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The Tell-Tale Heart (1941)

With Edgar Allan Poe dead and buried fifty years before the advent of moving pictures, filmmakers around the world dipped liberally into the tortured writer's back catalogue of tales of the grotesque and arabesque for one reason in particular - they would not have to pay him. The first adaptations of Poe's stories and poems were made early into the silent epoch, most memorably Paul Wegener's Der Student von Prague (1913, based on Poe's 1839 short story "William Wilson"), Jean Epstein's Le chute de la Maison Usher (1928, an adaptation of Poe's classic "sick house" story "The Fall of the House of Usher"), and Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932), Universal Pictures' free adaptation of the story of the same name and a vehicle for Bela Lugosi, riding on a post-Dracula (1931) career high. By 1941, the year Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer greenlighted a spin on Poe's immortal chiller "The Tell-Tale Heart" as part of its MGM Specials series of short subjects based on classic works of literature, the tale had been filmed already several times - going back at least as far as D. W. Griffith's The Avenging Conscience (1914).

The vogue for double features in American movie theaters during the 1940s - for which a prestige Hollywood "A" picture would be paired with a second (or "B") feature and the evening's entertainment rounded out with accompanying newsreels, cartoons, and two-reel comedies - prompted MGM, the oldest and richest of the Big Five studios, to put more thought and care into its interstitial offerings in a bid to reduce the likelihood that their films would be booked with lesser efforts from rival studios. Making use of standing sets and contract players idling between assignments, the MGM Specials boasted a higher than average grade of production value for short subjects, attributable not only to better budgets but to the employment of promising young talent behind the camera. Having directed one play on Broadway, Jules Dassin came west to Hollywood to serve as Alfred Hitchcock's assistant on Mr. and Mrs. Smith (1941). Jumping ship to MGM, Dassin helmed short documentaries on Marian Anderson and Arthur Rubenstein before being paired with writer Doane R. Hoag (another veteran of short subjects) to adapt The Tell-Tale Heart.

To the chagrin of Poe enthusiasts, the first thing to fall by the wayside in Hoag's shaping of Edgar Allan Poe's The Tell-Tale Heart (1941) was Poe himself - or at least the first-person perspective that characterized the source material. Told as a quavering personal narrative, "The Tell-Tale Heart," was pitched by Poe as the confession of a madman who has, by ennobling his arguable powers of self-control, deluded himself into believing that he is sane. Adaptations seemed bespoke for Hollywood madmen eager to cut their teeth on a ripe monologue, with horror kings Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, and Peter Lorre each having a crack at the story (Karloff and Lorre on the radio, Lugosi for a proposed spoken word record that never materialized), but Dassin and Hoag took the property in another direction, recasting Poe's lunatic as an indentured servant who rebels against his cruel master in a variation of "the worm turns." Spinning "The Tell-Tale Heart" as a socialist polemic was Dassin's first bid to politicize genre filmmaking in Hollywood, a class-conscious vision that would land him in Dutch with the Senate House Un-American Committee at the end of the decade.

To cast Edgar Allan Poe's The Tale-Tale Heart, Dassin looked no further than the MGM lot. Made available for his use were actors Joseph Schildkraut, an Academy Award winner for his supporting role in The Life of Emile Zola (1937), and Roman Bohnen, fresh from his turn as the handicapped ranch hand Candy in Of Mice and Men (1939). A specialist in characters aged well beyond his own forty-odd years, Bohnen brought a persuasive antiquity to his role of the venal Old Man while Schildkraut (Bohnen's junior by less than two years) manifested a wide-eyed vulnerability in his assignment as the thirtyish Young Man, whose childlike stance of passive acceptance gives way in a flash to murderous rage. Behind the camera for Dassin's morality play was cinematographer Paul Vogel, who cloaked the proceedings in a tangible tangle of doom-laden shadows; Vogel would graduate from short subjects (among them many entries in MGM's Crime Does Not Pay series) to an Academy Award for shooting William Wellman's Battleground (1949) and successful collaborations with producer-director-animator George Pal on the Technicolor fantasies The Time Machine (1960) and The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm (1962).

Though Dassin would speak dismissively of Edgar Allan Poe's The Tell-Tale Heart in later years, fobbing it off as an over-arty career springboard, critics of the day were impressed. The Film Daily likened the 20-minute short to a "a swell and luscious bonbon coming suddenly out of a candy slot machine" while Showmen's Trade Review declared it "a miniature masterpiece." Offered a seven year contract by MGM, Dassin moved on to the full length Nazi Agent (1942), starring Conrad Veidt in a dual role as identical twins who become enemies during World War II. Dassin eventually came to see his studio contract as a form of indentured servitude, binding him to crank out programmers. That all changed with his excursions into film noir, particularly The Naked City (1948), which allowed Dassin to experiment with location shooting and improvisatory acting techniques. Branded a Communist by fellow director Edward Dmytryk (in testimony before HUAC), Dassin fled to Europe, where he turned his hand to such films as Night and the City (1950) in England, Rififi (1955) in France, Topkapi (1964) in Turkey, and A Dream of Passion (1978) in Greece, where he died in 2008.

Director: Jules Dassin
Writer: Doane R. Hoag
Cinematographer: Paul Vogel
Art Director: Richard Duce
Editor: Adrienne Fazan
Music: Sol Kaplan
Cast: Joseph Schildkraut (Young Man), Roman Bohnen (Old Man), Oscar O'Shea, Will Wright (Policemen).
BW-20 min.

by Richard Harland Smith

Sources:
Human Monsters: The Definitive Edition by Michael H. Price with George Turner (Luminary Press, 2004)
Horror Stars on Radio: The Broadcast Histories of 29 Chilling Hollywood Voices by Ronald L. Smith (McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2010)
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