Saturday, February 21, 2009
The Tell-Tale Heart (1941)
The Tell-Tale Heart is a solid, enjoyable horror short adapted from Edgar Allen Poe's famous short story. It is one of many such short-form literary adaptations used to fill up pre-feature time on Hollywood screens in the 30s and 40s, but this happens to be a particularly strong, interesting example of the genre. For one thing, it was the first film for director Jules Dassin, who would go on to become one of the great directors of noirs and crime pictures throughout the 40s and 50s. The story here is very familiar, but Dassin treats it with his characteristic sweaty intensity and slow-burning suspense, making the Poe classic feel new again. A young man (Joseph Schildkraut) has been dependent for his entire life upon a nasty, brutish older man (Roman Bohnen) who he cares for. Finally, the young man has had enough of being verbally abused and taunted, and he decides to kill the old man, to finally be free of him. But after burying the body beneath the floor boards, the pounding of the old man's heart continues to torture the murderer with his guilty conscience.
It's a simple tale, perfectly suited to this twenty minute adaptation, and Dassin lingers on each of the story's emotional beats, drawing out the slow-building horror and tortured feelings at its core. Schildkraut delivers a fine performance, seemingly always sweating, his dark eyes communicating his terror and rage, and Bohnen is sufficiently nasty, speaking to the younger man in a sing-song cadence as though mocking him with schoolyard taunts. But it's in Dassin's shadowy aesthetic, the glossy beauty of his images, that the film's horror really resides. The murder scene is particularly gorgeous, as the young man sneaks into his tormentor's room with a lamp that he's modified to emit a single narrow beam of light. Dassin shoots the set-up to the murder from a distance, with the beam of light glowing in the darkness, illuminating motes of dust in its path, an iridescent string connecting murderer and victim across the room. As the young man draws closer, the viewpoint switches briefly to that of the old man, who sees a nova of light nearly blinding him, and behind it, barely visible, the intent face of the man who has come to kill him. The murder itself takes place offscreen, with Dassin briskly editing together peripheral details like the old man's hands desperately grabbing at a tapestry on the wall as he is strangled.
In the aftermath of the murder, Dassin gets across the mostly abstract horror of the situation — the killer hearing his victim's heartbeat beneath the floor boards — through frequent closeups of the increasingly unraveling Schildkraut and some brilliant sound design. The room is filled with possible sources of the insistent heartbeat: a clock on the wall, a dripping faucet, a metal pan outside the window with rain water falling into it. As the young man methodically checks into each of these to eliminate the sound, the pounding on the soundtrack only continues unchecked. Finally, when two detectives (Oscar O'Shea and Will Wright) arrive to question the young man, the murmuring beat on the soundtrack is carried over even into the music, which pounds with the rhythms of the heartbeat in the drums. This is a potent, interesting take on a familiar tale, elevated above the average literary adaptation because Dassin pays as much attention to Poe's psychological effects and the uncomfortable sensations of the protagonist as he does to the actual details of the story.