The Tell-Tale Heart (1941)

*. We begin, much to my surprise, with an epigraph. But not from Edgar Allan Poe, whose story this is. No, it’s from Paul’s letter to the Romans, chapter 2 verse 15: “The law is written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness.”
*. Hm. OK. I guess the application here being that the killer has a conscience. Is that it? It doesn’t seem very appropriate to me, especially as the story doesn’t strike me as having even a glimmer of a spiritual dimension. In fact, I think you have to work pretty hard to shoehorn any kind of a Christian message into Poe generally.
*. Still, this was Hollywood in 1941 and I guess they didn’t want to be too bleak. So we get the epigraph, and an ending where the hero’s confession signals his first step toward salvation. Again, that’s nowhere in Poe but every adaptation has its own unique interpretation.
*. There is an even bigger shift from the source than this though. Poe’s story is a madman’s dramatic monologue: manic, voluble, and intense. The young man in this film (Joseph Schildkraut) is a silent, retiring figure. I imagine this is how director Jules Dassin wanted him to be played, but it still seemed to me to be a poor performance, leaving it up to Dassin to evoke the killer’s anxiety by other means.
*. This is too bad, since “The Tell-Tale Heart” is above all an oral performance. It’s a voice that grabs us from its opening appeal (“why will you say that I am mad?”). All of that is missing here. Even more perversely, the sound of the beating heart is also dropped and instead rendered visually: with zooms into the young man’s ear or pans to a dripping faucet and a pendulum clock. And instead of hearing these items the score is used to signal the killer’s breakdown by way of creepy music.
*. As I say, this strikes me as very odd. The Tell-Tale Heart was Jules Dassin’s directorial debut and maybe he just wanted to show off what he could do in terms of shooting a film and cutting it rather than worrying about the soundtrack.
*. In his obituary for Dassin, Richard Schickel opined that The Tell-Tale Heart “was possibly the very first movie to be influenced by Citizen Kane (which came out less than six months before).” I don’t know. Schickel points to a number of what he calls “Wellesian tropes” that seem pretty generic to me. In any event, I think he’s right when he goes on to say that “MGM wasn’t a studio that encouraged innovation or eccentricity,” which led to Dassin’s immediately subsequent work there to be conventional and forgettable.
*. Is it proto-noir? Well, the young man is a bit of a noir hero. He’s weak, and is pressured into making a bad decision that he’s presumably going to have to pay for. The way he’s led off at the end really has a naturalistic feel to it. A feel that, again, has nothing at all to do with Poe but which is more a house style of American cinema at the time. Poe was too bizarre yet to be handled straight up, leading to the erasure of the fascination with the old man’s eye and making him out to be a tyrannical boss instead. The upshot being the assurance that in the end our world, or at least this world, still makes sense.

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