Director and writer: D.W. Griffith
Country: United States
Language: Silent, English
A year before director D.W. Griffith gained infamy with his notorious epic The Birth of a Nation, he wrote and directed The Avenging Conscience. The film, based on Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The Tell-Tale Heart” and poem “Annabel Lee,” tells the story of a man who, as a child, was left to the care of his uncle after his mother’s untimely death. The young man (Henry B. Walthall) falls in love with a woman (Blanche Sweet) but, following his uncle’s objections, cannot pursue her. The nephew experiences a series of nightmarish visions of death and darkness, which leads him to murder his uncle (Spottiswoode Aitken) and build a wall to hide his uncle’s body. The nightmares and hallucinations, however, only increase as the guilt over his uncle’s murder begins to eat away at his conscience. The nephew begins to lose his grip on reality and slowly slips into utter madness and paranoia as he experiences what he believes are encounters with his uncle’s ghost.
The film, released in the U.K. with the alternative title Thou Shalt Not Kill and sometimes billed as “The First Great American Horror Film,” was Griffith’s first and only horror film, which was truly a shame given his immense and incredible detail to atmosphere and tone. Griffith juxtaposed images against each other to produce meaning, much in the same way that he did later in Intolerance (1916) and Sergei Eisenstein (of Battleship Potemkin and October fame) and other Soviet filmmakers, all of whom greatly admired Griffith’s works, did in the 1920s.
The Avenging Conscience opens with the death of the young man’s mother. As she lies lifeless on the bed, a doctor checks her pulse. Two men stand near the bed, both with their heads down, while a woman sits in a chair with her back to the audience. Next to her is a baby in its carriage. The doctor pulls the sheet over the woman’s head, and everyone turns their attention to the sleeping child. The camera angle shifts and all we see is the child as he opens his eyes. Thus, we know that with her death, comes his life. Griffith never tells you what happens or gives context for the film’s scenes, but clever juxtapositions help guide us to Griffith’s intended conclusions.
Later, in the segment titled “The Birth of the Evil Thought” (which Griffith gives the epigraph: “Nature one long system of murder—the spider, the fly, and the ants”), Griffith gives us a series of juxtaposed images upon which he begins to create the impression of looming danger and atmospheric disturbance. The young man eyes a spider’s web as a small fly attempts to break loose from its grip, but the fly’s fight for life is a futile effort as the spider rushes for the fly and begins to drain the life from it. The camera goes back to the young man’s face as he sighs. Then Griffith shows us the image of an untold number of ants devouring an arachnid as it, much like the fly, futilely fights to preserve its own life. The man simply laughs at the sight. The next image is that of the woman with whom the nephew fell in love (conveniently referred to as “Annabel” in the film, though the credits refer to the character as “The sweetheart”) as she peers out the window and stares at the night sky (we are also given a seemingly random intertitle that includes four lines from “Annabel Lee”). Before Griffith takes us back to the young man, he gives us this intertitle: “Realization that his uncle, on whom he is dependent, stands between him and happiness.” Moments later, the young man spots a spider in his home as it devours a fly on its web.
This is the genius of D.W. Griffith. He builds upon the atmosphere of the film with clever juxtapositions of murderous insects, a few choice words, and an occasional reference to “The Tell-Tale Heart” or “Annabel Lee” (early in the film, we see the nephew as he reads the former), all with the intent to heighten the panicked feeling that something awful is about to happen, something that our protagonist will live to regret.
The next time he employs the montage technique, it serves as a panic-inducing mechanism. As a detective questions the nephew about his uncle’s disappearance and demise, Griffith goes back and forth from the interrogation to that of a ticking clock. With every switch of the images, the nephew becomes more and more anxious. The switch then picks up pace, as Griffith begins to go back and forth between the two images faster and faster, creating a growing sense of paranoia and panic in the viewer.
Another example of Griffith’s genius is his ability to establish mood and tone with the camera in a static position. Like many early films (*), The Avenging Conscience features no recognizable or identifiable close-up or movement. Most directors failed to use these methods and techniques due to ignorance (the pioneering French director Georges Méliès, for example). Griffith, however, not only knew about them (as evident in his short 1911 film The Lonedale Operator), but he purposely chose to use stationary, static shots to set the mood and tone. As one user on IMDb brilliantly pointed out:
Some might pick at the fact that the camera is always static, and there is little editing within the scene, but in fact this just goes to demonstrate just how much a director can do with movement within the frame. To take one example from this picture – in the earlier scenes at the uncle’s house, there is a birdcage with a few canaries hopping around inside it. In later scenes it is covered up, twisting forlornly on its hook. It’s a great touch to establish mood, but Griffith doesn’t draw our attention to it with a clumsy close-up or lumbering pan; our eyes will be drawn to it because it is moving while other things in the frame are still. Audience members will notice it without feeling like they have been forced to notice it.
