AVENGING CONSCIENCE, THE (D.W. Griffith, 1914, USA, 78m, BW)
Thou Shalt Not Kill
The Avenging Conscience (1914)
Directed by D. W. Griffith
Produced by D. W. Griffith
Written by D. W. Griffith
Based on "The Tell-Tale Heart" and "Annabel Lee"
by Edgar Allan Poe
Starring Henry B. Walthall
Music by S. L. Rothapfel
Cinematography G. W. Bitzer
Edited by James Smith
Majestic Motion Picture Company
Distributed by Mutual Film Corporation
March 24, 1914
Running time 78 minutes
Country United States
The Avenging Conscience: or "Thou Shalt Not Kill" (1914) is a drama film directed by D. W. Griffith. The film is based on the Edgar Allan Poe short story "The Tell-Tale Heart" and the poem "Annabel Lee".
A young man (Henry B. Walthall) falls in love with a beautiful woman (Blanche Sweet), but is prevented by his uncle (Spottiswoode Aitken) from pursuing her. Tormented by visions of death and suffering and deciding that murder is the way of things, the young man kills his uncle and builds a wall to hide the body.
The young man's torment continues, this time caused by guilt over murdering his uncle, and he becomes sensitive to slight noises, like the tapping of a shoe or the crying of a bird. The ghost of his uncle begins appearing to him and, as he gradually loses his grip on reality, the police figure out what he has done and chase him down. In the ending sequence, we learn that the experience was all a dream and that his uncle is really alive.
Henry B. Walthall as The nephew
Blanche Sweet as His sweetheart
Spottiswoode Aitken as The uncle
George Siegmann as The Italian
Ralph Lewis as The detective
Mae Marsh as The maid
Robert Harron as The grocery boy
Though not a direct adaptation of the stories of Edgar Allen Poe, D.W. Griffith's "The Avenging Conscience" nevertheless displays his influence proudly. One of the main characters is shown reading Poe, bits from several stories are included in the plot, and the poem "Annabel Lee" is used to frame most of the affair. For all those things that may make a modern audience look somewhat askance, though, the movie is nicely put together. Once you're used to the silent acting style, the performances come across very well. Griffith uses intertitles to regularly cut to "Annabel Lee" in a way that probably wouldn't work in a talkie, and his editing style is very modern and fast-paced. The double-exposed "ghost" effects shots looks pretty good for the period. Griffith does throw some odd stuff into the end - a rather literal reading of the end of the poem - but at that point, the surrealism works.
American cinema is becoming quite sophisticated, and is poised to wrest dominance from the French in terms of production and profitability. Directed by D.W. Griffith (later known for “Intolerance” and “The Birth of a Nation”), this Poe-adaptation claims to be based on “Annabel Lee,” and includes excerpts from that poem in the inter-titles, but it also owes much to “The Tell-Tale Heart.” In it, a young man (Henry B. Walthall, who played Poe in a version of “The Raven” the next year, and was also in the 1914 “Gangsters of New York”) loses his love (Blanche Sweet, whose career includes “A Corner in Wheat” and “Judith of Bethulia”) due to the cruelty of his aged uncle (Spottiswoode Aitken, who was also in “Birth of a Nation” and played Duncan in the 1916 “Macbeth”), and takes revenge into his own hands. The story is told with multiple camera-angles, visual metaphor, taut editing, and other advanced devices, far removed from the simple theatrical performances caught on camera that had been common only a few years earlier. One sequence includes speeded-up nature photography of ants and a spider killing its prey. Quite impressive, for the period, a true gem.
A scholarly one-eyed patch wearing bachelor (Spottiswoode Aitken) lovingly raises his orphan nephew (Henry B. Walthall) from infancy and inspires him to be literary, especially passing on his love for Edgar Allan Poe. As a young adult the nephew resents his uncle's keeping him apart from his sweetheart (Blanche Sweet). The nephew comes up with a convoluted scheme to murder his overbearing uncle and thereby inherit his wealth and to be free to marry his sweetheart. Shot through the lens of a Victorian moral standard of conduct, the nephew gets some heavy throbs of guilt from his conscience after strangling his uncle and then sealing his body in the wall of the fireplace. Troubled that an Italian (George Siegmann) handyman saw the murder through the window and is blackmailing him and that the police are closing in on him with the detective (Ralph Lewis) grilling him in his uncle's house , the nephew after a time of repeated nightmares and a visit by Jesus in his dreams goes raving mad and hangs himself only to be cut down in time by the police. His anguished sweetheart fearing his demise leaps off a cliff to her death.
The Avenging Conscience does indeed have a dark literary source, but unlike many of its brethren there is no sense in this film that D.W. Griffith was looking for a scapegoat. On the contrary, it is clear that, as was the case with Edgar Allen Poe, Griffith intended his work to be a tribute to someone he admired. Amusingly, however, the finished product plays very much like many horror movies of a later era, that seek to exculpate themselves by blaming societal violence and psychoses on the watching of other horror movies. The difference here is that Griffith doesn’t seem to have noticed how strongly he was implying that one possible outcome of too much Poe might be to turn a nice, normal young man into a killer.
