The Avenging Conscience (D.W. Griffith / U.S., 1914):
(The Avenging Conscience: or "Thou Shalt Not Kill")

D.W. Griffith draws on Poe (and the Kafka of "The Judgment"), the "trances and nightly dreams" that ensue serve as vernissage for German Expressionism and Greed and Spellbound and any other film whose goal is, as Sternberg said (The Salvation Hunters), to "photograph thought." The orphaned protagonist (Henry B. Walthall) is adopted by his eye-patched uncle (Spottiswoode Aitken), who raises him lovingly but grows tyrannical. The breaking point comes when the old man drives his nephew's beloved (Blanche Sweet) from their home; the bereft Walthall ponders a spider descending upon a fly ("the birth of the evil thought") and rushes home with "The Tell-Tale Heart" twisting inside his skull. The uncle is strangled, the crime is witnessed through a window by a rube (George Siegmann), who grins in closeup: Violence and the camera, spectacle and spectator. Terror, suspicion, superimpositions, and cameos by Jesus and the Reaper follow as the corpse is bricked up behind a chimney and Walthall's churning psyche takes over. The introduction of the gothic into the pastoral is so faultlessly imaginative that Griffith takes it upon himself to visualize sound, so that guilty cardiac palpitations are easily transmuted into the accusatory tapping of the detective's pencil, a clock's pendulum, the cry of an owl outside. In one of Griffith's most experimental films, Walthall's twitchy breakdowns are closer to Paul Muni's Scarface than to The Birth of a Nation's Little Colonel, and not even a last-minute switcheroo can disperse the "dark eye glances" -- brimstone gremlins give way to Pan's sprites, yet madness lingers all the same. With Ralph Lewis, Mae Marsh, and Robert Harron. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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