Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Great adaptation of 'The Tell-Tale Heart'

The Tell-Tale Heart (1941)
Starring: Joseph Schildkraut and Roman Bohnen
Director: Jules Dassin
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

A young man (Schildkraut) murders his abusive employer, but is then himself driven insane by his own guilty conscience.

This 1941 short film is a superb adaptation of the famous Poe short story. It is not only faithful to the mechanical elements of the plot, but the director manages to convey the psychological horror aspect of the original story more effectively than most others who have taken a stab at bringing the tale to film. The biggest change is that this adaptation alters the relationship between the characters from the story, but it results in Schildkraut's character being more sympathetic and results in a stronger movie.

Much of the film's success can be credited to the performances of Joseph Schildkraut, as the tormented protagonist of the story, and Roman Bohnen, as the abusive, eventual murder victim. However, an even bigger part of its success can be credited to the sound design. The sound of titular "tell-tale heart" ends up permeating every aspect of the film's final few minutes, even the soundtrack music. It's a great example of how close attention to sound can build suspense and horror as effectively as camera angles and lighting. (And this film benefits from excellent cinematography as well.)

The murder scene is perhaps the film's only real weakness. The killing basically happens off-screen, and, while artfully done, I think the director might be leaving just a little too much to our imagination. I think he was trying to avoid over-used B-movie cliches like shadows on the wall and such, but the murder just didn't seem to have the same intensity as the scenes that led up to it, nor those that followed. It is almost like a lull just past the film's halfway point.

This 1941 version of "The Tell-Tale Heart" is included as a bonus feature on the "Shadow of the Thin Man" DVD along with a vintage cartoon. The combination lets you stage an old-time movie experience, with two shorts before the main feature. (This is the case with most of the "Thin Man" DVDs... the extras on the discs are almost as fun as the main features. They are excellent added value if you pick up the Thin Man boxed set. Which I recommend that you do if you like classic comedies and mysteries.)

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