Pompey's pompous preeningFrom the night streets of London, we dissolve to the corridor outside Lord Mortimer’s bedchamber, which serves as the waiting room for his summoned guests and supplicants. We see Pompey, the black boy, seated to one side of the door. His immaculate turban and princely peacock finery lends him an air of affected aristocracy which he plays up by closely examining his fingernails with studied disdain, directed to the unseen person for whom he is acting as usher and gatekeeper. This costume is taken from the Hogarth print The Countess’ Morning Levee, the fourth in the Marriage a la Mode series, in which the black boy is one element of the extravagant foppery with which the Countess in the story surrounds herself. Pompey’s absurd headgear is another example of the array of hats and wigs sported throughout Bedlam, all of which convey something of the status or self-definition of the characters wearing them. In Pompey’s case it is a displaced indication of Lord Mortimer’s self-importance and rich, gilded tastes. Pompey is a reflective barometer of his Lord’s current moods and the direction in which his favours are likely to be dispersed. Our gaze is directed by his sideways glance, and we realise that it upon Sims, who sits on the other side of the door, that his smug, appropriated superiority is focussed. Sims sits with his chin resting on the ball of his cane, a pose which echoes the one in which we first encountered him. On this occasion, however, he is not impatient and agitated, but reflective and still, poised for the duel which he knows is imminent, and for which he is now ready. When summoned by the footman, he rises and adjusts his wig before entering. It is his customary and almost unconscious preparation for entering the courtly world in which appearance, pose and the witty turn of phrase are the feints and stabs of social sparring. His wig is akin to a helmet, and his reflexive adjustment of it, his need to check that his fashion armoury has not slipped, indicates his lack of ease at this strata of society. Its all important manners and gestures are not those with which he has been brought up and educated, and he has been obliged to study and adapt them himself in order to further his aspirations to social advancement through patronage.
Surrealist toilette - Lord Mortimer at powderWithin the bedchamber, Lord Mortimer is having his wig powdered, his face covered and protected by a paper cone. He looks like a figure from a surrealist collage, his head transformed into a grotesquely outsized beak. It is another form of helmet, donned to make ready for the to and fro of social interplay. This powder protector is no doubt the kind of idiosyncratic historical detail which Lewton delighted in discovering, and is one of the minor background elements which combine to give the film, for all its low budget, a richly textured period feel. Lord Mortimer’s morning powdering and care for his appearance are another instance of the feminisation of men in Bedlam. Nell sits towards the rear of the room, a spectator at his toilet, having evidently finished herself with far less laborious ceremony. He is the foreground object of her disinterested gaze as he undergoes his beautification, an inversion of the usual pattern. Sims gives a deep bow to ‘Mistress Bowen’ as he enters the room, an acknowledgement of her status and current ascendancy, and an formality akin to fencers bowing to each other before the commencement of their duel. Such tactical deference is in contrast to their first meeting in Lord Mortimer’s bedchamber, during which Sims initially ignored Nell, directing his supplicatory gestures to Lord Mortimer. ‘I trust you enjoyed the fete’, he enquires of her now, knowing full well the strident outrage at the deathly nature of his masque which she exhibited. ‘You will hear presently how much I enjoyed it’, Nell replies with a terse air of self-satisfied triumph. Lord Mortimer eagerly divulges ‘what we’ve decided’, explaining how Nell (‘a practical lass’) ‘wants to turn Bedlam upside down and make all the loonies happy as linnets’.
The notion of the world turned upside down relates to a custom popular in households at Christmas in which the servants became the masters for a day. In a wider sense, it suggests a revolutionary state of affairs in which commonly held assumptions and values are upended. It’s a phrase which was used in the King James version of the Bible, first published in 1611, 500 years ago, where it can be found in Acts 17 verse 6: ‘and when they found them not they drew Jason and certain brethren unto the rulers of the city, crying these that have turned the world upside down are come hither also’. The sermon on the mount is effectively announcing that heaven is the world turned upside down (‘blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the Earth etc.), offering a series of inversions of the accepted order of things. The phrase was commonly used to describe the revolutionary aspirations of the radical movements of the 17th century, its scriptural provenance pointing to the religious origins of their non-conformism. A pamphlet entitled The World Turned Upside Down was published in 1647, with the explicatory sub-heading ‘a briefe description of the ridiculous fashions of these distracted times’. In the context of the film, Bedlam and its inhabitants both form a microcosm of society at large and represent the downtrodden elements of that society, so the metaphor applies both to the world within its walls and to the way in which it relates to the world beyond. Nell’s proposals resonate well beyond their specific aim of improving conditions for the mentally ill.
