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!”