Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Saturday, March 11, 1972: Bedlam (1946)

Synopsis: Nell Bowen (Anna Lee) is the young protege of the wealthy Lord Mortimer (Billy House).  Nell has a sharp tongue and an irrepressible spirit, and she is distinctly unimpressed by money and prestige.  Lord Mortimer is alternately amused and offended by her impertinence.

One thing Nell doesn't approve of is Lord Mortimer's choice of friends.  The sycophantic Master George Sims (Boris Karloff), overseer of the notorious Saint Mary's of Bethlehem Asylum - nicknamed "Bedlam", is eager to insinuate himself into Mortimer's company. To that end he provides entertainment to the nobleman's parties in the form of inmates of the asylum, dressed up to costumes and forced to engage in humiliating perfomances for the guests' amusement.  One young man struggles to utter the dialogue Master Sims had forced him to memorize; he dies because his body has been thickly coated with paint.  To Lord Mortimer and his Tory friends this is nothing to be concerned about, but Nell has come to pity the inmates who are so ill-used.  She tries to convince Lord Mortimer that the inmates need better care, but any headway she makes with her benefactor is quickly undercut by the cruel Master Sims.

A Quaker stonemason (Richard Fraser) encourages her to act on her conscience, and Nell's protests about conditions at the asylum become more strident.  This, along with Nell's increasingly public barbs directed toward Lord Mortimer himself, give Master Sims the opening he has been seeking.  He convinces Lord Mortimer to allow an expert panel to examine Nell and assess her mental stability.  With Master Sims serving as the chair of the panel, Nell's fate is sealed: she suddenly finds herself declared insane and made an inmate in Sims' ghastly asylum.

None of Nell's friends have any idea what has happened to her.  The Stonemason learns she has been made an inmate, but when he tries to see her he is denied admittance to the facility.  Going around to the back of the building, he makes contact with her at a barred window.  A terrified Nell asks the Stonemason for a weapon with which she can defend herself from the other inmates.  At first the Quaker balks at doing such a thing, but he takes pity on her and gives her the trowel he has with him.  He tells Nell that he will do what he can to get her released.

At first, Nell is almost frozen with terror at the prospect of an extended stay in Bedlam, and her mood isn't helped by the fact that Master Sims enjoys coming in to gloat over her fate.  But Nell is stronger and more resourceful than Sims believes; to his great consternation she overcomes her fear and begins ministering to the inmates, doing what she can to improve the conditions they are living under.  She finds that many of the inmates respond positively to better treatment, and she earns the admiration and loyalty of those she has helped.  But as the overseer of the asylum, Sims has many ways to make Bedlam more unpleasant -- and even deadly -- for the unfortunate Nell....

Comments: Bedlam was Val Lewton's final picture for RKO, as well as his last collaboration with Boris Karloff.  The two men got on well together even though Karloff's presence had been imposed by the studio heads. Lewton initially regarded the Englishman as a ham and an oaf and took RKO's decision to sign him as an insult, reading into it an implicit demand that he begin churning out monster rallies like the ones being made at the time over at Universal.

Lewton was a sensitive man who tended to ascribe the worst possible motives to those he worked for.  In fact the studio wasn't interested in monster rallies; it just liked the idea of a bankable horror star headlining Lewton's already profitable films. And Lewton had no way of knowing that Karloff himself had been desperately unhappy during his last years at Universal; he didn't want to make monster rallies either.   It turned out to be a happy collaboration, and Karloff made three very good pictures with Lewton.  For the first time in years, Karloff got to play something other than a monster or a mad scientist.

In Bedlam, he clearly relishes the role of Master George Sims, the sadistic, social-climbing proprietor of England's most infamous madhouse. Sims is detestable not only because he is a sadist and abuses those vulnerable unfortunates who have been placed in his care; he is also willing to abuse those same inmates for the amusement of his rich and powerful friends, just so that he can worm his way into their good graces.  Karloff, that most physical of actors, plays Sims with an insincere grin plastered to his face, his posture telegraphing an oily, obsequious charm: he leans forward in a perpetual half-bow, lowering his head in mock deference to those he wishes to win over with his catalog of lies.  Karloff uses his height to great advantage, curling himself like a question mark to wheedle to the porcine Lord Mortimer or gloat over the imprisoned Nell.

Anna Lee plays an unusually strong female lead in this film, effectively conveying first her haughtiness and the terror that results from it and then, after Nell overcomes her fear, her determination and her compassion.  Lee was a  prolific actress with a good range, appearing in more than 120 films over a very long career.  Her Nell is far more interesting than most female characters of the time, a case of a good actress making the most from a well-written part.