Balance of power - Nell and SimsDuring Lord Mortimer’s deposition, both Nell and Sims are seated in their chairs facing him, a position from which they can best vie for his limited and easily distracted attention. Sims responds to his latest assumption of another’s words and ideas in a voice thick with bitterly underlined irony, the kind of response which Nell would have been expecting. ‘You can’t imagine the gratitude I bear you, Mistress Bowen’, he hisses. She is threatening to dislodge him from the comfortable niche of unaccountable power into which he has settled and to which he has grown accustomed. He is not about to relinquish it lightly. Addressing himself to Lord Mortimer, he plays on his vanity, as he had done in the first bedchamber encounter, emphasising his ownership of the idea and suggesting the reflected glory which he will enjoy as a result. ‘These reforms you propose will make my name stand out in the history of Bedlam’, he declares. ‘We knew you’d agree’, his lordship replies with satisfaction, having entirely failed to detect the undercurrents of meaning contained within the tone of delivery. As far as he is concerned, the matter has been swiftly and decisively settled.
Shift in power - Nell worriedBut Sims now interjects a new element into the proceedings, one which indicates his insight into the shallows of Lord Mortimer’s character. ‘One small point’, he adds, with calculated Columbo-style afterthought. ‘The trifling matter of money’. He thanks him for his generosity, which immediately causes Nell to sit up alertly, rousing her from her complacent certainty in her own success at manipulating Milord’s favours. Lord Mortimer is pleased to proffer generosity which costs him nothing, but Sims points out that, since he has taxable property in the Moorfields area, ‘this reform will cost you not less than 500 guineas in additional taxes’. He has clearly prepared his figures beforehand. Human dignity and the cost of compassion have been carefully weighed and valued and given financial expression. There is a close upon Nell’s face, from which all the glow of self-satisfied triumph has blanched. Sims then shifts the focus of expense directly on to her person, pitching the cost of reforms as ‘some little gift you’d gladly give to Mistress Bowen’. Suddenly, the idea has become hers once more, given back to her once it has become tainted with financial consequence, and the notion of human currency is once more introduced. Sims has manoeuvred Lord Mortimer into considering how much Nell is really worth, and he has sufficient insight into his nature to know that he will hold her cheaply. Nell realises that the foundation of her plans is crumbling, and quickly relinquishes any such gift (‘a gift she’s not going to have’, Sims immediately ripostes). Knowing that he is gaining the upper hand, Sims introduces the decisive element of politics, bringing up the question of what Wilkes and the Whigs would say to the notion of reform. Wilkes is a name guaranteed to trigger a pre-conditioned response from Lord Mortimer, and he immediately comes back with ‘he would say loonies don’t vote’. Putting the debate on a political level, everything is once more reduced to its cynical and self-serving essence.
Allowing your enemies to destroy themselves - Sims amusedLord Mortimer is now left to balance the relative merits of Nell’s ‘good deed’ with the 500 guineas which is the price which Sims has put upon it. There’s never really any doubt as to which will rise uppermost in his considerations. ‘There would be so much I’d have to do without’, he muses to himself. Nell and Sims are both now standing as the duel for his Lordship’s favour reaches its concluding moments. Sims further prompts him, suggesting that ‘Milord has to keep up appearances at court’. Lord Mortimer adopts a wheedling tone to justify himself to Nell, his decision evidently now made. ‘You have no idea, Nell, what a great responsibility it is to be rich’, he tell her by way of explanation. Recognising defeat, she bitterly sums up his stingy attitude: ‘I’ve asked you to do a good deed and find the very thought of it too expensive’. By implication, she is also realising the paltry limits of her own value, just how cheaply she is held. She now lets her pride spill over into anger, expressing her authentic feelings and dispensing entirely with the ritualised and carefully controlled employment of irony and arch sardonicism. There is undisguised contempt in her voice as she lets him know how she has put up with him, ‘trying to make you laugh and then listening to that fat laugh of yours as it comes tumbling out of your fat throat’. It’s a vicious image which expresses in words the kind of savage caricature Hogarth might produce of his Lordship. Sims is shown suppressing a smile. He knew that her temper was liable to erupt in such a manner and has led her deliberately towards such an ill-considered outburst. He now simply has to leave her to dismantle the framework upon which her own standing has been built.
