The Avenging Conscience; Thou Shalt Not Kill


1h 18m 1914

Brief Synopsis

Thwarted by his despotic uncle from continuing his love affair, a young man turns to thoughts of murder. Experiencing a series of visions, he sees murder as a normal course of events in life and kills his uncle. Tortured by his conscience, his future sanity is uncertain as he is assailed by nightmarish visions of what he has done.

Film Details

Also Known As
The Murderer's Conscience
Genre
Horror
Release Date
Aug 24, 1914
Premiere Information
not available
Production Company
Majestic Motion Picture Co.
Distribution Company
Mutual Film Corp.; State Rights; Western Import Co.
Country
United States
Screenplay Information
Inspired by the short story "The Tell-Tale Heart" by Edgar Allan Poe in The Pioneer (Jan 1843) and his poem "Annabel Lee" in New York Tribune (New York, 9 Oct 1849).

Technical Specs

Duration
1h 18m
Sound
Silent
Color
Black and White
Theatrical Aspect Ratio
1.33 : 1
Film Length
7-8 reels

Synopsis

A scholarly bachelor, who has raised his nephew from infancy, instills his own literary ambitions into his ward. When the young man, an Edgar Allan Poe enthusiast, wants to marry, his jealous uncle protests, implying that the young woman is of questionable virtue. Stung, and reasoning that nature is omnivorous, the nephew kills his uncle and seals the body within a fireplace. His conscience bothers him, however. Someone who witnessed the crime blackmails him, a detective hounds him, and his uncle's ghost haunts him. In desperation, the nephew hangs himself, but is cut down by the detective before expiring. Meanwhile, his sweetheart has leaped to her death. Finally, the young man awakens to discover that he has been dreaming. He reconciles with his uncle and marries his sweetheart, after which the young couple is attended by Pan, forest animals and children.

Film Details

Also Known As
The Murderer's Conscience
Genre
Horror
Release Date
Aug 24, 1914
Premiere Information
not available
Production Company
Majestic Motion Picture Co.
Distribution Company
Mutual Film Corp.; State Rights; Western Import Co.
Country
United States
Screenplay Information
Inspired by the short story "The Tell-Tale Heart" by Edgar Allan Poe in The Pioneer (Jan 1843) and his poem "Annabel Lee" in New York Tribune (New York, 9 Oct 1849).

Technical Specs

Duration
1h 18m
Sound
Silent
Color
Black and White
Theatrical Aspect Ratio
1.33 : 1
Film Length
7-8 reels

Articles

The Avenging Conscience - D. W. Griffith's THE AVENGING CONSCIENCE - Based on Edgar Allan Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart"


The Avenging Conscience, or, "Thou Shalt Not Kill" was directed by D.W. Griffith, and as usual he chose a reliable team – stars Henry B. Walthall and Blanche Sweet, cinematographer G.W. Bitzer – to make the production process smooth and efficient. Yet the film's presiding spirit is someone not present on the set: the legendary poet, writer, and drinker Edgar Allan Poe, whose works are referred to by the story as often as Griffith can find ways of sneaking them in. Echoes abound from stories like "The Tell-Tale Heart" and "The Black Cat" and poems like "Annabel Lee" and "The Bells," which we all read in school and still remember with a pleasurable chill. You won't find many chills in Griffith's treatment of them, because like most of his movies, this one is burdened by a Victorian sentimentality that even silent-movie audiences eventually found boringly old-fashioned. You will find various pleasures, though, if you can get onto the film's fantastical wavelength and put up with one of the hokiest plots you've ever seen.

Apparently aiming for a sort of folk-tale atmosphere, Griffith doesn't give names to any of the characters. The protagonist is The Nephew, a young scamp who owes his security in life to The Uncle, a dour senior citizen who employs him and tries to impose some discipline on him. The discipline fades when The Nephew falls in love with The Sweetheart, a young woman in the neighborhood, and resists The Uncle's efforts to keep him on the straight and narrow path. The plot thickens when The Nephew decides to murder The Uncle and set up housekeeping with The Sweetheart on the money he'll inherit. In the film's most vivid scene, The Nephew labors to work up some murderous courage and decide what method – shooting? bludgeoning? strangling? – will do the job most effectively. Strangling wins the contest, and soon The Uncle is a corpse hidden behind the bricks of his own fireplace.