The film misfires in a couple of places, first with the subplot involving the Stonemason, who is introduced as Nell's conscience early in the film and becomes her romantic interest at the very end, even though he isn't even given a name. The conflict between his Quaker convictions and Nell's desire to defend herself doesn't get very much play, and aside from his curious Society of Friends speech patterns (he uses the personal pronouns "thee" and "thou" when speaking to people, decidedly out of fashion in the 18th century) he has surprisingly little personality and not a great deal to do.

The film also falls flat in attempting to depict the nightmarish asylum in which Nell has been imprisoned, which after all is the centerpiece of the picture.  The Bedlam we see here is quite sanitized, compared to what was commonly known about the place.  No film of the time would have been able to show the true misery of such a place, of course, but the Bedlam we're shown here doesn't look nearly as frightful as its reputation would suggest (Universal, it should be noted, would never have passed up the exploitation potential of the asylum itself). Moreover, Nell's work with the inmates pays off so quickly and easily that it's difficult for us to accept.

But to be fair, this is a movie that clocks in at just under 80 minutes.  There's something to be said for economical storytelling. And in the main this is a lively and well-made film, featuring one of Karloff's best performances.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Saturday, March 4, 1972 (Midnight): Dante's Inferno (1935) / Devil Bat's Daughter (1946)

Synopsis: Jim Carter (Spencer Tracy) is a guy always looking to make a fast buck. He is working as a stoker on board a steamship, but but because his arm's in a sling he can't shovel coal; instead he takes bets on which of his able-bodied comrades can shovel coal the fastest.  But it turns out he doesn't need the sling at all; he just wears it to get out of working. An officer on the ship sees that he's malingering.  He tells Carter that he'll be docked a month's pay and put ashore at the next port. That's okay, Carter says - he's got a job waiting there anyway.

It turns out the job in question is at a carnival: he sticks his head out of a circle cut in a piece of canvas, and customers throw baseballs in hope of hitting him in the face.  This isn't much of a job, even during the Depression, and he quits before the first day is out.  Without a penny, Jim meets an older gentleman, Mr. McWade (Henry Walthall) , whom Jim immediately nicknames "Pop".  Pop stakes him a meal, then shows Jim his concession at the carnival: a dusty and modest collection of artifacts meant to depict the Hell described by Dante in "The Inferno". The exhibit, Pop says, is designed to be a warning to carnival-goers to stick to the straight and narrow.  Almost immediately Jim meets Pop's fetching daughter Betty (Claire Trevor) and the two hit it off.

Pop offers Jim a job, telling him that he needs someone to help clean up a bit.  This is clearly charity, as the Dante exhibit is not much of a going concern.  Seeing Pop struggle to draw a crowd to the booth, Jim sees a way to help.  He tells Pop that he has had some luck barking at carnivals in the past; can he give it a try?  Pop sees no reason why not, and Jim shouts to the crowd a fanciful -- but completely false -- story of what they'll find inside the exhibit.  "Beautiful women and big strong men!" he yells.  "And they're burning, they're burning, but still alive  -- you can see them burn, crawling along on their bare bellies!" He pulls in a huge crowd, bigger than any Pop has ever had. Pop is a little uncomfortable that Jim's sales pitch isn't entirely honest, but Jim knows what all showmen know - that deep down people want to be fooled.

With Jim's help the Dante's Inferno booth becomes a success. Pop is happy with things as they are, but Jim sees a way to take things to the next level. He gathers a group of carnival booth operators together and asks them to invest in a new and spectacular "Dante's Inferno" attraction. When they point out that Pop's space isn't nearly big enough to accomodate Jim's ambitious plan, Jim tells them that he wants to swap spaces with Dean, the owner of a log flume ride.  But Dean tells Jim that he has no interest in leaving his site.  This seems to kill the idea in its tracks, but Jim knows that Dean is months behind on his rent.  Jim buys the site out from under him, then ignores his pleas for more time to move the equipment out, even though he knows Dean will be ruined. Pop is surprised that they acquired the space so easily, but Jim assures him that it was all settled amicably.

In going over the plans for the new exhibit, Pop talks excitedly about the various stations were people will witness the punishments of the damned.  Seeing the grotto reserved for treachery, Jim comments that people in the 14th century judged sins very harshly.  Pop disagrees, saying "The sins of Dante's time are the sins of today."

