The Tell-Tale Heart
Yes, it’s yet another review where I talk about a British movie company that isn’t Hammer wherein I mention Hammer every other word. Sorry about that, I’ll try and get it out of my system early on. Hammer Hammer Hammer. The problem is, most writing on the lower tier of British film companies in the 50s and 60s was on H*****, since they were the most successful both commercially and artistically. Other companies that made genre films, such as Amicus, have garnered critical interest by association through shared casts and crews. Part of this is because Hammer (and Amicus too on some occasions) could take a B-movie budget and create something that looked like an A-movie, um, movie. But beneath Hammer there were a whole strata of other companies that made real B-movies, the ones that were only ever destined to be second features or, with a bit of luck, entries in cheap TV anthology shows. It’s only recently that these films have gained any sort of academic and collector interest.
The businesses in question have pleasantly workaday, provincial names; Butcher’s Film Service, Grand National Films, Present Day Productions, Adelphi Films and the legendary cheapest of the cheap, Danziger Productions. This company was founded by Jewish-American brothers, Edward J. and Harry Lee Danziger, who had what one would have to describe as chequered pasts. Edward was a lawyer who had been involved in the Nuremberg trials during his army service. Harry Lee studied music at the New York Academy, and depending on whose account you believe had either played trumpet in a cruise ship band, or been first violinist with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra. He’d also found time to explore the Amazon and win a Silver Star and Purple Heart. At some point he even managed to market a brand of liqueur, Danziger Gold, so called because of the bits of gold floating in it.
The brothers had previously operated a sound studio in New York, specialising in the dubbing of foreign films for American release. Later they switched to producing features of their own in the US before trying their luck in Britain. The reason the Danzigers abandoned their homeland is, like everything else about them, somewhat murky, though it may have been to avoid the McCarthy-era Hollywood blacklist. They saw the film business as just that; the cheaper you could make the product, the more profit you stood to retain. And the Danzigers made them cheap; as Edward once observed, “nobody makes ’em cheaper!” It was something of a running joke/horror story among the London acting community, if your current employment was less than salubrious; ‘it could be worse, you could be making a film for the Danzigers.’ Actors who were smart took their salaries in cash on a daily basis.
Initially Edward and Harry Lee rented space from existing facilities, but this was uneconomical for their thrifty productions. After failing to buy Beaconsfield Studios, the brothers purchased some land not far from the famous Elstree. The site contained abandoned aircraft engine testing sheds from world war II. They expanded and converted these buildings into well-equipped soundstages, naming the complex with some hubris ‘New Elstree.’ From here they could knock out a movie in ten days and an episode of TV in two and a half. And knock them out they did; like the rest of the B-producers, mostly murder mysteries and comedy, though with the occasional foray into sci-fi (Devil Girl From Mars, Satellite in the Sky). They called on a stable of solid actors who weren’t stars, or at least not yet – Venerated Horror Icon Christopher Lee starred in a pre-Hammer film entitled Alias John Preston for the company, bemoaning his salary of £75. Other actors would pop up regularly, including Francis Matthews and Dermot Walsh (there was some kind of rule that two out of every three Brit B-pictures had to star Dermot Walsh). Occasionally other companies would rent space at the studio – Quatermass II (a.k.a. Enemy From Space) was filmed there. The Danzigers actually became very successful at TV series, with Mark Saber/Saber of London and Richard the Lionheart (starring, yes, Dermot Walsh) being especially popular.
I’m not really sure why the brothers chose to go with an adaptation of an Edgar Allan Poe story, outside of their habit of ‘adapting’ previously existing material, often without credit (rip-off is such an ugly word, isn’t it?). True, interest in horror films based on classic literary works was exploding thanks to, er, some outfit who’s name may or may not begin with an ‘H’. It’s even possible The Tell-Tale Heart was an attempt to hitch a ride on the success of Roger Corman’s Poe adaptation Fall of the House of Usher. This was released in the UK in the summer of 1960, and if anyone could knock out a cash-in movie in record time, it was the Danzigers. As it happened, The Tell-Tale Heart sat on the shelf for a further three years, and wasn’t released until after the brothers had pulled out of film and TV production altogether (again for somewhat murky reasons, though the studio not being profitable enough is one likely cause). But more on that a little later.
The film starts with a classic Universal-style warning, including a title card with the following cautionary information: “To those who are squeamish, or react nervously to shock…” (there follows a blank screen with the sound of a relentless, sinister beating heart) “close your eyes, and do not look at the screen again until it stops!” The effect is spoiled a little by the ‘boingggg!’ of a kettle drum as the beating starts – composers Tony Crombie and Bill LeSage seemed to think this was a sinister sound as they used it throughout the score, but the effect is sadly more comedic.