Unfortunately for The Nephew, however, The Uncle let out a scream that was overheard by The Italian, an unsavory resident of the town who crept up to a window and witnessed the entire crime, and now uses his knowledge to blackmail the killer. On top of all this, a new character – The Detective – suspects foul play in The Uncle's disappearance. The Italian and The Detective each threaten to expose The Nephew's evil deed, but The Nephew has a more formidable foe than either of them: his own Avenging Conscience, which starts tormenting him with visions. At first he's haunted by The Uncle's ghost, floating through the air and clutching his throttled throat. Then a living skeleton and a group of ghouls join in. A few more sub-Poe plot twists bring about the story's resolution, which I won't reveal here because it's really, really corny.

Griffith turned out seven films in 1914. This was a tiny output compared with previous years, but the legendary Judith of Bethulia was feature length and some of the others were almost as long; in addition, Griffith was making his break with the Biograph studio (The Avenging Conscience was done at Majestic) and getting ready for his momentous move to Southern California and the start of production for The Birth of a Nation, which had its premiere just six months after The Avenging Conscience debuted. All this activity made The Avenging Conscience something of a rush job, which may explain why Griffith fell back on an ending that's corny even by his standards, and why the special effects are so unspecial, nowhere near the amazing images he devised for The Birth of a Nation soon afterward.

The acting is energetic, though. Walthall cheerfully hams it up as The Nephew; the aptly named Sweet is a sweety as The Sweetheart; and Spottiswoode Aitken looks properly gloomy as The Uncle and the ghost. The picture has some distinctive Griffith touches, moreover; critic Scott Simmon groups it with the numerous Griffith films – Hearts of the World (1918) and True Heart Susie (1919), among others – that have male writers as important characters, and film historian Tom Gunning notes its use of the psychological close-up and identifies it as Griffith's return to "a cinema of dreams and visions." But the Griffith literature doesn't have much else to say about the picture.

I'm fond of The Avenging Conscience despite its many shortcomings, because it blends silliness and innocence in ways that would be less charming in a more sophisticated movie. Take the hobgoblins who bedevil The Nephew, for instance. The skeleton has a picturesque wreath around its skull, like a Roman senator, for no apparent reason. To create the terrifying ghouls, Griffith plopped animal heads onto a few little kids and then couldn't think of anything for them to do but crouch in one spot like trick-or-treaters waiting for their candy. As for the restless spirit of The Uncle, it reminds me of the question critic Vincent Canby used to ask – when actors played ghosts in low-tech old movies, did they get paid less for the scenes where they're transparent?

Kino International deserves thanks for making The Avenging Conscience available in a great-looking DVD transfer and for commissioning a new piano score from film-music scholar Martin Marks, who explains the reasoning behind his musical strategies in a brief essay on the disc. The other DVD extra is a Griffith short called Edgar Allen Poe, which manages to misspell the writer's middle name but makes up for this by casting Herbert Yost, who looks uncannily like Poe, as the title character. Directed in 1909, this seven-minute tragedy gives a wildly implausible account of how Poe composed his most famous poem, "The Raven," and then crashes to a halt in an incredibly bleak finale. If you find it too melancholy, just take another look at those cute little ghouls. You'll be smiling again before you know it.

For more information about The Avenging Conscience, visit Kino International. To order The Avenging Conscience, go to TCM Shopping.

by David Sterritt
The Avenging Conscience - D. W. Griffith's The Avenging Conscience - Based On Edgar Allan Poe's "the Tell-Tale Heart"

The Avenging Conscience - D. W. Griffith's THE AVENGING CONSCIENCE - Based on Edgar Allan Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart"

