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Avenging Conscience, The
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by Jay Seaver

"Griffith and Poe - two acquired tastes that taste fine together."
4 stars

Though not a direct adaptation of the stories of Edgar Allen Poe, D.W. Griffith's "The Avenging Conscience" nevertheless displays his influence proudly. One of the main characters is shown reading Poe, bits from several stories are included in the plot, and the poem "Annabel Lee" is used to frame most of the affair.

It's the story of a young man (Henry B. Walthall), raised by his uncle (Spottiswoode Aitken) since infancy, when his parents died. Now, he's in love with a girl (Blanche Sweet), but his uncle doesn't approve, insisting he spend more time working on the accounts for their business. Eventually, this Uncle is going to have to go, but a troublesome detective (Ralph Lewis) soon gets curious about the man's disappearance.

The script is more than a bit rickety, though I'm not sure whether it's inherent in the writing or more because certain attitudes don't just look quaint or dated 95 years later, but downright alien. The nephew and his sweetheart, both adults, seem to cave into the uncle's demands with relatively little resistance. Some attitudes are potentially a bit ugly - none of the characters have names, so having the thug be referred to as "The Italian" says something about the attitudes of the day. There's a subplot about a maid flirting with a grocery boy that doesn't tie in with the rest of the story much at all. And even in 1914, the ending may have been a silly cliché.

For all those things that may make a modern audience look somewhat askance, though, the movie is nicely put together. Once you're used to the silent acting style, the performances come across very well. Griffith uses intertitles to regularly cut to "Annabel Lee" in a way that probably wouldn't work in a talkie, and his editing style is very modern and fast-paced. The double-exposed "ghost" effects shots looks pretty good for the period. Griffith does throw some odd stuff into the end - a rather literal reading of the end of the poem - but at that point, the surrealism works.

The version shown was the version on the Kino DVD, which clocks in at just about an hour, with a soundtrack by NAME. It probably wouldn't gain much from being much longer (although IMDB has it as running 78 minutes at some point); as great a story as "The Tell-Tale Heart" is - and that's the most obvious influence on this film - it would likely be diluted if expanded to something much larger.

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originally posted: 10/21/09 14:40:04
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