Seeing the Beating Heart: Adapting Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” for Film

As as adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, The Tell-Tale Heart (dir. Jules Dassin, 1941) strays a fair bit from its source material’s plot, mostly in terms of resolving ambiguities. Notably, whereas Poe’s story (which you can read here) leaves both the narrator’s motive and his relationship to the old man ambiguous, Dassin’s short film casts the protagonist (played by Joseph Schildkraut) as a decades-long victim of abuse who is suddenly driven to kill his alleged caretaker (Roman Bohnen). And I will say up front that I believe that additional information ultimately weakens Dassin’s The Tell-Tale Heart as a work. The uncertainty that surrounds the narrator’s account of the crime, so central to the original story, is lost in the process and replaced with a fairly mundane tale of revenge.

However, while the short film is not the best translation of Poe’s plot, I think Dassin and his crew capture something far more important about the source material. They find ways to bring the narrator’s mental state to the screen.

Before we can talk about how the filmmakers accomplish that task, we need to talk about Poe’s story. The opening lines of “The Tell-Tale Heart” give the reader an immediate sense of how the narrator perceives the events he’s lived through. And when I say “perceive,” I mean that in a literal sense, for the narrator is keenly aware of his senses:

True! –nervous –very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses  –not destroyed –not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell. How, then, am I mad?

For those of you who have read the story, you know why that fine sense of hearing is significant: the narrator would have gotten away with the old man’s murder if he hadn’t heard the sound of the old man’s beating heart beneath the floorboards. That heartbeat from beyond the grave is almost certainly a manifestation of the narrator’s guilty conscience, but what makes the narrator’s breakdown palpable is the possibility that what he’s hearing is real. And if there’s one type of sensation which language is best able to convey to the reader, it’s sound.

“The Tell-Tale Heart” is remarkably vague on the visual aspects of the story, with the old man’s eye (“the eye of a vulture –a pale blue eye, with a film over it”) being the one standout detail. The rest of the story’s world is sketchy, with some floorboards here, a bathtub there, but nothing too evocative. By contrast, the story’s soundscape is incredibly vivid. The beating heart is likened to “such a sound as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton” (incessant, but muffled), while the old man tries to pass off the creaking in his room as “the wind in the chimney,” “a mouse crossing the floor,” and “a cricket which has made a single chirp.” There’s nothing vague about this material; Poe’s imagery is detailed and specific.

Still, all the above devices work on the level of labeling, rather than evoking. Intellectually, I can understand what a muffled watch or a scurrying mouse sounds like, but the phrases used to describe them don’t necessarily make one feel those sounds. No, Poe achieves that feat through the rhythm of his prose and the repetition of words and phrases. Much of the story relies on short, staccato sentences and parallel syntax, which suggest the regular beat of the human heart. The block quote above provides some obvious examples: “very, very dreadfully,” “not destroyed…not dulled…,” “I heard…I heard…,” etc. But this dark music works in more subtle ways, too. Consider the start of the third paragraph. The short, even sentences are readily apparent, but note the driving meter as well: “Now this is the point. You fancy me madMadmen know nothing. But you should have seen me.” Read aloud, this stretch of two-beat sentences is, well, maddening. Imagine, then, what reciting the whole story must feel like.

That ceaseless rhythm is, I think, central to feeling the narrator’s mental state, and not merely to understanding it. Just as the narrator becomes fixated on the beating heart, on his guilty conscience, so the reader becomes fixated on the beating heart of the prose. More than the murderous act or the narrator’s madness, that is the true horror of “The Tell-Tale Heart.” So how do the filmmakers preserve that rhythm through the adaptation process?

Let’s get the obvious techniques out of the way. The sound mix emphasizes such auditory elements as the old man’s footsteps and the ticking clock, sounds which are short and regular. They of course prefigure the beating heart which will take prominence after the murder. Also, the film’s score tends to highlight the percussion instruments and uses short, repeating phrases to underline the tension during the police interrogation scene. These are approaches I expected to see (hear?) coming into the film, and they’re also the ones I’m least interested in.

No, film is a visual medium, and I wanted to see, actually see, the story’s rhythm rendered in visual terms, whether through acting, editing, set design, or what have you. I’m not going to say it’s easy, mind, but it’s what I was looking for.

From the film’s opening shot, I knew they’d nailed it.

TTH1941-Loom

We first see our protagonist working at a weaver’s loom, mechanically moving and adjusting the various parts, the shuttle and the batten, back and forth as the camera slowly zooms in on him. That particular prop on its own would be enough to start with, but the protagonist’s relationship to the device finishes the job. He’s focused on his task, almost emotionless, until the camera reaches that all-important instrument: his ear. In a single shot lasting about 25 seconds, the filmmakers key the viewer into the physical rhythms of the picture, telling them to “listen” for those patterns.

As the film progresses, we see similar visual rhythms, such the robotic process by which the protagonist oils the hinges on the old man’s bedroom door, or in a scene borrowed from the source material, the way he drags the chair back and forth over the floorboards concealing the old man’s corpse. It’s so pervasive a technique that when the filmmakers break from the pattern, the effect is unsettling. There’s a sequence in which the protagonist, while speaking to the police, hears that tell-tale beating sound. He looks around the room and finds that the clock’s pendulum is motionless and the faucet is no longer dripping. In that moment, he knows every mundane explanation for the sound—every proverbial mouse, cricket, and chimney gust—is untenable. We the audience see the instant where his conscience becomes too much to bear. That, right there, is solid film-craft.

So, if you’re looking to watch some Poe adaptations this Halloween, give this one a chance in between your Vincent Price and Bela Lugosi vehicles. Like the best adaptations of his work, while it plays loose with some plot elements, it captures the experience of reading the story exceptionally well.

Also, it’s only 20 minutes long. You have time to watch it this month, trust me.

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Thank you for reading! If you’re in the mood for some more unsettling cinema, a while ago I dedicated a post on this blog to celebrating the “inspired unpleasantness” of Fritz Lang’s 1931 film M. Or, if you’d prefer something (marginally) lighter, here’s a short reflection on why I find murder mysteries relaxing. Happy Halloween!

2 thoughts on “Seeing the Beating Heart: Adapting Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” for Film

  1. Fascinating! This does seem like a difficult story to put onscreen. I understand why they felt the need for a backstory, though I agree that a backstory weakens the powerful ambiguity of Poe’s work. However, it’s good to know the film got the atmosphere!

    Liked by 1 person

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