As wonderful as all of this is, Griffith’s real genius doesn’t become apparent until the latter half of the film, as the protagonist begins to experience a series of hallucinations and slowly drifts into utter madness. In one particular scene (about 50 minutes into the film), the protagonist embraces his love with a hug and, as she speaks to him, a figure, which is nearly transparent, appears in the corner (on the left side of the screen). On the opposite side of the scene, the door slowly closes. The figure creeps closer to the couple. That’s when the nephew sees the figure and recognizes it as the ghost of his murdered uncle. The editing trick Griffith employs to make the uncle look transparent (as we all imagine ghosts to look) was repeated five years later in Abel Gance’s anti-war masterpiece J’accuse and in F.W. Murnau’s immortal 1922 vampire film Nosferatu. The ghostly figure appears numerous times after its introduction, serving to taunt and torture the nephew and his sanity. As the title hints, this apparition is a figment of his imagination—his own assault upon himself—a battle with an avenging conscience.
The hallucinations, though, are not solely that of his uncle’s ghost. During the climax of the film, the nephew runs into his home, slams the door shut, and falls to his knees. In the corner of the room, the image of Jesus Christ (on the Cross, no less) appears, along with stone tablets that read Thou Shalt Not Kill. During the interrogation scene, the detective’s pencil taps and the ticks of a clock begin to sound like a “dead man’s heart beat” (as the intertitle explains). The nephew then sees a group of demons clouded in darkness, with fog, fire, sparks, and smoke floating about. Some of the figures have animal heads, while one looks strikingly similar to the image of Satan himself. The figures disappear and that of a skeleton appears. The nephew imagines himself strapped into a chair as the skeleton begins to torture him. When the image goes back to the interrogation, the nephew sees his uncle’s ghost as it strangles a ghostly image of himself.
The techniques that Griffith employ to successfully pull this scene off would not feature in many films until around 1919. Abel Gance (J’accuse in 1919), F.W. Murnau (Nosferatu in 1922, Faust in 1926, and Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans in 1927), Germaine Dulac (The Seashell and the Clergyman in 1928), Luis Buñuel (Un chien andalou in 1928), and Fritz Lang (Metropolis in 1927) would later adopt the same techniques to establish mood and tone in various films.
As revolutionary as Griffith’s various editing tricks and filming techniques were, The Avenging Conscience does feature at least one major landmark with respect to the story itself. At the end of the film, the nephew confesses to the crime, proceeds to flee law enforcement, and eventually chooses to hang himself (though we don’t see the actual death, Griffith does allow us to see the moment when he places the noose around his neck and the second after he hangs himself). His lover, who becomes an anxious basket case in her own right due to the ordeal, learns of his suicide and proceeds to throw herself from the side of a cliff. It is at this moment the scene fades to black. As the light slowly returns, we see the nephew sleeping in a chair. He wakes from the nightmare, and his uncle enters the scene to comfort him and his sudden panic. The entire second half of the film was a dream. He, his uncle, and his lover are all alive. This was one of the first true narrative twists in film history. Nothing like it would appear again until Robert Wiene’s 1920 German Expressionist masterpiece The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.
The final scene of the film begins with an intertitle: “In your voice I hear Pan playing in the woods and all the world gives heed.” Griffith follows this with a scene depicting Pan playing his instrument and several children, presumably personifications of nature, emerge from trees and gardens (as well as various wild felines), find Pan, and begin to dance around him. We see one more image of the nephew and his lover on a lakeside before the final image of the dancing children and Pan fades to black.
What does it mean? That reality is a dream, and our dreams can occasionally lapse into nightmares? That all’s well that ends well? Who knows? That’s the beauty and the genius of D.W. Griffith’s The Avenging Conscience. We never know exactly, but we all seem to have an answer.
(*) This is not to say that all directors failed to employ close-ups or camera movements. Even Griffith used the technique as early as 1911. However, it was not common practice by any means. Directors like Méliès, Auguste and Louis Lumière, and Edwin S. Porter rarely moved their cameras (if it all) or filmed close-up scenes. See our article on Stellan Rye’s 1913 film The Student of Prague for more on the cinema of attraction method.
Personal Rating: 5/5
Next time: Robert Reinert’s Nerves (1919)