The Tell-Tale Heart (1941)

Felt by some of us lovers of the cinema to be a tiny treasure of the silver screen, Jules Dassin's 1941 short feature version of The Tell-Tale Heart features a manic performance from Joseph Schildkraut as the apprentice weaver who kills his cruel master, only to be tormented by guilt, in the aural form of his master's still-beating heart.

Edgar Allan Poe didn’t always transfer successfully to screen, even when dramatised to the utmost in the hands of Roger Corman. And even in Roger Corman’s hands, plenty needed to be added ― including camp, suspense, romance and even back stories and new action.

The divide that is being bridged in the filming of Edgar Allan Poe concerns the massive popularity of Poe’s writing. Because of their short length, their memorable titles and scenes, and the fact that they largely presented a Freudian interior human world, long before there was any Freud or Freudian analysis, kept the writing of Edgar Allan Poe valid ― even unto the 1960s ― these facts alone make Poe tempting indeed for any movie producer.

But in Poe stories there is often not a lot of action, but instead, vortices of interior turmoil. There is sometimes not a lot of dialogue, but instead doubting turns and descriptions of crummy corners, hysterical emotions and vast natural, often unseen forces. There are often strong key images, that everything hinges upon ― and sometimes the stories seem to be entirely internal ― a little like this one.

Bearing this in mind, Jules Dassin’s The Tell-Tale Heart of 1941 is fair stab. It is a short film of a short story, and often in its twenty long minutes, instead of trying to tell a story, it merely shows the turmoil on the face of its lead actor.

Joseph Schildkraut - actor in action

The acting is tremendous ― if you like vaudeville. The force of the drama is encased in the music of The Tell-Tale Heart, of course reaching a thumping crescendo in a series of moments that seem antiquated ― even for 1941 ― as if locating itself in the silent film era.

Great use is therefore made of sound, and as happens in almost any production of Edgar Allan Poe, a little backstory and characterisation is added, in order to place cinema goers in the action, and offer a little in the way of character.

The resulting acting, the resulting film, the atmosphere of the entirety of this short film is absorbing and gripping and probably more akin to the original spirit of Poe, which is close-up, psychological and seedy, and not in any way camp or melodramatic. 

Joseph Schildkraut will also be a revelation. Schildkraut offers a wide range of haunted man faces and postures, and the production as a whole, might even have served as a film noir calling card for director Jules Dassin. One can really feel the constant beating of the heart of guilt which dominates the film, almost like an exercise in the build up of tension.

Creeping Tension

Madness Looms

The camera in The Tell-Tale Heart by Jules Dassin is not static however ― the viewer rolls slowly in to towards the subject, and then coming closer yet, on two occasions even closes in so far as to find the petrified man's inner ear. The feeling is however of watching silent cinema, as seen perhaps by the young director in his childhood.

In an article about Jules Dassin written the week of his death, Time film critic Richard Corliss called The Tell-Tale Heart "possibly the very first movie to be influenced by Citizen Kane ... This short film ... is positively a-swill in Orson Wellesian tropes: the crouching camera, the chiaroscuro lighting, the mood-deepening use of silences and sound effects."

It's possible that The Tell-Tale Heart may also be viewed as a sort of inadvertent blueprint for the half hour television dramas that came to be so popular in later years, shows such as The twilight Zone, Night Gallery, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, One Step Beyond and The Outer Limits.

Either way, this short film is of interest not just because it serves as a training flight for Jules Dassin, who went on to make many of our favourite film noir titles ― but because it treats Edgar Allan Poe in a delightfully psychological and almost panicky manner, and is somewhat more serious in its results, than the more famous Poe films of the 1960s, none of which could properly be described as 'horror'.

Perhaps this short outing could be closer in spirit then, to the many Vincent Price and Roger Corman films which were to follow.

The Tell-Tale Heart beats on at Wikipedia

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