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THE AVENGING CONSCIENCE (1914)
|"She fears something more than mere mental derangement...."|
Director: D.W. Griffith
Starring: Henry B. Walthall, Spottiswoode Aitken, Blanche Sweet, George Siegmann, Ralph Lewis
Screenplay: D.W. Griffith, based upon the works of Edgar Allan Poe
Synopsis: A boy left orphaned as a baby is adopted by his uncle (Spottiswoode Aitken), who swears to devote his life to the child’s care. At first a careful and affectionate guardian, as the Nephew (Henry B. Walthall) grows to manhood the Uncle becomes domineering and even tyrannical, sometimes forbidding the young man even to leave the house. Inspired by the works of Edgar Allan Poe, the Nephew decides upon a literary career. He also falls in love with a local girl, whom he nicknames “Annabel” (Blanche Sweet). However, certain of his Uncle’s disapproval, the Nephew keeps his engagement to his Sweetheart a secret. Rejecting his Uncle’s plea to stay home, the Nephew meets and walks with his Sweetheart; the Uncle sees them together, and later accuses his Nephew of ingratitude, throwing all of his sacrifices in the young man’s face. Recognising his emotional debt to his Uncle, as well as his financial dependency upon him, the Nephew gloomily agrees to do as he is bid. Not understanding the extent of the Uncle’s possessiveness, the Sweetheart calls at his house to introduce herself, and to invite both men to accompany her to a garden party. However, the Uncle reacts with fury, and insults the girl to her face. She flees the house, humiliated. The Nephew, outraged by his Uncle’s conduct, defies his commands to stay at home and goes after his Sweetheart. The two do attend the garden party, where their unhappiness is compounded by the sight of other, happy couples around them. The two decide that, in the face of the Uncle’s obduracy, the only thing they can do is agree to part. The Uncle follows the two to the party, where the sight of happy couples and young families makes him recognise both his own loneliness and his unreasonableness towards his Nephew. At home again, he prays fervently for guidance. Meanwhile, bereft of his love, the Nephew sits sadly alone, and suddenly becomes aware of scenes of natural violence around him: a spider devours a fly, while upon the ground, ants swarm and battle. Slowly, an evil thought takes possession of the young man’s mind....
history of cinema may seem to the uninitiated a case of the cart before
the horse. “Cinema”, as we know it, sprang not from a vision of a new
form of entertainment and art, but was the purely practical outcome of
technological developments, as various parties around the world –
including the Lumière brothers in France, and Thomas Edison in
D.W. Griffith’s first artistic ambitions had been
literary in nature. While trying to establish himself as a playwright,
he found employment as a stage actor and spent more than a decade
It would be an understatement to say that Griffith
repaid Biograph’s faith: still appearing occasionally as an actor and,
since at the time most directors also crafted their own scenarios, in
some measure finally achieving his ambition of working as a professional
writer, before the end of the year Griffith would helm almost fifty one-reelers,
while during 1909 he would churn out no less than
and forty-eight short films – one every
two to three days. (One of these would be the director’s first attempt
at paying tribute to one of his personal heroes, a seven-minute biopic
The next turning point in D.W. Griffith’s career
came in 1913, when the director began lobbying for the chance to make
what we would now call a
an extended narrative that gave the film-maker an opportunity to delve far
more deeply and richly into the telling of a story. Curiously, most of
the major American companies of the time were hesitant to tackle this
new form of motion picture, evidently due to the belief that audiences
did not want longer films; increased production costs were also a
concern. This left the door open for various independent producers and
distributors, as well as some of the smaller companies, to make strides
in the development of the new format, which the rest of the
international film-making community had already embraced. (The Australian production
Of The Kelly Gang, released in 1906, is
generally credited as the world’s first feature-film. Sadly, only
seventeen of its original sixty minutes now survive.) The Biograph
executives, like most of their fellows, stood firm in opposition to the
idea of feature-film production, so D.W. Griffith went behind their
backs. Already in the habit of travelling to
As a result of the ensuing stand-off between
Griffith and his employers, which saw
Bethulia cut down to what its producers
considered an “acceptable” running-time for re-release, the director not
only walked out of Biograph but took with him Billy Bitzer and the stock
company of actors he had spent five years building: the Gish sisters,
Lionel Barrymore, Donald Crisp, Harry Carey, Henry B. Walthall, Blanche
Sweet and Mae Marsh, among others.
