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.


Fox said...


Thanks for writing about this. I love when unknown films like this (unknown to me, at least...) get some play on the blogs. It's a part of film preservation in my mind.

The only Dassin film I've seen is Rififi and knowing just that film, and its intense break-in sequence, having Dassin direct a short film from Poe's story seems like a perfect match.

Is this film available on a DVD anywhere as an extra??? And, if you don't mind, are there any other Dassin movies you'd recommend for someone who isn't so well versed?

Joshua said...

Fox - It's actually available on the Shadow of the Thin Man DVD, for some reason.

Ed - This is a great short, definitely indicative of Dassin's later stylistic preferences. As you mentioned, the sound design is, I think, the strongest element, making the whole situation seem off-kilter. And some of the composition is just fantastic, particularly when the detectives arrive. I did a review of this last October, and I find it fascinating that we both marked it as interesting enough to feature. Great minds, I suppose.

Ed Howard said...

Yes, the short's available in the great Thin Man collection, which is how I was able to see it. I'll confess, Fox, I'm in the same position as you with Dassin: love Rififi, still need to watch most of the rest of his films. He's a blind spot for me, especially given my general love of noir.

Joshua, now I'll have to give you review a look.

Anonymous said...

Beautiful review Ed, of a fine adaptation (yep, I own THE THIN MAN collection too!) of one of Poe's greatest short stories--certainly in a league with THE CASK OF AMONTILLADO and THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER. I agree completely here with teh prevailing sentiment on RIFIFI, but there are a number of other Dassins, which are out on Criterion (i.e THE NAKED CITY) which are excellent and all evincing that special and distinguished documentary feel that is part of Dassin's fabric.

I couldn't agree more with you when you laud Dassin for his attention to the psychology of this macabre story, which of course has always been its magisterial element.

Again, your fecund use of the language sets the standard, but you certainly don't need me to tell you that. great stuff.

bill r. said...

Thanks for the tip on this one, Ed. I didn't even know it existed. The Poe story never gets old for me, and I'll be renting the Shadow of the Thin Man DVD just for this. Well, not just for this, but mainly for this. Anyway, whatever.