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…


maren said...

"The films of Val Lewton"- maybe the longest and most impressive post I´ve ever read(and still not all of it)
One small addition to "one lof the most resonantly poetic images in all of Lewton´s work "we´re all in the gutter- but some of us are looking at the stars" was my asssociation.The mutual help and human connection shown is also a sharp contrast to the insanity of the films first scene (A cynical picture of the age of enlightment).
Thank you for all of this.

Jez Winship said...

Thanks for that. I wouldn't be surprised if Lewton had Wilde in mind. He had displayed a love of literature throughout his films, after all, English and otherwise - as with the John Donne quotes in The Seventh Victim.