It is the middle section of The Avenging Conscience that wins the film its classification as a horror movie, where we find one of the earliest examples of cinematic technique being used to convey a complex psychology. However, contemporary viewers should perhaps be warned that this justly famous sequence is bookended by a mixture of heavy-handed sentimentality and failed comedy – unfortunately, two of the more common Griffith failings. There is a reasonable efficiency about the film’s early scenes, wherein the orphaned baby is adopted and raised by his uncle, with the two sharing a relationship of mutual affection; and the first scene between the Uncle and the Nephew wherein the latter is an adult conveys the shift in that relationship with commendable subtlety. We see via a not-quite exchange of glances the Uncle’s growing fear that he is beginning to lose his hold on his Nephew, who in turn feels the first stirrings of resentment, as he chafes against his prescribed and dependent existence. The catalyst of the Nephew’s change in attitude is his secret love affair with his Sweetheart; the alteration in his expression as he glances from a note written by his fiancée to his Uncle tells us all we need to know about why the romance is being kept a secret.
The Nephew is played by Henry B. Walthall, one of Griffith’s favourite actors; and his contribution here is something of a mixed blessing. Walthall was thirty-six when he appeared in The Avenging Conscience, and there is no getting away from the fact that he was much too old for the part he was playing; the Nephew by rights should have been only just out of adolescence. The problem is at once exacerbated and excused by the fact that Griffith spends much of this film playing with the art of the close-up. While Walthall’s real age is obvious, in The Avenging Conscience we see the strides that Griffith had made since he began experimenting in his short films with the more subtle methods of conveying emotion. Once the idea of murder has entered the Nephew’s mind, and his worse and better natures begin struggling with each other, Henry Walthall offers up a fine piece of silent film acting, in the range and the shadings of expression that flit across the Nephew’s face. In conjunction with Griffith’s repeated use of the close-up, this sequence illustrates a critical stage in the evolution of film-making. Later on, however, Griffith and Walthall fall back upon early silent film’s old, unsubtle ways, with the Nephew’s mental and emotional suffering conveyed via the usual stand-bys of face-pulling, hair-clutching and arm-waving.
Although not a true adaptation of any one of Edgar Allan Poe’s works, The Avenging Conscience contains any number of allusions to “The Tell-Tale Heart”. The Nephew is seen at the beginning reading that very story; a copy of the famous daguerreotype of Poe forms the book’s frontispiece; we are given a close-up of the text. After the murder, the Nephew’s state of mind is conveyed by an intertitle that re-phrases a portion of the tale’s famous opening: I saw all the things in the heaven and in the earth. I saw many things in hell; while later, when he is overcome with remorse, another title observes, Conscience overburdened the telltale heart. The Nephew is also driven to near madness by repetitive sounds that to his tortured nerves are, Like the beating of the dead man’s heart. However, in place of the “pale blue eye” that becomes the focus of the narrator’s obsession in the story, Griffith gives the Uncle an eye-patch, which both places him amongst Griffith’s pantheon of older characters who are somehow “damaged”, and in a certain sense shifts the moral culpability for the crime.
This early silent feature D.W. Griffith ("Birth of Nation"/"Intolerance"/"America") arty psychological drama is based around Edgar Allan Poe's "The Telltale Heart" and his poem "Annabel Lee." Griffith was long enamored with Poe, and this film is an ambitious homage to some of his more celebrated works. It features visions of ghouls and nightmarish demons and offers stilted morality lessons about not killing, as the famed filmmaker experiments on the use of many cinematic devices (from dream sequences to reading one's thoughts visually). Griffith's many innovations influenced filmmakers around the world, especially the German Expressionists. The Avenging Conscience's technical feats greatly influenced films like Greed (1924). It's considered as the first great American horror film, whose value is more important historically than as a film that can hold up to the scrutiny of modern audiences.
It would be almost another two decades before American film-makers would wholeheartedly embrace the horror movie, and cease to feel a need, artistic or social, to deny the very terrors that they created. In the meantime, film after film would explain away their supernatural events as mere trickery, or dilute their frights with awful comedy. What catches the viewer off-guard about The Avenging Conscience, therefore, is not that it turns out to be – sigh – just a dream, but how far it goes before that in conjuring up its horrors, both in actuality and within its protagonist’s mind. The sense here is that, secure in the knowledge that none of the horrors he was crafting were “real”, Griffith was able to let himself rip. It is also noteworthy that the director allows the accumulating darkness of that middle section of his film to have its full effect upon the viewer, and refrains from undermining it in any way – at least, that is, while it is in progress.
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