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Posted by martinteller on December 22, 2012

George Sims (Boris Karloff) runs the Bedlam asylum with an eye towards his own amusement and profit, and arranges to put on a show for the influential and wealthy Lord Mortimer (Billy House).  Mortimer’s mistress Nell (Anna Lee) feels a twinge of pity for the lunatics, and with some guidance from a Quaker stonemason (Richard Fraser), tries to persuade Mortimer to enact changes that will improve conditions for the inmates.  Sims manipulates the situation, however, and Nell finds herself out on the street.  And after she makes mockery of Mortimer, Sims pulls the strings to have her committed to his asylum.

So again we have the combined talents of Lewton, Robson and Karloff in a period film.  Though it’s even less deserving of the “horror” classification than Isle of the Dead, it works far better as a film.  This is an engaging story with unexpected complexities.  There is a little fat in the script (although merely 79 minutes, it’s still the longest in this collection) but the screenplay has some wonderful touches.  There’s moral ambiguity and clever dialogue and moments of wit.  It ends on a note that doesn’t wrap everything up  into neat “good guy/bad guy” packages.

The performances are strong throughout.  Karloff is nicely subdued when he needs to be, and chews the fat at the right times for flavor.  Lee is very compelling as well, House is a lot of fun.  Fraser feels rather weak in comparison, stuck in the most goody-goody role.  The lunatics are a fine assortment, including one of the great “hey it’s that guy” character actors, Ian Wolfe.

Nicholas Musuraca (Out of the Past and Stranger on the Third Floor, among others) lends his expertise behind the camera, highlighting the asylum with those sharp shafts of light and deep shadows that mark his excellent noir work.  The period setting is not very convincing, however, and the film would probably strike a deeper chord with a slightly higher budget to help it come alive.  But in most respects, the movie hits its mark.  Not much of a horror flick, perhaps, but well-constructed drama with social conscience.  Rating: Very Good (80)


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