Origins - Hogarth's Strolling Actresses Dressing in a BarnLord Mortimer responds in the classic ‘I made you what you are’ manner, telling her ‘you’d be camping in the rain on Strathmore Common with the other strolling players if you hadn’t caught my eye’. This lets us know a little more about Nell’s background. She had evidently been an actress before becoming Lord Mortimer’s pet and kept wit. The reference to strolling players refers back to the Hogarth print which we saw in the opening credits, ‘Strolling Actresses Dressing in a Barn’. Hogarth’s print memorialised the demise of travelling theatre troupes who put on performances on makeshift stages. Their days were effectively ended by the passing of the Theatrical Licensing Act of 1737. This was swiftly drafted in response to a series of increasingly savage satirical plays, whose mockery was often pointedly directed at the prime minister Robert Walpole, particularly in the plays of Hogarth’s good friend Henry Fielding, whose Tom Thumb, Covent Garden Tragedy and Pasquin did as much as any to rouse the ire of parliament. Theatrical performances now had to be licensed, which effectively restricted them to theatre buildings, and were open to censorship by the Lord Chamberlain. This was censorship of a political rather than moral nature, specifically designed to silence attacks on establishment figures. The Lord Chamberlain held the powers granted by the act right up until 1968, causing problems in the latter half of the last century for radical theatre groups such as Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop. The action of the film takes place in 1761, but with allowances made for a little dramatic license, it’s easy to suppose that Nell has fallen victim to the consequences of the act, her career as an actress suddenly and unceremoniously cut short. She brings the satire which the act was supposed to defuse into the home, presenting it directly to its intended target. In the small, insular world of the political and landed classes she finds its effect blunted by the general disconnection between words and meaning, the abandonment of direct expression in favour of devious circumlocution. Unvarnished insult in this context becomes a quaintly primitive amusement. Nell has much in common with Sims in coming to this world from a humble background, and she must adopt some of his strategic nous in order to really make herself heard.
Prideful anger - Nell lets flyMeanwhile, she sticks with an escalation of insults. She portrays Lord Mortimer as a hollow man, a large empty vessel whose position is maintained through expenditure and toadying rather than innate merit of any kind. Her attack swiftly expands from the personal to encompass wider social disaffection, making clear the connection between the two. Her invective takes the form of a rejection, distancing herself from that for which she expresses moral repugnance, and refuting the values which she sees Lord Mortimer as standing for: ‘I would not want to be a dull man forever in need of amusement. I would not want to bribe and be bribed, to fawn upon the king and kick the commoner. In short, milord, I would not want to be Lord Mortimer’. Hannay’s egalitarian ideals have evidently awoken a dormant part of her conscience, and she has descended from the lofty and aloof equestrian pedestal from which she first parted company with him. Having effectively resigned her position, definitively burning any bridges which might have allowed her to return, she storms out. ‘Such angry words’, Sims sighs with an air of sardonic reproval. In the corridor, we see Pompey playing conkers with himself, the clash of the horse chestnuts replicating the pendulum swings of the duel which has just reached its conclusion. When Sims comes out, he ushers him to the exit with a sweeping, grandiloquent bow. Once more, he is a reliable barometer of status. Nell is history and it is Sims who is now in the ascendant.
Left with nothing but the parrotWe cut to the staircase of a house whose furniture and paintings are in the process of being moved out, leaving it looking bare and Spartan. This is one of a number of scenes whose action is directly consequent upon what has been said immediately before. Words have significant power to affect events in this world. The empty shell of the house clearly demonstrates the ease with which the elements of Nell’s life can be dismantled, and the extent to which its objects and appurtenances were subject to Lord Mortimer’s continued benefaction. They were always contingent upon her continued compliance, and the hire has now been revoked. Varney gets upset at the prospect of the parrot being taken and manages to keep hold of it. He points out that Poll has ‘been with Mistress Bowen since Mistress Bowen played Aurora in The Rivals. We were very good in that’. He’s presumably not referring to Sheridan’s comic romance, since there’s no character of that name in the play, and it wasn’t performed until 1775, 14 years after the action of the film, anyway. Varney’s wistful theatrical reminiscence of times now gone indicate that his relationship with Nell extends back to a shared life on the stage. Nell has brought Varney with her from these theatrical days and has been supporting him ever since. Her loyalty to old friends once more belies her assertion of self-interest and claim that her ‘heart is like a flint’. As the removal men depart, she puts aside her combative persona and sighs to Varney that ‘a kind heart butters no parsnips’, but it is said without any real sense of regret at what she has done. Now she is left with nothing but her parrot, which is the external emblem and reminder of her former status as amusing pet. The analogous link between human beings and animals is once more made clear, with lower levels of society regarded as little more than mindless beasts and ignored accordingly. But this very lack of regard can be turned to advantage, as Nell begins to realise. Poor Poll is all they’ve got, but ‘Poll’s enough’.