The spectacular new exhibit opens with great fanfare and is a smash hit.  The opening night is marred only by the reappearance of Dean, now a penniless widower, who commits suicide by throwing himself off a high balcony into the deepest part of the Inferno exhibit.

Soon Jim has built a huge network of carnivals, amusement parks, dance halls and gambling clubs. Annoyed that the local mob is trying to get him to pay more in protection money than he's been paying up until now, Jim buys a 500-foot steamship, the Paradise.  He plans to use the ship as an ocean-going gambling club.  On the high seas, he reasons, he won't need to deal with the police or the mob. 

Carter's building inspector Harris reports that the Dante's Inferno exhibit is unsafe, but Jim persuades him to drop it -- first suggesting that he might lose his job, then giving him an envelope of cash.  But when the building does collapse, Pop is injured and Jim must stand trial for criminal negligence.  Recovering in the hospital, Pop shows Jim his copy of Dante's Inferno, telling him that what Dante wrote about wasn't simply a carnival exhibit, but a guide for living:

"Like you," Pop says, "Dante found himself on the wrong road. The spirit of Virgil came to him in a vision and guided him through the inferno.  Let me show you the punishments that were revealed to Dante for the evils of Lust, Avarice, Blasphemy, Perjury, Murder and Suicide...."

Comments: The idea of Hell as a literal place where you might end up spending eternity has become an unfashionable one in the modern world, but for many centuries there was a certain grim utility about it.  If the carrot of Heaven wasn't enough to make people behave (spoiler alert: it wasn't), at some point the stick of Hell had to be brandished. How effective it was as a deterrent to sin is debatable, but Dante Alighieri's 14th century work The Divine Comedy introduced a lurid conception of Hell that persists to this day. In fact, so vivid was Dante's description that the first canto of The Divine Comedy,  titled Inferno, eclipsed the other two (Purgatorio and Paradiso) in the public mind.

There has always been a carnival side-show aspect to Inferno, as we are invited to be voyeurs peeking in on the torments of the damned, and so it's only natural that a movie dramatizing Dante's most famous work would prominently feature a carnival. 

The core of this particular movie is a striking 11-minute sequence that depicts a stylized vision of divine punishment, in which the damned writhe and flail in lakes of fire, men and women turn into trees, and people drop off rocky cliffs into sulfurous pits and nightmarish grottoes.

Built around this sequence is the story of Jim Carter, who has pulled himself up by his bootstraps through grit and determination.  We admire the way in which he's gone from penniless drifter to entertainment tycoon in a few short years, but at the same time we know his hands aren't entirely clean. He buys Dean's concession out from under him and doesn't give him enough time to move his equipment out; as a result, Dean is ruined financially.  Jim is apparently cheating his early investors; when one of them comes asking what has become of the money he put into the operation, Jim tells them that it's tied up in stock and he can't pay out until the amusement park is sold (this is clearly a lie, and the "stock" the man purchased is apparently nonexistent).  He then gives the investor (who now works in Carter's amusement park) a few dollars a week in order to send him on his way, acting as though this is an act of generosity. He pays off the mob for protection and when his building inspector warns of unsafe conditions in his exhibit, he first threatens to fire him and then pays him a bribe to keep him quiet.

To Jim, this dishonesty is no worse than the bait-and-switch of a carnival barker. It's the cost of doing business, the only way to get ahead in a dog-eat-dog world.  When Pop begins to talk about sin and and the need to follow the straight-and-narrow path, Jim laughs it off.  "Since the beginning of time there's only been one sin," he tells Pop, "and that's failure.  People don't care how you win, so long as you win".  Nevertheless he tries to hide the worst of his dealings from his family and from Pop.  But eventually (to mix our theological metaphors) the karma train pulls into the station, and Jim must face up to what he has done.

The anchor of this movie is Spencer Tracy, in one of his last movies for Fox before moving on to MGM.  Tracy had been working in film for five years but was not yet a star; he was lucky, as the Marx Brothers had been, to be courted by MGM's Irving Thalberg.  Thalberg had a keen eye for talent and knew how to maximize a star's potential.  Within a few years Tracy was a household name, having appeared in two hit movies, Captains Courageous (1937) and Boys Town (1938).

It's widely assumed that Fox squandered Tracy's talent while he was signed to the studio, but that isn't quite right;.  He is actually well-cast in Dante's Inferno, bringing the character of Jim Carter vividly to life.  We get a sense of Carter as a boy who never quite grew up, with a mischievous streak, and determination to prove that he's the winner he always believed himself to be.  It's a very American sort of character, and Tracy's open and honest demeanor works extremely well in selling the character to us. 

