Saturday, July 5, 2014

#185: The Avenging Conscience (D.W. Griffith, 1914)

From Fred Olen Ray to D.W. Griffith in a single bound, that's how we do it at the Decapitated Zombie Vampire Bloodbath. Griffith is one of the early masters of film, making hundreds of silents before ending his career with two sound films, and he pioneered many techniques still in use today and streamlined and fine-tuned many others. Unfortunately, he's presently better known as the racist director of the incredibly racist (even by the mainstream social standards of the time) The Birth of a Nation, and he deserves some of that scorn, but the reputation of that technically brilliant, morally disgusting film overshadows his huge filmography, which includes gem after gem (including, oddly, two great anti-discrimination films made around the same time, Broken Blossoms and Intolerance). I'm able to compartmentalize the ugly parts of great artists, throwing out the bathwater and leaving the baby, and separate the flawed human from the work. Alternatively, this could be too easy for me because I'm a straight white man in the United States who doesn't know what it's like to be discriminated against based on my demographic, but I still have a lot of admiration for Griffith as an artist.
Fortunately, The Avenging Conscience can be enjoyed without troubling your own conscience. Griffith's then-modern update of Poe's The Tell-Tale Heart is a sleek, effective psychological horror story and morality play and a smaller-scale warmup to the expressive compositional beauty and narrative experimentation he was about to achieve on a larger scale in the next few years. For me (and for a lot of other movie buffs), silent films are the most difficult films to get lost in, at least initially, but it's often worth the investment. They can at first seem quaint, removed, artifacts from a distant past rather than living works of art, but Griffith is one of that handful of silent film directors that hooks me almost immediately (that group includes Murnau, Keaton, Chaplin, the Lang of Spies and Mabuse, Stroheim, and the early works of Hitchcock and Ozu). Though The Avenging Conscience is an early taste of greater achievements to come, Griffith's rhythms, pacing, and sense of humor are fully in place here.
Though the mainstream media act like Wes Craven's Scream was the first film to reference previous work, filmmakers have been doing it since the beginning. In The Avenging Conscience, Griffith uses The Tell-Tale Heart as the inspiration for a new story, and fills it with nods to Annabel Lee, The Pit and the Pendulum, and The Cask of Amontillado as well. In Griffith's story, a fatherless child is born to a woman who dies giving birth. The boy is raised by his devoted uncle and is happy until he reaches adulthood. Now a man itching to get on with his life, the nephew (Henry B. Walthall) has fallen in love with a woman (Blanche Sweet), but his uncle (the delightfully named Spottiswoode Aitken) forbids the relationship. He demands his nephew stay single for the next two years until he has a career fully in place and that a woman would only ruin his future. This doesn't sit well with the Poe-obsessed nephew and his girlfriend, but they sadly capitulate to the uncle and break up.
The nephew turns into a gloomy sourpuss until a glance at a spider catching a fly and some ants swarming a larger insect give him an idea. Yes, he will kill his uncle and get back together with his lady love. He strangles uncle and bricks him up in the wall, resuming his relationship with his girlfriend. His happiness is short-lived, however, as the guilt torments him so intensely he sees visions of his ghostly uncle. A trip to the sanitarium doesn't help, and he's soon seeing visions of not just his uncle, but also Jesus, Moses, owls, witches, demons, and skeletons. Some of those scenes have an almost David Lynchian feel to them, with lots of smoke and disappearing and reappearing demonic visions.
These scenes are great, and I didn't even mention the opportunistic drunken Italian (maybe there's some weird prejudice here, too) and the detective who is obsessed with smelling fresh roses. Griffith somehow manages to wring a happy ending out of this darkness, which feels a little forced but is also kind of sweet. Despite the smaller canvas here, Griffith captures some beautiful shots, particularly scenes of the nephew wandering the fields and some of the ghostly visions. Griffith also gets the most out of the expressive faces of his cast, and he's just as effective with his long and medium shots as he is with his closeups. This is a nice little movie, and I enjoyed it just as much on this second viewing as I did on my first a few years ago.

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