Social embarassment - Kitty and SimsWe return to Lord Mortimer’s waiting room, where Sims has brought along his niece Kitty. She is described in uncomplimentary terms in Lewton’s screenplay as being ‘dressed in the mode, with perhaps a little more elegance than an honest woman would display. On her face are several decorative patches, their placement, as was the manner of the time, dictated by such skin blemishes or marks of disease as they were intended to hide’. The description of her appearance sounds very much like that of the protagonist of Hogarth’s A Harlot’s Progress, somewhere midway on her descending path to degradation. Kitty’s experience is implied in the truncated comment ‘I have known some gentlemen’, which is accompanied by the flutter of a fan. In the event, all but one of the beauty spots used to cover syphilitic scars are dispensed with. Kitty is played by Elizabeth Russell, who gives a restrained performance as a comic but perceptive soak, a role which might have encouraged a lesser actress to go over the top in a scene-stealing fashion. Kitty is in complete contrast to the haunted or haunting characters which Russell had previously portrayed for Lewton in Cat People, The Seventh Victim and Curse of the Cat People. Once more her appearance is brief but memorable. Sims is bringing Kitty along partly as a replacement for Nell, and partly primed to claim that she’d offered to by Poll on behalf of Lord Mortimer. She immediately voices her contempt for him by sneering ‘a fine lord indeed – mocked by a parrot’. Poll has evidently been set loose on the streets to spread Nell’s insults to a wider audience. Sims is embarrassed by his niece’s lack of fine manners and is nervous that she will show him up, perhaps exposing his true social background, which his carefully contrived politesse serves to disguise. Kitty’s common nature is revealed through her declared fondness for gin. Gin, cheaply and readily available at the time, was one of the major social problems of the age, a fact highlighted in Hogarth’s famous print Gin Lane. Sims instructs her that she’d ‘best leave the wit to me. I’ll make you seem witty’. Although she may be able to ‘crack a joke well enough’, this is not really what her uncle has in mind for ‘good company’, although his familiarity with her cheerful vulgarity suggests that he’s well enough acquainted with the other kind. As they are ushered in to the bedchamber once more, Sims makes his usual adjustments to his wig to assure himself of its correct positioning.
When they enter, the wind is rather taken out of Sims’ sails by the fact that Lord Mortimer has already received the news that Nell has put her parrot up for sale in the market place, where it incessantly squawks its idiot couplet ‘Lord Mortimer is like a pig, his brain is small and his belly big’. What’s more, he seems to find the whole thing ‘a great bit of japery’, as he had when we first heard Poll parrot the lines as their carriage pulled up outside Bedlam at the start of the film. However, when Pompey returns to inform him that Nell has refused the generous 500 guineas proffered for the bird, his amusement recedes. The game is no longer being played by his rules. The insults are now being broadcast beyond the enclosed environments of the carriage or the bedchamber, taken out onto the streets. ‘The girl digs her spurs too deep’, he muses, reminding us of the purposeful riding attire which Nell has sported on several occasions. A jest is, after all, something inconsequential which can be instantly tossed to one side once it has been enjoyed. This joke threatens to linger, exposing him to prolonged public ridicule which might come to define him in the popular mind. It aspires to the condition of a Hogarth print, to satirical caricature.
Conspiratorial asides in the tea room - balancing fatesSims draws his lordship to one side for a conspiratorial conferral, suggesting ‘we can always make her my guest’. The unofficial channels of power and coercion are discretely available for the convenient removal of the powerless who have somehow become awkward, and who can be ‘disappeared’, leaving no trace. Confinement in mental hospitals was a favourite solution for silencing dissidents in Soviet era Russia and its satellites. After all, isn’t it madness to oppose the natural order of things? Lord Mortimer is reluctant to take this course, recalling the good times he’s had with Nell. ‘We’ve been good comrades, Nell and I’, he says, a declaration of continued loyalty which suggests that he still has a vestigial trace of decency and conscience left in him. His use of the word comrade indicates the true nature of their relationship. His momentary display of nobility is soon redirected towards his more customary self-interest, however. When he insists that ‘she’s as sane as you and I’, Sims responds with the rhetorical question ‘was Colby mad? He was my guest’. It’s both confession and offer of collusion. Colby was an obstacle to Sims’ ambitions, and Nell is now an inconvenience and embarrassment for Lord Mortimer. That Sims is now willing to admit to Colby’s unjust incarceration and by implication his culpability for his subsequent death is an indication of how confident he has become of his own standing in his lordship’s estimation. He has begun to manoeuvre him into acting against Nell. He turns back to the issue at hand, and reflects ‘it’s a shrewd trick – you can’t restrain a parrot from slander’. The parrot’s repetitive refrain, designed to lodge in people’s memory, represents the voice of the street, the unwritten and unpublished opinion of the commonality. Treated as animals to be herded and controlled en masse, as individuals they fall beneath the legal sanctions operating within higher social circles. Nell has chosen a symbolically pointed way of getting back at her former keeper. If she was nothing more than a pet, than it is through her pet that she will spread poisonous ridicule. Sims suggests issuing a writ of seizure for the bird, prompting Kitty to chime in with ‘arrest a parrot? I’ll drink to that’. In her own blunt and unfanciful way, she has seen through to the absurd heart of the matter.
