Hearts of Darkness

So many good versions of THE TELL-TALE HEART — of course, it hasn’t really worked as a feature film (Poe is, in general, tricky to expand to 90 mins or so) — but it would seem ideally suited to short form.

Here’s Vincent Price on TV treating it as a monologue. An absolutely delicious performance, inventive and detailed, giving the lie to the “ham” allegation — there’s nothing broad or clumsy about this, either in terms of behaviour or storytelling (it’s both a reading of the story and a performance piece). It’s funny because it’s witty — hits me like a sugar rush, so many bold and outrageous choices. And it’s not a spoof of Poe, just a relishing of the delirious and absurd elements.

Now here’s Jules Dassin’s short, made at MGM, which kickstarted his career. Best viewed as an exercise in the use of rhythm, deploying performance, sound, music, editing, camera movement and composition to create a poem in visual-narrative form. A very Poe-like approach, since rhythm is central to both the prose and poetry of Poe, and he wrote often about the need for a short story to create a single, unified effect. Say what you like about the auteur theory (and I like to rubbish it occasionally), in film, the director is generally the only person in a position to co-ordinate an approach like this.

And it’s as well he does, because in terms of adaptation, the film has suffered a lot of damaging rationalisation at the hands and minds of MGM — exactly the kind of studio who would balk at Poe’s unmotivated mayhem. Remember, a lot of verbiage is devoted to the important fact, in the story, that the protagonist kills for no good reason, purely because he doesn’t like the Old Man’s “vulture eye”. The MGM rewrite adds logic and motivation and removes interest.

Leading man Joseph Schildkraut had a good career going at MGM until he remarked publicly that he saw Louis B Mayer’s lips move as he signed a contract. Suddenly he wasn’t as in-demand.

Lovely UPA animated version, narrated by James Mason, who has a very different approach from Price but is generally good — it’s more about that amazing, distinctive voice than about detail of performance, although I find no fault there. This is an early UPA (and the first cartoon to get an X Certificate in the UK) and shares with the famous GERALD MCBOING-BOING the quality of ecstatic visual invention, in which design IS storytelling and vice-versa. It’s good and dark, surpassingly beautiful, and doesn’t stint on the maelstrom of angst and confusion that is Poe-try.

“It is the beating of his hideous heart!”

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10 Responses to “Hearts of Darkness”

  1. Price & Mason – two of the coolest actors in the history of cinema.

  2. Lovely! Music sounds quite like a Corman movie…

    Like Mr Mason, I am a devotee of the Siamese cat. It looks cooler on him though.

  3. Poe is so bound to his his medium (pun intended), and to the solitary act of reading that I wonder if he’s really translatable at all.
    Maybe its just the enjoyable translations. like Corman’s, are enjoyable because they knowingly fail.
    “the untranslatable” is really part of Poe’s subject

  4. Christopher Says:

    to experience the horror between drinks is to understand Poe..! =:oO

  5. Movies like Corman’s The Raven quite consciously don’t bother to evoke anything of Poe. I’m not sure how conscious the failure is in the earlier films, it seems like something they embraced more as they went along.

    Just rewatched Masque of the Red Death, and what a fine film that is! Comic-book medieval, with Satan’s man getting all the best arguments — but Death still wins in the end.

    Just found a nice line by Kafka on EAP which I’ll endeavour to use…

  6. Robin Wood dismissed Corman’s Masque of the Red Death – unfairly I think – as a rip-off of Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, but Corman was doing his medieval fantasy thing as far back as The Undead, which was released in the United States before The Seventh Seal.

  7. Corman talks indirectly about this in the DVD extras of Masque. He wanted to make it right after Usher, but since Bergman’s film had just come out, he was worried about comparisons. Of course, the personified figure of Death is right there in the Poe story. I think it’s silly to see the film as a swipe — if it’s a rip-off of Bergman, how come it’s so entirely unlike Bergman? Might as well say it’s ripped off from Prince Valiant, or that Bergman swiped the idea of fading to red in Cries and Whispers from Corman.

  8. Along with Wilfred Owens, I’ve always rather loathed Poe, thanks mostly to my school. But that was last century, back in the days before Youtube (remember those?!) If only it had existed then or my teacher had had access to that rather marvellous animation narrated by James Mason, things could have been very different, not least my love for Mason igniting a few good years sooner.

    Many thanks for posting this.

  9. You’re welcome! School carries out a lot of aversion therapy — I’ve overcome my initial dislike of TS Eliot, but DH Lawrence is still a closed book to me.

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