These days, of course, the expression “horror
movie” sets up certain expectations. Such was far from the case in 1914,
when indeed the expression “horror movie” was yet to be coined by the
disapproving critics. While the Europeans, the Germans in particular,
embraced the macabre and the supernatural from the very dawn of their
The Avenging Conscience
does indeed have a dark literary source, but unlike many of its brethren
there is no sense in this film that D.W. Griffith was looking for a
scapegoat. On the contrary, it is clear that, as was the case with
Edgar Allen Poe,
It is the middle section of
Avenging Conscience that wins the film
its classification as a horror movie, where we find one of the earliest
examples of cinematic technique being used to convey a complex
psychology. However, contemporary viewers should perhaps be warned that
this justly famous sequence is bookended by a mixture of heavy-handed
sentimentality and failed comedy – unfortunately, two of the more common
The Nephew is played by Henry B. Walthall, one of
The use of designations rather than names in
Avenging Conscience indicates that
Our first intimation of the dangerously possessive turn that the Uncle’s affection for his Nephew has taken comes when he tries to stop the young man from even leaving the house; likewise, the impatient way that the Nephew shrugs off his guardian bodes very ill for the future. The Nephew is going out to meet his Sweetheart, as the Uncle learns to his dismay when he sees the two together, walking by the river. It is the next day, when the Nephew prepares for the garden party, that matters reach a crisis. The Uncle again tries to prevent the Nephew from leaving, throwing in his face his own “sacrifices” and demanding in return “a few years of gratitude”. Reluctantly, the Nephew gives in to his Uncle’s demands, and sits back down at his desk. However, in her note the Sweetheart intimated that she might call for the Nephew, and at this very ill-timed moment, she does so. Anticipating no evil, she introduces herself to the Uncle, inviting him to the garden party. The Uncle’s response is a crude insult. Shocked and mortified, the girl withdraws. In an excusable rage, the Nephew shakes off the clutching hands of his Uncle and goes after her.
What is interesting in all this, certainly in terms of what follows, is how justified the Nephew’s resentment and anger towards his Uncle seems. The Uncle’s insistence upon his own sacrifices and his demands for gratitude are as unwise as they are ungenerous; we have seen enough to know that everything he did for the boy was done voluntarily, and we will soon learn that he has sufficient resources put away to constitute a desirable “inheritance”. There is certainly nothing unreasonable in the young man’s desire for a life of his own, however much the Uncle’s irrational fears insist to him that to give the Nephew freedom is tantamount to preparing for his own abandonment. From our perspective, far from being ungrateful, the Nephew seems absurdly compliant....except, of course, for the little matter of the finances; it comes as no surprise to learn that the Uncle has made no separate provision for the young man, but compels his obedience by keeping him dependent. At one point the Uncle physically drags the Nephew towards his desk and points at a journal, presumably the household accounts. It is possible that there has been some extravagance on the Nephew’s part, but we are given no concrete proof of this; and indeed, from we see it is hard to know when or how the Nephew could have had the chance to contract a debt. When we learn that the “career” that the young man is intended for is literary in nature, it is hard not to think that its main attraction for the Uncle is that it doesn’t involve the Nephew leaving the house!