The Avenging Conscience, or, "Thou Shalt Not Kill" was directed by D.W. Griffith, and as usual he chose a reliable team – stars Henry B. Walthall and Blanche Sweet, cinematographer G.W. Bitzer – to make the production process smooth and efficient. Yet the film's presiding spirit is someone not present on the set: the legendary poet, writer, and drinker Edgar Allan Poe, whose works are referred to by the story as often as Griffith can find ways of sneaking them in. Echoes abound from stories like "The Tell-Tale Heart" and "The Black Cat" and poems like "Annabel Lee" and "The Bells," which we all read in school and still remember with a pleasurable chill. You won't find many chills in Griffith's treatment of them, because like most of his movies, this one is burdened by a Victorian sentimentality that even silent-movie audiences eventually found boringly old-fashioned. You will find various pleasures, though, if you can get onto the film's fantastical wavelength and put up with one of the hokiest plots you've ever seen. Apparently aiming for a sort of folk-tale atmosphere, Griffith doesn't give names to any of the characters. The protagonist is The Nephew, a young scamp who owes his security in life to The Uncle, a dour senior citizen who employs him and tries to impose some discipline on him. The discipline fades when The Nephew falls in love with The Sweetheart, a young woman in the neighborhood, and resists The Uncle's efforts to keep him on the straight and narrow path. The plot thickens when The Nephew decides to murder The Uncle and set up housekeeping with The Sweetheart on the money he'll inherit. In the film's most vivid scene, The Nephew labors to work up some murderous courage and decide what method – shooting? bludgeoning? strangling? – will do the job most effectively. Strangling wins the contest, and soon The Uncle is a corpse hidden behind the bricks of his own fireplace. Unfortunately for The Nephew, however, The Uncle let out a scream that was overheard by The Italian, an unsavory resident of the town who crept up to a window and witnessed the entire crime, and now uses his knowledge to blackmail the killer. On top of all this, a new character – The Detective – suspects foul play in The Uncle's disappearance. The Italian and The Detective each threaten to expose The Nephew's evil deed, but The Nephew has a more formidable foe than either of them: his own Avenging Conscience, which starts tormenting him with visions. At first he's haunted by The Uncle's ghost, floating through the air and clutching his throttled throat. Then a living skeleton and a group of ghouls join in. A few more sub-Poe plot twists bring about the story's resolution, which I won't reveal here because it's really, really corny. Griffith turned out seven films in 1914. This was a tiny output compared with previous years, but the legendary Judith of Bethulia was feature length and some of the others were almost as long; in addition, Griffith was making his break with the Biograph studio (The Avenging Conscience was done at Majestic) and getting ready for his momentous move to Southern California and the start of production for The Birth of a Nation, which had its premiere just six months after The Avenging Conscience debuted. All this activity made The Avenging Conscience something of a rush job, which may explain why Griffith fell back on an ending that's corny even by his standards, and why the special effects are so unspecial, nowhere near the amazing images he devised for The Birth of a Nation soon afterward. The acting is energetic, though. Walthall cheerfully hams it up as The Nephew; the aptly named Sweet is a sweety as The Sweetheart; and Spottiswoode Aitken looks properly gloomy as The Uncle and the ghost. The picture has some distinctive Griffith touches, moreover; critic Scott Simmon groups it with the numerous Griffith films – Hearts of the World (1918) and True Heart Susie (1919), among others – that have male writers as important characters, and film historian Tom Gunning notes its use of the psychological close-up and identifies it as Griffith's return to "a cinema of dreams and visions." But the Griffith literature doesn't have much else to say about the picture. I'm fond of The Avenging Conscience despite its many shortcomings, because it blends silliness and innocence in ways that would be less charming in a more sophisticated movie. Take the hobgoblins who bedevil The Nephew, for instance. The skeleton has a picturesque wreath around its skull, like a Roman senator, for no apparent reason. To create the terrifying ghouls, Griffith plopped animal heads onto a few little kids and then couldn't think of anything for them to do but crouch in one spot like trick-or-treaters waiting for their candy. As for the restless spirit of The Uncle, it reminds me of the question critic Vincent Canby used to ask – when actors played ghosts in low-tech old movies, did they get paid less for the scenes where they're transparent? Kino International deserves thanks for making The Avenging Conscience available in a great-looking DVD transfer and for commissioning a new piano score from film-music scholar Martin Marks, who explains the reasoning behind his musical strategies in a brief essay on the disc. The other DVD extra is a Griffith short called Edgar Allen Poe, which manages to misspell the writer's middle name but makes up for this by casting Herbert Yost, who looks uncannily like Poe, as the title character. Directed in 1909, this seven-minute tragedy gives a wildly implausible account of how Poe composed his most famous poem, "The Raven," and then crashes to a halt in an incredibly bleak finale. If you find it too melancholy, just take another look at those cute little ghouls. You'll be smiling again before you know it. For more information about The Avenging Conscience, visit Kino International. To order The Avenging Conscience, go to TCM Shopping. by David Sterritt

Quotes

Trivia

Notes

The working title of this film was The Murderer's Conscience. An Motion Picture News pre-production news item mentions Lillian Gish, Dorothy Gish, Miriam Cooper and Jack Pickford in the cast, but their participation in the production, if any, is unknown. The film showed in Los Angeles in July 1914 and played at the Strand Theatre in New York early in August 1914. It was offered for state rights distribution by Western Import Co. late in 1914. Modern sources list G. W. Bitzer as cameraman, Karl Brown as assistant cameraman, and James Smith and Rose Richtel as film editors. The 1921 film Annabel Lee was also inspired by the Edgar Allan Poe poem (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1921-30).