The Tell-Tale Lens: Edgar Allan Poe in Early Cinema


“The Tell-Tale Heart” (1928, dir. Charles Klein)

In so many of Edgar Allan Poe’s best Gothic horror stories, it is the characters’ perception of the world that leads to their madness. Their minds yield to terrors no one else can perceive, leaving them stranded in their dark delusions. Charles Klein’s silent version of The Tell Tale Heart and James Sibley Watson and Melville Webber’s silent, avant-garde version of The Fall of the House of Usher (both from 1928) capture this quality of madness through set design, lighting and performance, but more significantly through the manipulation of the photographic image itself.

Both films are described as being influenced by German Expressionism, which is true insofar as their mise en scene bears the Expressionist hallmarks of sharp angles and stark shadows.

“The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” (1920, dir. Robert Wiene) is the first landmark of German Expressionist cinema.

But I think the larger influence is French Impressionism.  While Expressionism uses mise en scene to create a disorienting and distorted setting, Impressionism utilizes special editing techniques (dissolves, multiple exposures, irises, etc.) to create a disorienting and distorted point of view.

“Rien que les heures” (1926, dir. Alberto Cavalcanti) exemplifies French Impressionist film techniques.

This combination of Expressionist and Impressionist film techniques is particularly apt for the stories of Poe. Recognized as a writer of Gothic romance and horror, Poe is particularly noted for blending Gothic tropes – decaying mansions, villainous monks, madmen, curses, murder, villainy, deadly women – with a more subjective, internalized approach to narrating terror.  Both “The Tell Tale Heart” and “The Fall of the House of Usher” are told in the first person point of view.  Both delve into the psyches of men whose perceptions are distorted to the point of madness, showing that the most terrifying things are not always from without but from within one’s own tortured soul.

Both the madman in “Heart” and Roderick Usher in “House of Usher” claim to be suffering from “heightened senses.” Both films use impressionist techniques to render this effect.

In Tell-Tale Heart a double exposure reveals the mutilated body of the old man “beneath” the floorboards.

This shot is entirely subjective, a vision of something only the madman knows.  But we see it as well.  Like the madman, we are given a heightened vision that lets us perceive things on screen that others cannot.  It is through the photographic tricks of cinema that we are able to see and hear through the eyes of Poe’s madmen.

Of course, in silent film these effects are primarily visual in nature; animated text stands in for sound.

It sometimes takes form as a collage of images. In Heart, it is the eye of the old man and his face that haunts the murderer:

In Usher, it is the face of Madeline Usher and the stairs leading down into her tomb:

The motif of doubling and multiplying an image recurs throughout Usher, taking its cue from Poe’s tale, where Roderick and Madeline Usher are twins who both suffer from a strange malady. Melville and Watson use multiple exposures to show the connection between brother and sister.  Even after Roderick buries Madeline in the crypt, the cinematic image links them together…

and Madeline reaches out and unites their two images in death:

In Expressionist film, it is the world being filmed that is distorted; in Impressionist film, it is film itself, as the medium of perception.  By blending these two styles together, filmmakers like Klein, Watson, and Webber replicate the combination of internal and external manifestations of terror achieved by Poe.

Jennifer Baldwin is a freelance writer and teacher living in metro Detroit. She is a contributor at Libertas Film Magazine and writes about classic movies and culture at her own blog, Dereliction Row.

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