At the garden party, the Nephew and his Sweetheart walk disconsolately amongst all the more fortunate, happy couples. They discuss their situation and finally agree that in view of the Nephew’s dependence, they have no choice but to part. The Sweetheart goes home to cry, while the Nephew slumps miserably onto a bench. Meanwhile, the Uncle has followed the two to the party, where the sight of all the youthful cheerfulness around him begins to have an effect: at length, he recognises his own unfairness, in preventing his Nephew from finding happiness in his own way. Unfortunately, however, the Nephew’s own thoughts have taken a very dark turn. He witnesses death and savagery all about himself, as he gazes into the insect world, until he begins to believe, Nature one long series of murder. This, the intertitle tells us, represents, The birth of the evil thought. As a result, the Nephew conceives, The plan of a fevered brain....
As the Uncle dozes in his chair, the Nephew produces a gun, pointing it in a way almost playful, as if he is still trying to convince himself that he doesn’t really mean it. Then, sobering, he draws near his sleeping guardian and brings the muzzle of the handgun close to his temple....only to pause as voices outside suggest that a shot might be heard. The Nephew puts down the gun and then, as the Uncle begins to wake, picks up a curved walking stick instead. This, too, he discards, instead approaching his Uncle and bluntly demanding money, so that he may go away.
However chastened the Uncle may have felt before he had his nap, those kinder impulses evaporate in the face of this ultimatum; he flatly refuses. The Nephew becomes more importunate as his anger rises again; and as the Uncle persists in his rejection of the demands, the Nephew seizes him by the throat....
And then he disposes of the body by bricking it up within the wall of the fireplace, conveniently undergoing renovation.
Although not a true adaptation of any one of Edgar Allan Poe’s works, The Avenging Conscience contains any number of allusions to “The Tell-Tale Heart”. The Nephew is seen at the beginning reading that very story; a copy of the famous daguerreotype of Poe forms the book’s frontispiece; we are given a close-up of the text. After the murder, the Nephew’s state of mind is conveyed by an intertitle that re-phrases a portion of the tale’s famous opening: I saw all the things in the heaven and in the earth. I saw many things in hell; while later, when he is overcome with remorse, another title observes, Conscience overburdened the telltale heart. The Nephew is also driven to near madness by repetitive sounds that to his tortured nerves are, Like the beating of the dead man’s heart. However, in place of the “pale blue eye” that becomes the focus of the narrator’s obsession in the story, Griffith gives the Uncle an eye-patch, which both places him amongst Griffith’s pantheon of older characters who are somehow “damaged”, and in a certain sense shifts the moral culpability for the crime.
There are many other references here, direct and indirect, to Poe’s writings. The Sweetheart is never named in the text, but the Nephew nicknames her “Annabel”; and the state of their mutual passion, first happy and then miserably frustrated, is communicated by means of extensive quotations from the poems “Annabel Lee” and “To One In Paradise”; the use of poetry about the death of a loved one to describe an extant love affair is creepy in a way that Poe probably would have approved of. At length, the Nephew begins to suffer horrible visions, which he describes via a quotation from “The Bells”: They are neither man nor woman; they are neither brute nor human; they are ghouls! And of course, the walling up of the Uncle’s body recalls both “The Cask Of Amontillado” and “The Black Cat”. (There is in fact a cat in the household, but we never see it again after an early, suggestive glimpse.)
Avenging Conscience owes its deepest
debt to Poe in the way that it tries to put the viewer within the
mindset of its story’s protagonist. In this respect, this is a
remarkably ambitious work, with
Once the deed is done and successfully concealed, the Nephew is visibly pleased with his own cleverness, at least until his Sweetheart visits. (She turns up with amusing promptitude upon hearing that the Nephew has come into his inheritance; hmm, perhaps the Uncle was right about her after all....) The Nephew is still rapturously greeting his “Annabel” when his eyes widen in shock and he stares past her open horror. From the bricked-up fireplace we see emerge the ghost of the Uncle, reaching out with those same clutching hands and pointing an accusing finger before gripping his own throat. The Sweetheart is disturbingly swift in putting the correct interpretation upon the Nephew’s behaviour – leading to that wonderful intertitle, She fears something more than mere mental derangement; I simply love the use of the word “mere” in that sentence! – and hurriedly leaves the house. (Blanche Sweet is excellent in this scene, as the Sweetheart grapples with the dawning of an unspeakable suspicion.) Convincing himself that he has experienced an hallucination simply because of overtiredness, the Nephew retires to bed. He does suffer a momentary qualm as he remembers his Uncle, but shrugs it off and settles down to sleep. But no rest is forthcoming. Instead, the Uncle’s ghost enters the room via the window and looms towards the bed as the Nephew shrinks beneath the covers.
