The Tell-Tale Heart, 1947. 6/10

A short feature on the Edgar Allan Poe’s story of the same title. It’s very much like a one-act play, with two characters, curiously unnamed (plus some policemen who come in at the end to resolve the mystery); and almost no action, other than the murder of the tyrannical ‘master’ (Bruno VeSota) by his browbeaten apprentice character played by Bill Vance. In the original text* the crime, and the apprentice’s attempt to conceal it, although grisly, isn’t nearly as memorable as the murderer’s mental torment.

While the plot, skeletal as it is, as well as the quasi-gothic atmosphere are drawn well, this production is constrained by rather wooden acting, and especially by the lack of Poe’s intense inner dialogue. So, we have the trappings of horror and murder without more than superficial, obvious motivation. The guy is being abused by his employer; he can’t take it anymore–so he kills him.

In the original story, however, the crime is much worse than this sort of revenge. Poe’s guy is completely creeped-out, not by the old man’s behavior (he says he has nothing against him, “I loved the old man. He had never wronged me. He had never given me insult”*, but rather by his filmy blind eye. To put it another way, the protagonist kills his antagonist because the man’s appearance triggers a psychotic state. That’s weirder, and certainly worse than killing an enemy.

If any movie needed first-person narration, this is it. That’s where Poe’s signature staccato prose makes a terrific impact. You can feel the young guy going nuts, out of control, but curiously able to carry out the crime–and especially–to plan the cover up by cutting up the victim and disposing of those resultant parts. The problem is that nasty heart of the dead man’s–which he thinks is still beating–leading ultimately to his confession. So, had he not hallucinated that, he would’ve gotten away with murder.

The genius of the original lies in the incongruity between reality and fantasy. But that’s lost here. Also, even in this shortest of short stories, Poe sets up the drama immediately, giving room to build mystery by having the young guy make ‘dry runs’–before he loses it and actually commits the murder. As visual as Poe’s stories tend to be (and how Roger Corman showed us with his array of Poe-inspired movies) nevertheless Poe is essentially painting a mental landscape. Thoughts produce hallucinatory scenes, puzzles, mysteries; it doesn’t matter all that much about the relationship between the two men in The Tell-Tale Heart. Poe explores what happens when a man gives in or is overcome by malignant thoughts.

It’s not much of a stretch to identify the drama with the author; one could see Poe as both characters, inadvertently destroying each other. But if we concede that Poe was very aware of and attuned to self-examination, it’s also likely that he knew how to deliberately pencil-in a convincing tale of madness, almost as a scientific experiment. The denouement is weakened here by the unconvincing trauma of the body’s discovery. Something the movie adds–which works well–the young guy actually seems relieved when he’s found out.

In this tale, we have arguably Poe’s best known, and I’d say, the most illustrative and succinct example of his ‘grotesque and arabesque’ style. Farmermouse liked the original text (even though it made his fur stand up straight) much more than this here movin’ picture version; he’ll give this six lanterns. 6/10.


*From The Complete Tales & Poems of Edgar Allan Poe, Vintage Books, 1975.

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