Cowardly display of bravery - threatening a QuakerIn the next, consequent scene, we come across Varney being dragged into the bedchamber by a footman, keeping a hold of Poll all the while. Nell and Hannay follow on close behind, and all is a noisy contrast to the deferential formality usually observed by Lord Mortimer’s guests. Hannay reprimands Nell for having mocked his lordship via her parrot, but she is unrepentant, threatening ‘he’ll wish I’d only mocked him when I’m finished’. Her prideful anger is still raw and close to the surface. She lays claim to possession of the parrot and Hannay backs her up. Lord Mortimer, once more reacting with childish indignation at not immediately getting his way, puffs himself up at such a reasoned assertion of rights. Amidst the chaotic melee which has disrupted the order of his inner sanctum, he fetches his sword and insists that Hannay fights him. This is the height of his bravery, threatening a Quaker with violence (a reversal of the Woody Allen line from Sleeper: ‘I’m a really timid person – I was beaten up by Quakers’). Hannay refuses this ridiculous challenge, and as he advances to reason with him, Lord Mortimer steps back and trips over, falling in an undignified heap onto his big soft bed, from which he struggles comically to rise. Nell laughs with harsh heartiness and the parrot lends mocking harmony as they all retreat and make their exit. We are left with a close up of Lord Mortimer’s red face, puffed up and pouting, filled with outrage at his humiliation.
The prospect of manual labour - Hannay, Varney and NellWe fade in on the stonemason’s yard, a complete contrast to the pampered luxury of Lord Mortimer’s bedchamber. Hannay is standing in his shirtsleeves, hammer in hand, whilst Varney and Nell sit idle beside him. For the first time, we see him hatless. Wearing a hat for such labour would obviously be impractical, but its removal also suggests that honest work is considered godly. The issue of how Nell and Varney are to find work is raised. Nell might sew, as she did to repair garments in the theatre. The paltry rewards are summed up in stark economic terms: ‘two shillings a week and all found for a seamstress’. As for Varney, he is sized up and declared unfit for any but the lightest labour. Hannay offers him a broom with which to sweep the yard. The looks on both their faces make it clear that neither are enamoured with the idea of manual labour, and Varney confesses ‘I like a merry life, Mistress Bowen’. Nell, awakening from a momentary contemplation of the livelihood Hannay has suggested, regains her spark and declares ‘and so by blazes do I! Everyone makes his living with his own tricks’. Both have become accustomed to an existence predicated on wit, appearance and performance, with actual work carried out by others. Deciding to make use of the network of friends and allies she has made during her time in Lord Mortimer’s company, she settles on the most infamous, the one man guaranteed to inflame his lordship’s anger – ‘that Devil Wilkes’.
First edition - Hogarth's That Devil Wilkes fresh off the pressWe dissolve to a printer’s workshop such as the one depicted in plate 5 of Hogarth’s Idle and Industrious Prentice series, which we saw in the opening credits sequence. A print is being produced from the manually operated machinery, and when it is pulled from the frame we see that it is Hogarth’s caricature ‘That Devil Wilkes’. This effectively acts as another intertitle, but here we are privy to the means of manufacture. It makes us aware of the labour which goes into the creation of a work of popular art. In terms of the making of a film, it is an acknowledgement of the collaborative nature of the endeavour. Hogarth’s print was the culmination of a dispute between the two men, formerly friends and allies. Wilkes had been incensed by an anti-war print that Hogarth had produced in 1762 called The Times, in which he visually implied that William Pitt had been fanning the flames of war for his own profiteering ends. Wilkes had warned Hogarth that he would retaliate if he went ahead with the publication of the print, and he was as good as his word, launching an attack on the artist in his magazine The North Briton. In 1763, Wilkes was arrested after an attack on the king in The North Briton. Hogarth, who at this late stage in his life had begun to nurture any slights, and who, for all his willingness to ridicule authority remained a loyal royalist, made a portrait of him at his trial. It was an unkind caricature which exaggerated his slight squint and made him appear a leering and thoroughly untrustworthy sort. Wilkes filtered through the bitter and grudgeful lens of Hogarth’s personal and subjective perspective, in other words. The date of the print’s production postdates the setting of the film by two years, so a little dramatic license is once more required. The freshly inked caricature is handed to its intended recipients, Sims and his companion, whom the script describes as ‘a stout gentleman who looks not unlike Dr. Samuel Johnson’. They both laugh to see it.
