October 28, 2007
While Claws for Alarm plays dread and stark design for laughs, The Tell-Tale Heart, produced just a year earlier by the United Productions of America (UPA) studio, goes straight for disquiet, suspense and insanity. I sometimes wonder what it must have been like to sit in a movie theatre in 1953 and read the title card: "This story is told through the eyes of a madman ......... who, like all of us, believed that he was sane."
It's not that American audiences hadn't experienced dramatic theatrical animated shorts before. It's just that, prior to The Tell-Tale Heart, they were typically leavened by comedy. This faithful adaptation of Edgar Allen Poe's short story grabs you by the throat, and doesn't let go for its entire eight-minute span.
The Tell-Tale Heart is a story about psychosis. The unseen and unnamed narrator (voiced with by James Mason) relates how he took care of an unnamed old man, who was pleasant enough but had one bad eye, turned milky white. The narrator sees the eye, as he says, his voice suddenly rising, "everywhere and in everything!" He abruptly catches himself, and speaks with icy calm: "Of course, I had to get rid of the eye." What follows is murder and concealment, but it soon becomes apparent that this was merely the beginning of the narrator's descent into madness. When constables come around to investigate the noise, they never discover the body in the floorboards—but then the narrator imagines he hears the old man's heart beating...
The pleasure of The Tell-Tale Heart is its trifecta of story, narration and visuals. While UPA had been pushing the modern style for a decade, they had never cut loose and applied it to outright drama. Here, the angular, asymmetrical designs, sharply delineated shadows, textured backgrounds and stylized movement reinforced the perspective of the narrator's unhinged mind. There's little in the way of animated flourishes; except for the sudden brutality of the old man's murder, everything moves at a pace as measured as Mason's narration. Like Hitchcock, director Ted Parmelee knew that creeping dread and suspense, punctuated by moments of violence and surprise, were the best heart-stoppers.
Where to find it: As an extra on the Hellboy DVD.