
Nell becomes the arbitrator in this dispute, coming along to stop the squabbling. ‘We were fighting over truth’, they proudly announce, as if this somehow gives their bickering an inherent nobility. They are like naughty children who have been caught aping the behaviour of adults. ‘Wiser people than you have fought over it’, Nell wryly observes, making explicit the connection between Bedlam and the world beyond its walls, its illuminating refraction and magnification of accepted social and political norms. Nell is now accompanied by the hulking figure of the giant from the cage, her tamed tiger. His release from confinement is testament to the effectiveness of her attempts to communicate with him. It also suggests an uncharacteristically humane gesture on Sims’ part. The tiger man’s freedom is necessary in terms of the narrative, and the disjuncture in the consistency of Sims’ character is perhaps best left unexamined. He has certainly not experienced a sudden and revelatory change of heart, as we shall soon see.