Wilkes in personThere is something of a self-reflective recession of spectatorship here. We watch the image of Sims and his co-viewer looking at another image, which is in the same lineage as the images which we have become used to as intertitles. The dislocating effect is furthered as the camera pans from their examination of the print to find Nell and Wilkes himself sequestered in a private nook of the workshop. The relationship between image and actuality and the influence that the one can have on our interpretation of the other is reflected in the fact that we have seen Wilkes’ caricature directly before we are introduced to him in this scene. We become more aware of the slight forward thrust of his head and narrow-eyed squint of his regard, and are immediately disinclined to trust him. He and Nell are in the midst of some sort of bargaining dialogue, sizing up what each has to offer the other. Nell is not above using her own person as a bargaining tool, asking Wilkes if he’s ‘not interested in Bedlam nor in me’. The personal and political are inextricably intertwined, and there is an element of flirtation to their exchange, as Wilkes declares himself to be different from Lord Mortimer in that he is ‘not easily pleased’. There is a pause to allow whatever layers of meaning Nell might want to construe from such a statement, before he adds ‘I offer more’. In this case, a political alliance to fight the corruption of Bedlam and the system which allows it to flourish. The arts of politics are akin to the arts of seduction. Wilkes suggest that ‘one gives a girl a kiss to seal a certain sort of bargain’, quickly going on to add ‘but one shakes hands with a comrade and a friend’, to make it clear that this is not a bargain of that sort (whilst perhaps holding out the hope that it might develop into such). The reference to Nell as a comrade echoes Lord Mortimer’s use of the word, and similarly implies a platonic relationship with mutual goals and shared values. The camera pulls back across the workshop to rejoin Sims and the Samuel Johnson lookalike. The latter opines that the print is ‘a real blow to Wilkes’. Satire, even when relatively crude, is seen to have real impact on a person’s reputation, which underlines the seriousness with which Nell’s employment of her parrot is viewed. Sims’ mirth has been curtailed by his observation of the handshake with which Wilkes and Nell seal their bargain. He tells his companion that ‘it’s a blow I’ll leave you to administer. I have one of his to ward away’. His duel with Nell has entered the realm of politics, and Sims has a natural politician’s instincts.
Banknote sandwich - Nell removes herself from the human currency exchangeWe fade from the printers’ workshop to Lord Mortimer’s sitting room, where he, Sims and Nell are taking tea with dainty and hypocritical politeness. Once more, the contrast between workplace and extravagantly luxurious leisure is made in the juxtaposition of scene settings. Lord Mortimer is regaled in silken finery whilst Nell is in practical velvet with tricorne hat, attired for action. The masculine and feminine norms are inverted again. Sims, as ever, is in neutral, funereal black. He acts here as if he is a disinterested arbiter trying to clear up an unfortunate misunderstanding. ‘Milord thought it would be best to make amends again’, he tells Nell, and ‘Milord would like to be kind to you’. She remains unmoved, noting ‘I’m duly warned’. Sims offers her a monetary note by means of which she can take a rest in the ‘waters of Bath’. Bath was a fashionable spa town at the time where the wealthy retired to enjoy the supposedly curative properties of the mineral springs. The implication is made that Nell’s recent behaviour is the result of her having succumbed to some sort of nervous disorder. She is also discretely being asked to make herself scarce, to stop causing an embarrassment for Lord Mortimer. She is not to be so easily bought off, however. As she calmly reminds them both, ‘you know I have a contempt for certain kinds of money’. To demonstrate this in the customary form of a jest, she folds the note, sandwiches it between two pieces of bread and takes a bite. It’s a substantive jest, making the comparison between the abstract value represented by the promissory bank note and the material sustenance of daily bread. With this calculated gesture of contempt, she removes herself from the system of human currency exchange. Like her parrot familiar, she is not for sale. Sims soberly informs her ‘the Bank of England thanks you for 300 pounds’. Money is no laughing matter. She slaps him, a second blow, and sweeps out, her point made and the architect of the bribe revealed.