When we rejoin the action, we find a man screaming in the grip of a nightmare. His landlady and a friend burst in on him, crying “Mr Poe! Edgar!” The author (for it is allegedly he) takes some form of medication, then drifts off into another dream, where he is now Edgar Marsh (Laurence Payne, TV’s Sexton Blake and both versions of The Trollenberg Terror). Marsh is a timid reference librarian, desperately shy around women, and only able to express any kind of sexuality via his stash of smutty, nude daguerreotypes. Poor guy, if only there had been a worldwide web in Victorian times. Maybe with some kind of cool, steam-powered brass computers to download from ‘Mrs. Arbuthnot’s Celebrated Collection of the Empire’s Finest Suicide Girls, dot com.’ I’m pretty sure speculative fiction writers have imagined a steampunk version of everything else, so why not steampunk internet porn?
Where was I?
Oh yes. From the window of his bedroom, Edgar can see into the chamber of sexy flower shop employee Betty Claire (the lovely Adrienne Corri, Vampire Circus). Edgar is immediately smitten, but is too nervous to talk to her. He asks his much more worldly friend Carl Loomis (the inevitable Dermot Walsh, Ghost Ship) for advice. With Carl’s help, Edgar manages to persuade Betty to join him for dinner, but he’s still painfully shy. Escorting her home, Edgar is afraid the stairway to Betty’s room is too dark and asks to see her to the door. This is somewhat amusing since the interior set is extremely well lit, though we’re clearly meant to think it isn’t. To Corri’s credit she manages to read her line – about a mean landlady refusing to waste money on candles – with a straight face. Anyway, at the door Edgar makes a clumsy pass, and is given his marching orders.
The next day, Edgar is distraught and apologises profusely. Betty, taking pity on the shy fellow, agrees on another date. Unfortunately at the restaurant it’s quickly obvious she is finding Edgar very tiresome, though he remains oblivious. By coincidence Carl is dining there too. Edgar is delighted to see his friend, while Betty is immediately taken with the confident and handsome Carl. Betty is so besotted she fabricates an excuse to interrupt Edgar’s chess game the next day, because she knows Carl is his opponent. To Carl’s credit he warns Edgar not get in too deep, as he can clearly see what sort of woman Betty is. His words fall on deaf ears though; Edgar is already planning to ask for Betty’s hand in marriage. Poor Edgar is now looking like something of an idiot, what with Carl’s reluctance to hurt his friend crumbling, and Betty all but tearing Carl’s pants off in public. Unfortunately that night Edgar, having been rebuffed once more, observes Carl having his fiendish way with Betty in her room. The next morning Carl says he’ll break it to Edgar gently, though Betty doesn’t care as long as they’re together. But Carl never gets the chance; that night the supposedly sick Edgar sends for him, only to beat him to death with a poker.
After Carl has been missing for a few days, Betty contacts the police. The Inspector (John Scott, who had a long career playing policemen in bit parts) is unimpressed. This is not the first time Carl as fled town to avoid either gambling debts or an overly-attentive woman. She visits Edgar at work, and he feigns surprise at the level of her concern for his friend. In fact Edgar seems generally more relaxed and confident around her. However, later that night he is disturbed by persistent, repetitive noises; a clock, a dripping faucet, and finally the beating of Carl’s restless heart from beneath the drawing room floorboards. Betty observes the deterioration in Edgar’s behaviour as the heart torments him, and becomes suspicious. She sees Edgar return from hacking out Carl’s heart and burying it in the park, and realises that he must have have seen their deceitful night of passion. The police are still not interested though, what with Edgar being a respectable member of the community (I love the idea that a reference librarian is surely not capable of committing such a horrible crime).
Betty has no option but to sneak into Edgar’s house while he’s out trying to drown his sorrows. She finds the bloodstained, bent poker and takes it to the police. Finally the Inspector agrees to question him, but Edgar can hardly make out his words as he now hears nothing but the beating of the heart. Unable to stand it any more, Edgar is driven to make a mad confession. He is shot and killed by the Inspector as he tries to escape, and for good measure gets impaled on a spike (which just happened to have been standing in his hallway, apparently). We then jump back to author-Edgar, who tells his friend Carl about this latest horrible dream, how they were both there along with a mysterious girl. Looking from the window, Edgar sees a woman resembling Betty, and the heart begins to beat once more…
The Tell-Tale Heart was among Poe’s most filmed stories even by the time of this adaptation, including a celebrated animated version from a couple of years earlier. The Danzigers’ regular writers, Eldon Howard (Edward’s father-in-law) and future Avengers creator Brian Clemens (Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter), got around this by throwing out almost all of the original text. In the short story – which like a lot of Poe’s work, puts the emphasis firmly on ‘short’ – the narrator kills his elderly landlord because he’s afraid of the old man’s evil eye. Howard and Clemens add an entirely new framework in much the same way Richard Matheson did with Pit and the Pendulum, retaining only the element of the beating heart itself. And the script is extremely good, providing just enough character beats for us to know immediately who these people are. We aren’t explicitly told why Edgar is so terrified and repressed around ladies, but the way he gently caresses a portrait of a stern older woman (presumably his mother) tells us all we need to know.