Claire Trevor, who would play tough cookies in 1940s noirs, portrays a rather conventional supportive wife role here, but she does as well as the script demands.

Devil Bat's Daughter (1946)

Synopsis: A young woman (Rosemary LaPlanche) is found lying facedown on the highway late at night, and a passing good Samaritan stops and takes her to the Sheriff's office.  She is conscious but in a catatonic state. A local cabbie identifies her as the fare he picked up earlier that evening.  She'd wanted to go to the "old Carruthers place".  When the cabbie told her the place has  been deserted for years, she reacted with a shocked expression.  Nevertheless it is at the Carruthers place that the cabbie leaves her.

Surmising that the woman's missing bag must still be at the house, the county Sheriff (Ed Cassidy) and local physician Dr. Eliot (Nolan Leary) go there in hopes of finding a clue to the woman's identity.  In the woman's bag they discover papers that identify her as Nina MacCarron, the daughter of the late mad scientist Paul Carruthers, who had terrorized many people with his giant mutated bats some years earlier.

Believing that Nina is suffering from some sort of psychological shock, Dr. Eliot places Nina under the care of psychiatrist Dr. Clifton Morris (Michael Hale). Over a number of weeks, Dr. Morris helps Nina reconstruct her broken memory: she had been living in England for most of her life. Dr. Carruthers had left her family when Nina was only four years old.  Traumatized by the recent death of her mother and by the stress of the London blitz, she travels to America to find her father, only to find that he had died under the accusation of terrible crimes.

During this intensive therapy Nina stays at the Morris household, and we get a view of the respected psychiatrist's home. There is growing friction between Morris and his wife, the wealthy Ellen Masters Morris. Ellen has a weak heart, and a son from a previous marriage, who is expected home soon from the war.  For his part, Morris is keeping a mistress on the side named Myra (Monica Mars), who wants a commitment.  Even though Morris explains that he would lose out financially if he divorced Ellen, Myra won't relent.  Don't call me, Myra warns Morris, until you're ready to get Ellen out of your life.

Soon Ted Masters arrives home from the war; he and Nina quickly fall in love.  But Nina is troubled by strange dreams -- of giant bats that are trying to control her. One night Nina awakens from one such dream to discover that she has killed the Morris family dog with a pair of scissors. Dr. Morris suggests she be moved to a sanitarium for the family's safety, but the kind-hearted Ellen disagrees, and Nina stays.

But a few nights later, after another disturbing dream, Nina awakens to find herself standing in the hallway holding a pair of bloody scissors.  And nearby lies the body of Ellen Masters Morris....

 Comments: This meager PRC offering was ostensibly a sequel to the 1940 Bela Lugosi vehicle The Devil Bat. That film was an archetypal Lugosi mad scientist picture, featuring a method of execution that has a zany greatness about it: the victim receives the gift of a special shaving lotion; when applied to the neck, the lotion attracts giant mutated bats that -- quite literally -- go for the jugular.

The Devil Bat was silly and lurid, but it made money, so it was only natural for PRC to greenlight a sequel.  But it turned out to be a sequel in name only. What they really did was to make a low-budget knockoff of two popular films of the era, Cat People (1942) and Gaslight (1944). From Cat People comes the family curse and the conniving psychiatrist; from Gaslight comes the device of a powerful man convincing a vulnerable young woman that she's going mad.

As we previously noted, Cat People and Gaslight also clearly inspired She Wolf of London, a Universal thriller also released in 1946 -- and a movie with a very similar plot to this one.

 So was Devil Bat's Daughter a rip-off of She-Wolf of London, which was a rip-off of Cat People and Gaslight?   Or was She-Wolf of London a rip-off of Devil Bat's daughter, which was a rip-off of Cat People and Gaslight?

Well, we don't know.  Devil Bat's Daughter and She-Wolf of London were released within a month of each other.  It's possible that one was influenced by the other, perhaps by news that appeared in the trades.  On the other hand, they both might independent rip-offs of other movies.

Oddly enough, the screenwriters felt it necessary to rehabilitate Dr. Carruthers' reputation at the end of this movie.  We're told in the final minutes that Carruthers was actually a wonderful man whose important experiments with giant bats were misunderstood by a fearful and superstitious public.  This seems extremely unlikely, since we all remember Lugosi chuckling with glee as he sent his devil bats off to rip innocent people's throats out in the first movie.  Audiences had no doubt forgotten some of the plot points from The Devil Bat by the time the sequel arrived.   But the presence of a  homicidal bat-obsessed maniac probably wasn't one of them.