The Avenging Conscience, 1914

Director: D.W. Griffith
"I saw all things in Heaven and Earth. I saw many things in Hell..."
Here we have a young man with a passion for the poetry of Edgar Allan Poe, who finds that his romantic and literary aspirations are stifled by his possessive Uncle. Forced to break up with his Sweetheart, his thoughts turn to murder... but instead of liberating him, his Uncle's death serves only to unleash the terrifying phantoms that lie in the depths of his subconscious...

An orphaned boy is raised by his indulgent Uncle, whose care becomes increasingly oppressive as the boy grows to manhood. The Nephew's literary ambitions, inspired by the tales of Edgar Allan Poe, are hampered by constant demands on his time, and the Sweetheart he has called his 'Annabel Lee', in honour of the heroine of Poe's verse, bears the brunt of the Uncle's callous insults.

The young lovers attend a garden party, where they reluctantly agree that they must separate for the sake of his Uncle. As 'Annabel' leaves in tears, the Uncle is at home, brooding unhappily over his Nephew's fate. The lovelorn Nephew, meanwhile, distractedly observes the cruel hand of Nature at work; a spider trapping an unwary fly, which is in turn smothered by scores of devouring ants. Soon, a diabolical plan begins to form in his mind... he strangles his Uncle and walls up his corpse in the fireplace.

The Uncle (Spottiswoode Aitken) meets his demise
The Nephew duly inherits his 'missing' Uncle's estate, and is later visited by his Sweetheart, who is disturbed by his neurotic behaviour. Blackmailed by a shady Italian who witnessed the murder and plagued by visions of his victim, he has himself committed to a sanatorium, but discovers on his return home that a suspicious friend of his Uncle has enlisted the services of a Detective. The Nephew, his paranoia deepening, persuades the Italian to spy on the Detective. He is tormented by hallucinations of a skeletal Death-figure, an accusing Christ, and a stone tablet bearing the words of the sixth commandment: "Thou shalt not Kill!". . .

Opinions still differ as to whether D.W. Griffith was the cinematic artist and innovator he declared himself to be, or simply a craftsman who understood the mechanisms of the film making better than most of his contemporaries. Either way, The Avenging Conscience was one of the rare occasions throughout his career when Griffith applied his considerable talents to a supernatural theme. Conscience was one of four films (the others being The Escape, Home Sweet Home and Battle of the Sexes) that Griffith made for Harry E. Aitken's Majestic Pictures in early 1914. Chances are it's relative obscurity today is thanks to it being made in the brief transitional period between two of his most significant works, Judith of Bethulia and The Birth of a Nation.

The year before, Griffith had upset his previous employers Biograph by sneaking his cast and crew off to Chatsworth, California to make biblical story Judith of Bethulia without studio interference. Biograph, still convinced that 1913 audiences were unwilling to sit through anything longer than a two-reeler, took exception when Griffith presented them with an hour-long feature and a bill for $36,000, and refused to release it. Griffith's response was to take out a full-page ad in the New York Dramatic Mirror outlining his many achievements thus far and announcing his departure from Biograph in no uncertain terms. He took most of his regular cast and crew with him to Majestic, thus setting an important example to the rest of the industry by establishing his autonomy in defiance of a major studio. Judith was eventually released in May 1914 (when Biograph were sure Griffith was no longer able to profit from it), and it proved a critical and financial success.

Griffith's first three Majestic pictures, all around an hour in length, were later dismissed by the director as "potboilers". One can infer that The Avenging Conscience was, while still a time-filler, a project closer to his heart. Griffith had a lifelong fascination with Victorian literature, and Poe was a particular favourite (he'd filmed the short -- and mis-spelt -- Edgar Allen Poe in 1909 to coincide with the centenary of Poe's birth). For Conscience, he took the basic premise from Poe's 'The Tell-Tale Heart', decorating his story with extensive quotations from the poem 'Annabel Lee' and references to several other works by Poe. 'The Black Cat', 'The Cask of Amontillado', 'The Bells' and more all get dropped into the mix.

More importantly, Griffith was taking advantage of the freedom his Majestic contract offered him to continue his explorations of the form and vocabulary of the film medium itself. He later told his assistant Karl Brown that his objective was "to photograph thought". Every device at his disposal was used to express the depths and subtleties of storytelling and characterisation that he knew movies -- his movies, at least -- were capable of.

The Nephew (Henry Walthall) confronts the
image of Death 
The psychological aspects of Poe's morbid tales proved an ideal vehicle for Griffith's ideas. In one particularly effective sequence taken directly from 'The Tell-Tale Heart', the murderous Nephew (Henry B. Walthall) is being interrogated by the detective. Losing his nerve, he becomes increasingly agitated by the detective tapping his pen on the table, imagining he can hear his dead Uncle's heartbeat. Griffith uses his trademark cross-cutting - to the pen, a tapping foot, a ticking clock - to both illustrate the sound in purely visual terms, and to emphasise the Nephew's mounting anxiety.

Walthall's archetypal protagonist (none of the characters have names, you'll notice) generally comes across as sympathetic, despite his homicidal actions, and despite some histrionics in the final act. It's fair to say that all the main players -- with the possible exception of Blanche Sweet's 'Sweetheart', whose character acts mainly as a foil for Walthall -- manage to add some quite subtle shades to their performances. That they are given the space to do so, however, is down to Griffith's expansive vision, and it's on his contribution that the film ultimately stands or falls.

Understandably, not everything works so well. There are comic and romantic interludes early in the film, mainly the one centred on the Grocery Boy's courtship of the Maid, that seem overlong and out of place. The pious/sentimental streak running through much of the film (as Griffith's Victorian sensibility shows through) makes such scenes hard to swallow for a modern audience, and the contrived ending is, to say the least, a big disappointment.

But any shortcomings The Avenging Conscience might have, might well be down to timing. By mid-1914, when the film was in production, Griffith was already focusing his ambitions on his next project, The Birth of A Nation, one that cast such a long shadow, his earlier work couldn't help but suffer in comparison. It's also worth bearing in mind that like that latter film (unbelievably!), Conscience was created without a written script, it's director preferring to develop the scenario during the shooting itself. Given these circumstances, the film becomes a remarkable achievement in its own right. Arguably, it wouldn't be until Germany in the 1920s that this kind of psychological horror would be explored as thoroughly again.

Finally, spare a thought for Robert Harron, Griffith's love-struck Grocery Boy. Harron, who went on to feature in Birth of a Nation, Intolerance and True Heart Susie, among many others, later found himself being overlooked by Griffith in favour of up-and-coming Richard Barthelmess. Griffith cast Barthelmess as the lead in Way Down East in 1920: on September 5th, the night before the film's New York premiere, Harron shot himself in the lung in his hotel room with a newly-purchased revolver. The official verdict was accidental death.

End Credits:
Henry B. Walthall (the Nephew), Spottiswoode Aitken (the Uncle), Blanche Sweet (the Sweetheart), George Seigmann (the Italian), Ralph Lewis (the Detective), Mae Marsh (the Maid), Robert Harron (the Grocery Boy), Josephine Crowell (the Sweetheart's Mother). Also starring George Berranger, Donald Crisp, Dorothy Gish, Walter Long, Wallace Reid (uncredited).
Screenplay: D.W. Griffith and Frank E Woods, Photography: G.W. Bitzer, Camera: Karl Brown, Editing: Rose and James Smith, Music Score (1914): S.L. Rothapfel. Loosely adapted from "The Tell-Tale Heart" by Edgar Allan Poe.
(UK title: 'Thou Shalt Not Kill')
Majestic Motion Picture Company, USA
Running time 85 mins.


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