Classic Film Review: A “freely-adapted “Tell-Tale Heart” is Better than No Poe at All (1960)

The first-person narration of a killer patiently plotting his “perfect crime,” pitilessly committing it and then going mad by the pounding of “The Tell-Tale Heart” of his long-dead victim is the most sinister component of Edgar Allan Poe’s masterpiece. It’s something you don’t abandon lightly, as it has been key to many a dramatic reading (James Mason, et al), radio production (starring Orson Welles, Don Ameche, Fred Gwynne and others) and stage and screen adaptation.

IMDb lists 25 screen versions of the Poe short story — features, TV productions and shorts — and the most unusual may be the one the deviates from Poe the most.

British director Ernest Morris is best-known for being behind the camera for several long-running British TV series, the most famous being the Roger Moore version of “The Saint” that ran for most of the 1960s. As TV directors, especially of that era, knew how to make something “intimate” without that first person narration, he and screenwriters Brian Clemens and Eldon Howard thought they’d take a shot.

Their 1960 “Tell-Tale” looks like a slick and decently-budgeted TV adaptation — elaborately decorated mid-19th century interiors, a few decent backlot exteriors and actors filmed in tense closeups and tight, TV-framed group compositions.

They chose to replace the arbitrarily-chosen “vulture-eyed” old man victim with someone far more conventional. The crime is closer to impulsive than anything elaborately planned. And instead of interior narration, star Laurence Payne has to get across cunning, as well as lust, rage, terror and scheming with just his face and sometimes his body.

It’s not proper Poe, even though our murderous “hero” — unnamed in the short story, is now called “Edgar” and looks a little like a mustache-free Poe. The inciting event is a romantic betrayal, turning this into a murder born of a love triangle. But it’s stylish, tense, quite violent and racy for its time. And the performances, tense and tightly-framed, are quite good.

Edgar is a lonely bachelor in 1850s London, having only his library work, his stops by the pub and his weekly chess matches with his lone chum, dashing, rakish Carl (Dermot Walsh) to look forward to.

Well, that and his collection of art nudes which he keeps in a folder in his desk at home. Still, they’re not Japanese, so they aren’t even proper “porn.”

“How do you even get to KNOW a girl?” he begs of Carl, who advises the poor wallflower the best he can.

That sort of knowledge would come in handy when Edgar gets a new neighbor, a ravishing beauty (Adrienne Corri) who moves in across the street. She’s new at the florist shop down the block, and Edgar contrives to meet her — repeatedly.

“Getting to know” her, however, includes taking in the view through her window as she undresses each night. Edgar is awkward, forward and obsessed. And a bit of a perv.

Betty Clare bears his attentions, even his caddish clumsiness, because she’s new in town and that’s pretty much what women had to endure. Then they run into Carl at dinner one night, and idiotic Edgar keeps imposing on him to have a drink, “join us,” and on and on, while Carl — who can see the arch of Betty’s eyebrows and the widening of her pupils — tries to put a stop to his friend’s self-sabotage.

Betty is infatuated, and her betrayal with Carl — also racy for 1960, even in Britain — becomes a motive for murder.

The violence is bloody enough and broadly in the ballpark of this film’s contemporary, Hitchcock’s “Psycho” — a poker, thrashing blows, blood everywhere (in black and white), a body to be disposed of, preferable under the floorboards of Edgar’s piano.

This “Tell-Tale” opens with a cheesy graphic warning for “the squeamish” about when to avert one’s eyes — at the sounds of the thumping heart. The single “special” effect is a rug, rising and falling underneath that piano in time to the pumping heartbeat.

No, Payne isn’t Vincent Price or Boris Karloff (a great radio version) or Welles, but he cracks up in a perfectly British way.

And when Edgar gets his, well let’s just say it’s a lot more violent than was the norm for films of the era.

I like the visual compositions, the close-ups and the depth of field. It’s not suspenseful, being an over-familiar story. But once we get around to the murder and its consequences, “The Tell-Tale Heart” gets closer to what the master had in mind when he wrote this, the perfect horror story, for a $10 bill way back in 1843.

Rating: TV-14. violence, sexuality

Cast: Laurence Payne, Adrienne Corri, Dermot Walsh

Credits: Directed by Ernest Morris, scripted by Brian Clemens and Eldon Howard, based on the short story by Edgar Allan Poe. A Brigade release, on Tubi, Amazon and other streamers.

Running time: 1:20

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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