The Nephew, very modern in his views, diagnoses himself with a nervous breakdown and retreats to a sanatorium, from where he returns an unspecified time later, “cured”. He immediately seeks out his Sweetheart, who is willing enough to believe her suspicions unfounded. A smile of relief has barely crossed her face, however, before the Nephew is again staring past her and cowering in terror from something that she cannot see. He abandons her and runs home in a panic, as the voice of his “avenging conscience” engulfs him.
In an agony of remorse, the Nephew begins having repeated visions of Christ, alternately emblazoned in holy light and upon the cross, these being intercut with further visions of Moses on the mount, holding stone tablets emblazoned with the words, Thou shalt not kill. (What is most startling here is the clarity of these visions, at a time when most film-makers shied away from having an actor “play” Christ. Sadly, but not surprisingly, I am unable to tell you who did so.) The Nephew writhes upon the floor, simultaneously suffering abject terrors and imploring forgiveness. When the fit passes, he staggers to his feet, exhausted but smiling, and evidently feeling that the worst is over. Looking down at his own hands, he rubs them together and smiles again; perhaps in his own eyes, they have indeed been “sweetened”.
But the Nephew’s ordeal is far from over; a threat
of a more material nature is closing in upon him. In disposing of his
Uncle, the Nephew concocted a plan involving a forged note, which sent
the Uncle away to a cottage over a hill on the far side of the local
village. Ensuring that the Uncle’s outward journey was marked by
eyewitnesses, the Nephew also contrived for his return home to be
unseen; thus he simply “disappeared”. However, the subsequent murder was
unseen, but partially observed through an imperfectly shielded window by
a passing ne’er-do-well, who promptly resorts to blackmail. (Of all
As the Nephew begins to suspect, the “Stranger” is indeed a detective, who rapidly becomes convinced of the Nephew’s guilt, and makes arrangements for his capture. Simultaneously, the Nephew’s paranoia begins to grow; he recruits the Italian to keep watch for him, and to warn him should any danger begin to threaten. He also shows the Italian a barn-like retreat, where he keeps arms and ammunition, and where he means to make a stand, if it comes to that.
Soon, these two plot-strands collide. The Nephew has barely recovered from his night of agonies when the Stranger makes his move, inviting himself into the cottage to “ask a few questions”.
To this point, none of the tricks used to illustrate the Nephew’s state of mind have been particularly revolutionary, although they are effective. It is the following sequence, the confrontation between the Nephew and the detective, which makes this film’s reputation, and shows D.W. Griffith’s growing awareness of the narrative possibilities of film technique.
Feigning unconcern, in spite of his slightly dishevelled appearance and obvious distraction of mind, the Nephew invites the detective to sit down. The detective wastes no time, throwing in the Nephew’s face a local rumour that a scream was heard coming from the cottage on the evening of the Uncle’s “disappearance”. The Nephew laughs this off, but his discomfort is obvious. The detective continues to ask questions and take notes, smiling sardonically to himself at the sight of the Nephew’s growing nervousness.
As the Nephew shifts in his chair, he becomes unable to block from his mind an acute awareness of the ticking of a grandfather clock nearby, the remorseless swinging of its pendulum. Noticing, the detective begins to tap his pencil upon the table, watching in satisfaction the effect of this added noise upon the Nephew. Indeed, it becomes to the young man’s frayed sensibilities, Like the beating of the dead man’s heart.... Unable to restrain himself, the Nephew puts an impulsive hand over the detective’s, asking him with an unconvincing smile to please stop that tapping. The detective does – for a time.