Inventor of the banknote sandwich - Kitty Fisher with the Artist's Parrot by Joshua ReynoldsNell’s expensive snack is based on a real incident from the era. The renowned courtesan Kitty Fisher, immortalised in several portraits by Joshua Reynolds, had worked her way up to the highest levels of society. She was offended by the amount offered to her by one Sir Richard Atkins, his insultingly low estimation of what a night with her was worth, and ate the banknote he had sent her between buttered slices of bread. This gesture acquired legendary stature, with the variances in the telling which that entailed, the value of the note tending to fluctuate significantly. Dan Cruickshank, in his highly entertaining and informative book The Secret History of Georgian London, quotes the journal entry of one Johann Wilhelm von Achenholz, who wrote of Fisher ‘this lady knew her own merit; she demanded a hundred guineas a night, for the use of her charms, and she was never without votaries, to whom the offering did not seem too exorbitant. Among these was the Duke of York, brother to the King; who one morning left fifty pounds on her toilet. This present so much offended Miss Fisher, that she declared that her doors should ever be shut against him in the future; and to show, by the most convincing proofs, how much she despised his present, she clapt the bank-note between two slices of bread and butter, and ate it for breakfast’. It seems highly likely that Kitty, who was at the height of her powers in the 1760s, the period in which the film is set, provided Lewton with some inspiration for the character of Nell, particularly when you also note Reynold’s portrait of her with pet parrot on her finger.
Sneer of triumph - Sims gets his wayLord Mortimer laughs at her chutzpah, but Sims is stony-face. He purposefully picks up quill and parchment, the fact that they are on his person indicating that he always had an alternative plan should Nell have continued with her truculent non-compliance. ‘Tomorrow, after the Commission for Lunacy examines her, she’ll strike no more blows, not at you nor at me’. It’s a statement which reveals Sims’s true motivations for trying to incarcerate Nell. He wishes to do so not to protect Lord Mortimer’s reputation and political standing, nor even wholly because she’s his rival for the Lord’s favours, but because she has treated him with contempt and reviled him for his ugliness and lack of the natural graces. His motivation is hatred. Lord Mortimer is still reluctant to sign the document, protesting that ‘she’s not a danger to herself and others’ as is required for admission to Bedlam. He is weak, vain, selfish and easily manipulated, but not necessarily wicked. Sims has exerted his influence over him now, though, and knows exactly how to appeal to his self-interest. ‘She’s a danger to my position and your properties’, he scowls, reducing the matter to its essential details. He provides the decisive political addendum again, letting Lord Mortimer know that ‘with Wilkes behind her she’s more dangerous to us than any madwoman’. The personal and political are intertwined, and this act is sold to Lord Mortimer as a political one. A grim sneer of triumph cracks Sims’ face as we hear the scurrying scratch of quill across paper.
Nell presents herself before the CommitteeThe next scene is another consequent one, following on directly as a result of Lord Mortimer appending his signature to the form presented to him by Sims. We see the intertitle card of Hogarth’s The Committee, which depicts a group of men sat around a table, their wide-brimmed hats hung on pegs behind them, forming a row of black circles. This is plate IX from his series of illustrations for Samuel Butler’s Hudibras, made in 1725, quite early in his artistic career. Hudibras was a Cromwellian satire, and in this scene a group of puritans are engaged in heated debate over religious and political matters. Hogarth’s print fades to be reproduced in a more static form, the seated figures at rest and clearly waiting for someone to arrive before proceedings can get underway. Their hatlessness echoes that of the Quakers when gathering before the Lord. This is a less holy assembly, however. God is not present in this house. Nell duly enters draped in a cloak, which she keeps on, as if she doesn’t expect to be detained long. ‘Well, gentlemen, here is your lunatic’, she announces brightly. She answers the questions put to her by the dour spokesman of the Committee with a swift wit which reflects them back at him. When questioned about her knowledge of right and wrong, she observes that ‘what is right for me is wrong for you, that much I know. And vice versa’. It is a wry recognition of the partisan nature of power and its associated values and customs, which are afforded the status of absolute verities. But to these sour-faced gentlemen, who nod knowingly at each other, it is a sign of a confused mind. Noting their reaction, she explains ‘oh, don’t fool yourselves. A merry answer does not make me a fool, gentlemen. Ask me a sensible question and you shall have a sensible answer’. She is careless in her language and manner, not realising that charm and gaiety have no power here. She doesn’t have Sims awareness of the differing modes of address and behaviour demanded of particular environments. Wit may have been the commonly acceptable mode of discourse in the aristocratic and political circles from which she has just taken her leave, but here its play with meaning and pleasure in absurd reversals are taken to denote an antic disposition.