The cast, despite being made up of B-listers, is excellent. Laurence Payne has to do most of the heavy lifting, and he’s well up to the task. There’s a palpable sense of impending doom as Edgar guilelessly raves about his best friend to Betty, oblivious to the fact that she’s almost drooling in his presence. Edgar’s rage and descent into madness could slip into the ridiculous in the hands of a lesser actor, but Payne makes it feel very real and tragic. It’s to his credit that Edgar remains sympathetic even after his terrible crime. Dermot Walsh is also very good, mixing the confidence of the cad-about-town with a genuine reluctance to hurt his friend, and then guilt at having done so. Adrienne Corri has the least enviable task, as her character is probably the least likeable. Betty does little to hide her boredom with Edgar or her lust for Carl, and is clearly indifferent to hurting her first suitor’s feelings. It’s quite satisfying that, although she survives the film (or story-within-a-film), she has to live with the death and dismemberment of her lover.
Director Ernest Morris was a regular on television and the B-picture circuit, working with the Danzigers frequently. He turns in some excellent work here, helped by Jimmy Wilson’s stark black & white cinematography and Norman G. Arnold & Peter Russell’s production design. The Danzigers’ movies often borrowed furniture from The Mayfair Hotel, which they also owned, but the results are impressive. The studio-bound nature of the film (including backlot exteriors on New Elstree’s standing street set) serves to reinforce the sense of claustrophobia and repression in Edgar’s life. Morris makes the most of close-ups on Laurence Payne’s distraught, haggard face, and the sparingly-used special effects (a rug or patch of grass pulsing along with the heartbeat) are very effective. Morris’s best work comes in a scene where Edgar, Betty and Carl go out to dinner. As Edgar and Betty dance, the camera focuses on her gaze, always fixated on Carl even as she is spun around the floor by the delighted, oblivious Edgar.
Which isn’t to say that the film is perfect by any means. The score doesn’t always jibe with what’s happening onscreen, especially as far as that bloody kettle drum goes. The scenes with the police inspector smack a little too much of filler, though not to the extent of most B-pictures of this era. And there are a few amusing missteps, such as Edgar living on the Rue Morgue – it’s pretty clear the film is supposed to be set in London, or at least another English city. This certainly isn’t the only film to make the mistake that Victorian prostitutes were sexy young things rather than prematurely-aged, gin soaked derelicts, but it’s an anachronism that always amuses me.
Though The Tell-Tale Heart must rank among the best work to come out of the Danzigers’ operation, it wasn’t released until after they’d abandoned filmmaking. The movie struggled with the British Board of Film Censors due to the gory and sexual content. In particular, a film where the main character is a voyeur with definite women issues, was troublesome coming in the wake of Peeping Tom earlier the same year. It seems the Danzigers didn’t have the same type of collaborative relationship with the BBFC that Hammer did, and The Tell-Tale Heart languished unreleased until 1963. Thankfully it’s now available on DVD, though if you want to see it I’d recommend the remastered UK release. The American disc from Alpha Video uses a misframed, blown-out print that does the film no favours at all. As well as being a great little movie and one of the best British B-films, The Tell-Tale Heart is a pleasant reminder of when movie producers were fast-talking, cigar-chomping* chancers who were out to make a quick buck, but could sometimes create great work almost by accident. As Brian Clemens said of the Danzigers in a recent interview, “they weren’t the Mafia. But they were close.”
*n.b. I have no evidence that the Danzigers spoke above normal speed or smoked cigars, chomped or otherwise. But you get the idea.
Release Year: 1963 | Country: United Kingdom | Starring: Laurence Payne, Adrienne Corri, Dermot Walsh, Selma Vaz Díaz, John Scott, John Martin, Annette Carell, David Lander, Rosemary Rotheray, Suzanne Fuller, Yvonne Buckingham, Pamela Plant, Graham Ashley | Screenplay: Brian Clemens, Eldon Howard | Director: Ernest Morris | Cinematography: Jimmy Wilson | Music: Tony Crombie, Bill LeSage | Producer: Edward J. & Harry Lee Danziger