But that pendulum keeps swinging. And outside, an owl begins to hoot. And the detective starts tapping his pencil again. He also taps his foot. Swing. Hoot. Tap. Tap. Swing. Hoot. Tap. Tap. Swing. Hoot. Tap. Tap. Swing-hoot-tap-tap. Swing-hoot-tap-tap. Swinghoottaptapswinghoottaptap----
And finally the Nephew’s mind collapses; his “telltale heart” can stand no more. He begins to suffer visions of demons and witches; of himself in the embrace of a skeleton; of the Uncle’s death-struggle, his own hands at his guardian’s throat. Under the horrified but grimly satisfied gaze of the detective, the Nephew re-enacts his own part in the murder, before confessing to his crime....
A struggle ensues, and the Nephew breaks away, fleeing to his retreat and making a last desperate stand there, as the detective’s men close in on him. A gun battle follows, which lasts until the Nephew runs out of ammunition. Even then, he does not consider surrender. Instead, he picks up a nearby rope and begins to fashion a noose....
Meanwhile, the sounds of the gun-battle have echoed through the valley. The terrified Sweetheart emerges from her house and learns the worst from a passer-by, hearing of the confession and the stand-off alike. She rushes to the retreat, and reaches it just in time to see the Nephew being cut down by the police officers.
Overwhelmed with horror, the Sweetheart turns and flees. There is a cliff-top nearby, overhanging a rocky shore. The Sweetheart hesitates for no more than a moment, before casting herself from the edge....
And in the wake of all this horror, and violence, and death....
....we fade to the Nephew waking up in his armchair.
Oh, come on. Don’t tell me you’re actually surprised!?
It would be almost another two decades before
American film-makers would wholeheartedly embrace the horror movie, and
cease to feel a need, artistic or social, to deny the very terrors that
they created. In the meantime, film after film would explain away their
supernatural events as mere trickery, or dilute their frights with awful
comedy. What catches the viewer off-guard about
Avenging Conscience, therefore, is not
that it turns out to be – sigh –
dream, but how far it goes before that
in conjuring up its horrors, both in actuality and within its
protagonist’s mind. The sense here is that, secure in the knowledge that
none of the horrors he was crafting were “real”,
Either side of its focal tale of murder and madness, however, The Avenging Conscience features material likely to strike contemporary viewers as painfully ill-judged. The scenes at the garden party, during which the Nephew and his Sweetheart talk sadly about their situation while surrounded by happy couples, are nicely staged; but then Griffith goes too far by inserting also an allegedly comical sketch involving the courtship of a “maid” and “the grocer’s boy”. It is possible that the director simply wanted to provide an opportunity for an extended cameo by Mae Marsh and Robert Harron, two more of his regular actors, but the tone of this sequence is entirely inappropriate. Short inserts of the “dancing” intended to entertain the guests at the garden party, in which an enrobed nymph contorts before an apparently bored Roman emperor, are also jarring.
But these scenes are nothing compared to the way
Now, we can certainly forgive this, but
what happens next. We cut from this to the Nephew and the Sweetheart by
the river, where,
He quotes from his successful book.
The literary critics amongst us might venture to raise their eyebrows in
doubt at this, as the scene we see involves a very
Ultimately, however, it is not the success or failure of The Avenging Conscience, either in part or overall, that really matters, so much as the magnitude of the film’s ambitions. Indeed, at this stage of
Ginger cat = red herring
This review originally formed part of a series of "Compare / Contrast" studies conducted by myself, Zack Handlen and Chad Denton. Unfortunately, a combination of internet meltdowns and bitchy real life dismembered this ongoing project. However, the "conversations" that were the centrepiece of these studies have been preserved as a part of Etc., Etc., Etc. Click the banner below to access them.
Meanwhile, Chad can currently be found at Trash Culture, while Zack is a member of the A. V. Club.