Nell despairs - fear creating madnessSims makes his late entry at this point, making no effort at apologising and going directly to the head of the table to sit next to the questioner. His manner betokens someone who is confident in his authority within this setting. He has a whispered conference with the interrogator which results in a sly smile appearing on his face. These are evidently people with whom he is well acquainted, and for whom his word counts. The question of money is raised, presumably upon his advice. Firstly, the refusal to sell her parrot is brought up. ‘Why did you refuse 100 guineas for a parrot worth 5 shillings?’, they ask. Sanity is equated with fiscal prudence and a general concern for monetary value. Alternative values of honour and principle are not taken into account. Nor is the notion that a jest might be a way of presenting an important moral or political point, or drawing attention to an underlying issue. Nell’s extraction of herself from the human exchange currency is tantamount to a mental breakdown in the eyes of these men for whom money is the central fact of life. They continue with this line of questioning, asking ‘knowing the value of money, Mistress Bowen, can you explain why it was you ate a banknote?’ Sims smiles, his chin at rest on his hand, waiting for the anticipated reply with which Nell will further condemn herself. She has failed to grasp the gravity of her situation, or to adjust her manner to the requirements of the surroundings, which are wholly different from those to which she has grown accustomed. Once again, she insists it was ‘for a jest’, adding that ‘Master Sims knows why I ate the money. To show my contempt for it’. Sims coughs out a hollow, contemptuous laugh of his own.
Certificate of ownershipNell now knows she is in trouble and requests that she be allowed to communicate with Wilkes. She is refused a witness, since, as she is informed, ‘this is not a court’, although the questioner goes on to say that they shall judge the worth of her sanity. After a whispered conference, the quill is brought out to record the judgement. It is coming to resemble an instrument of fate. The decision is a foregone conclusion, and is already evident from the look of smug satisfaction creasing Sims’ face, the look of power. The head of the Committee reads out the fateful words: ‘you have asked for voluntary commitment to enter St Mary of Bethlehem’s asylum. The charges for your care and keep to be borne by Milord Mortimer’. So she is to be kept by him here just as she was in his bedchamber. Another enclosed environment within which her sharp wit and questioning intelligence can be safely contained. The certificate is forged, but it is of no matter. It is signed and she has been declared mad, so any objections on her part will carry no weight whatsoever. She is safely in the system now. She is thrown into a panic which, in its uncontrolled terror, really does begin to resemble madness. ‘You’re not going to put me in Bedlam’, she pleads, incredulously. ‘Not for a little joke. Not for playing a trick’. The committee files out, taking up their hats now that their business is concluded. None of them look at her as they hurriedly take their leave. Only Sims looks back as he leaves, a look of triumph on his face. He grasps the scroll of parchment in his hand, effectively a deed of ownership. Nell is left on her own in the empty hall in which she has just been judged and is now not allowed to leave. The shadows of bars cast upon the wall presage her incarceration. She collapses into a heap on the floor.
Debased coinageWe fade in on a close up of Nell in the next scene. She is sitting with her back against the wall, her face a fixed mask of wild-eyed, fearful alertness. The camera pulls back to reveal the wider hall of Bedlam in which she now resides, its floor covered with straw and its space filled with nighttime murmurings and mutterings. The script describes ‘a little of the space around her. On the walls, crouching, rounded shadows can be seen moving; almost as if animals were crawling, indistinct and horrible through terrible darkness’. Lewton evidently wanted to convey the feel of a human zoo. Sims enters with a couple of attendants holding lanterns. He has no wig. The duel is over and in this environment the observance of manners and etiquette is unnecessary. This is the lowest level of society, and it is a domain over which he has total, unassailable command. He walks directly over to Nell and bends down over her crouching form. ‘Here in Bedlam, my dear, we can’t feed you banknotes’ he says with a viciously sarcastic pretence of unctuous concern. ‘Try chewing on this’, he adds, thrusting a coin into her mouth. He is reintroducing her to the human currency exchange, but here the coinage is debased, and her worth has been considerably deflated. It is now measured in terms of the few pennies visitors are required to pay to see her and the other animal inmates. The hard currency at this level of society is much less digestible than the more notional paper note she had previously been offered. Here, it as at less of a remove from the daily material needs, the meeting of which its meagre value represents. Sims' 'payment' is also a violating gesture which lets Nell know that she is now physically at his mercy. She is in his power, body and soul, and she is utterly and terrifyingly alone.