The Sunday Intertitle: Sometimes a Great Notion


Seven days of Poe-try and eerie pleasures. We begin with DW Griffith’s THE AVENGING CONSCIENCE, his somewhat moralistic, yet often effective, adaptation of The Tell-Tale Heart. For another, lesser version, see here. Later, we can hopefully pay some attention to Jules Dassin’s magnificent short film version, which has some MGM-inspired moralism of its own.

Not that Poe’s story is immoral or amoral, it’s just that the “Thou Shalt Not Kill” side is contained within the action, so nobody has to preach, certainly not the author. Really, the avenging conscience of the story takes the form of a disembodied heartbeat coming from beneath the floorboards because it’s a disassociated part of the protagonist’s mind, something he doesn’t acknowledge the existence of, which finds an escape through this route.

Griffith is fairly faithful to this idea, so after the hero has made away with his guardian/uncle, he’s tormented by visions, including the double-exposed ghost of the old man, and later some nifty imps and spectres, including a lovely Halloween with, complete with broomstick (bristles forward, in the fashion of the time).

The star is Henry B. Walthall, who also played the hero of BIRTH OF A NATION, and Poe himself in Charles Brabin’s 1915 film THE RAVEN, one of several Poe biopics (Griffith made a ten-minute one). Walthall is sometimes startlingly contemporary, authentic and informal, sometimes he’s highly rhetorical and stylised. Which is fun to watch.

Griffith also throws in a blackmailing Italian, whose nationality is repeated so often, and is his sole identifying trait, that one suspects an unacknowledged further wrinkle on Griffith’s famed racism. But, given the film’s spider-and-fly motif, I dig the fact that a little insect alights on the Italian’s cap just as he witnesses the murder… (I could, and may, write an entire essay on the enhancement provided by unintended fly cameos in cinema history, from the buzzing witnesses who perch on Jack Gilford’s pillow in A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM, to the chitinous interloper whom Paul Freeman swallows in mid-speech, without even noticing, in RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK.)

Griffith also gives us a romantic interest, Annabel Lee (Blanche Sweet), her glamour slightly inhibited by her tendency to wear all of her clothes at once. But then, looking at the way all the curtains and tablecloths are madly billowing about in her house, one can’t blame her: it must be blowing a gale in there. This must be the result of the open air “studios” favoured in the nineteen-teens. Studios might be greenhouses, or they might simple be back-lots, where three walls could be erected with the sun shining in, unobstructed. That was the whole reason the movie industry went to Hollywood.

Emphasizing the oddly exterior nature of the Lee pad is the above shot, where a superimposed sky fills the window, but also eats up most of the wall. I love the double-exposures in this movie, because their technical imperfection always has poetic advantages. The see-through dead uncle persecuting the hero is always just the wrong size, his shrunken or overgrown cranium a sinister contrast with the normally-proportioned thesps around him. God knows, he’s disturbing enough in appearance at the best of times ~

And the actor’s name is Spottiswoode Aitken, which is just perfect.

Thanks to Arthur S for the recommendation.

The Avenging Conscience

Griffith Masterworks 2 (Way Down East / D.W. Griffith: Father of Film / The Avenging Conscience / Abraham Lincoln / The Struggle / Sally of the Sawdust)

20 Responses to “The Sunday Intertitle: Sometimes a Great Notion”

  1. Arthur S. Says:

    “What modern movies seem to lack is a sense of wind blowing in the trees.”
    – D. W. Griffith to Ezra Goodman, it later became the catchphrase of Jean-Marie Straub and Daniele Huillet.

  2. Beautiful! Ties in nicely with Renoir’s injunction that you must always leave one door open in your set.

  3. Ah, good to hear it with the English/mixed soundtrack. The French dub released a few years ago was a ridiculous blunder.

  4. david wingrove Says:

    In French, English, Italian or whatever, TRE PASSI NEL DELIRIO remains the definitive Poe movie for me. Malle, Fellini and Vadim all do fascinating things with their individual stories…and one can only lament the segments by Losey and Visconti (among others) that never came to pass!!

  5. It’s one of Fellini’s very very best films.

  6. Stamp’s stories about making it are fascinating and funny. I’ll try to post something relating to this later in the week. I’ve never been a particular fan of the Vadim and Malle episodes, but I may get the BluRay in which case I’ll revisit them. The Fellini is stupendous.

  7. Fellini originally wanted Peter O’Toole — whose drunken escapades were the very basis of the character. But when O’Toole read the script he found it FAR too close to the bone and gave it a pass. And so Il Maestro turned to the great Terry Stamp.

  8. Christopher Says:

    wow!..just wow!..thanks for those clips..

  9. Jenny Eardley Says:

    And then Fellini wanted Stamp for Satyricon but he’d gone to India so he got Martin Potter instead. Programme about Poe on BBC4 right now.

  10. My friend Anita’s in it, playing his poet girlfriend!

  11. You’ve got Poe, we’ve got…football.

  12. Christopher Says:

    I watched Stamp in Billy Budd not too long ago.His scenes with Robert Ryan are worth money alone..

  13. The Poe doc was on BBC4, the equivalent of PBS, I guess. Underfunded, and insufficiently imaginative, but better than nothing.

  14. Fellini also wanted Pierre Clementi for SATYRICON but had to make do with Hiram Keller.

    In fact, he wanted to pack his film full of 60s celebs – among them Aristotle Onassis and Jackie Kennedy as the vulgar nouveau riche Trimalchio and his discontented wife.

    As it turned out, all the really big names said no. The only semi-famous people in the film are Capucine and Lucia Bose.

  15. It works quite well without stars. I like the feeling of being plunged into a completely unfamiliar world whose rules I don’t understand, with no familiar faces to latch onto.

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