A librarian’s tell-tale heart

This 1960 version of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart stars Laurence Payne as Edgar Marsh, who is described on the back of the DVD case as “a mentally unstable librarian.” If you’re familiar with Poe’s classic short story, then you might be asking yourself right now, “I don’t remember that story including a librarian.” And you would be RIGHT.

The plot is summed up on the back of the DVD case. So no spoilers that the DVD case doesn’t already reveal:

A mentally unstable librarian discovers that the woman he is infatuated with has dumped him for another man. In a fit of rage, he murders his rival, burying the body under the floorboards in his home.

Reel Librarians  |  DVD cover of 'The Tell-Tale Heart' (1960)

As film critic Roman Martel wrote in his review on DVD Verdict, “Poe purists will not like any of the changes made to the story.” Also, I noted that in the opening credits, Edgar Allan Poe’s middle name is misspelled as Allen, as seen below. The main character — also named Edgar, subtle — also lives on Rue Morgue. So this film starts out as a hodgepodge of random Poe references.

Reel Librarians  |  Screenshots from 'The Tell-Tale Heart' (1960)

Given this context, I was not really looking forward to watching The Tell-Tale Heart (1960). I do, however, have to give credit to the director, Ernest Morris, for crafting a slow-burning, moody tale, with plenty of shadows and dramatic film angles. The film’s look harkens back to the 1944 classic Gaslight, especially given the period film setting. The acting by the leads also elevates this melodramatic tale, even if Laurence Payne tends to go over-the-top in his lead role.

Cue the dramatic facial expressions:

Reel Librarians  |  Facial expressions of the lead actor in 'The Tell-Tale Heart' (1960)

Our first look at the lead character is shot from below, as Edgar descends a staircase in his bathrobe, peering down the banister. A heart is beating faintly in the background. Is he fearful… or is he the one we should fear? It’s also telling that we get a shot, all askew, of the portrait of his dead mother.

Reel Librarians  |  Screenshots from 'The Tell-Tale Heart' (1960)

Edgar’s naughty librarian ways are revealed early on. In one early scene, he leers through the window at a lively restaurant, and is caught staring at a woman’s legs (seen below). When she makes an advance and touches his hand, he reacts violently and runs away. Returning home — pausing to rub the cheek of his dead mother’s portrait, as you do — he takes out a collection of pornographic photos secreted in the back of his closet. But rather than getting excited by the photos, he seems sad and resigned instead, his hand falling limply by his side.

Reel Librarians  |  Screenshots from 'The Tell-Tale Heart' (1960)

Reel Librarians  |  Screenshots from 'The Tell-Tale Heart' (1960)

The next morning, Edgar looks out his bedroom window and sees Betty for the first time and finds himself instantly obsessed. He becomes a peeping Tom, watching her undress night after night (it is annoying that Betty remains clueless about her uncovered window throughout the film). The director also consistently places the camera behind Edgar as he looks at women, which heightens the creep factor.

Reel Librarians  |  Screenshots from 'The Tell-Tale Heart' (1960)

Edgar finally works up the nerve to ask Betty to dinner, and she accepts because, as she says later, “I suppose I felt sorry for him.” On their first outing, he reveals his occupation:

Betty:  Now it’s your turn.

Edgar:  I work as a librarian. I’m in charge of the reference section in the main library. [pauses]

Betty:  Is that all?

Edgar:  I can’t think of anything else to say.

Escorting her home, he then sexually assaults Betty, putting his arms around her and trying to kiss her (below left). He gets a door slammed in his face (rightfully so). He apologizes the next morning, and Betty takes yet more pity on him. This leads to yet more sexual harassment (below right).

Reel Librarians  |  Screenshots from 'The Tell-Tale Heart' (1960)

Edgar is the one who ends up introducing Betty to his friend, Carl; Edgar seems oblivious to their immediate attraction to each other. Until that is, his voyeuristic activities reveal Betty’s and Carl’s affair… which leads to him later beating Carl to death in a jealous rage. Of course, Edgar didn’t realize at the time that he was also killing his own soul while he was killing his only friend.

Reel Librarians  |  Screenshots from 'The Tell-Tale Heart' (1960)

Ironically, Carl is the only one in the film who says anything nice about Edgar. He says to Betty at one point that “He’s a decent sort. He’s helped me out of a spot more than once,” and in another scene, “He’s an intelligent man.”

Why a librarian? This is not part of the original short story, so why did the screenwriters make such a point of mentioning it? The library itself is shown briefly in one scene, pictured below, when Betty comes to ask him about Carl’s disappearance.

Reel Librarians  |  Screenshots from 'The Tell-Tale Heart' (1960)

Ironically, Edgar appears at his most confident while in his “natural habitat,” the library. He is smooth and even flirtatious with Betty, cupping her chin with his fingers. The shot of Edgar’s tidy desk at the library also contrasts with his untidy desk at home, as seen in the pictures below. He plays the role of a respectable citizen when he is at the library; at home, he is a mess.

Reel Librarians  |  Screenshots from 'The Tell-Tale Heart' (1960)

The fact that Edgar is a librarian is not that important to the plot (landing the film in the Class II category), except for a scene later in the film when Betty goes to the police to voice her suspicions about Edgar’s involvement in Carl’s disappearance. The policeman’s reaction?

Edgar Marsh has worked quietly as chief librarian in this town for many years. A thoroughly respectable citizen. No, no, no. I don’t want to persecute an innocent man.

His being a librarian provides him respectability, although it is a “damning with faint praise” kind of respectability. Edgar is a sad, frustrated, lonely man, one who lacks confidence and shows obvious discomfort in social situations.

You know how I’m usually like around women. Petrified as such to do to the wrong thing.

Betty:  You live all alone in that big house?  Edgar:  I prefer it that way.

A classic Male Librarian as Failure. His actions and violent reactions are motivated by fear.

Edgar also fulfills the Naughty Librarian character type. He is obsessed with sex, as evidenced by his collection of pornographic photos, but he doesn’t know what to do when he has the opportunity (like when he runs away from the woman in the bar). He is sexually frustrated, which feeds into his violent overreactions; the film also hints at some kind of unnatural past sexual relationship with his mother.

It doesn’t come as a surprise then, when sexual fantasies of Betty quickly turn into nightmares of Carl’s last dying moments. Sex and violence are irrevocably linked in this reel librarian’s mind. It is also no coincidence that the only time we see Edgar in bed, he is physically ill.

Reel Librarians  |  Screenshots from 'The Tell-Tale Heart' (1960)

Laurence Payne gives it his all, and then some, as troubled reel librarian Edgar Marsh. However, as you can tell, this is not the most flattering of male librarian portrayals!

To counteract all the creepiness, I will end on a funny note. My husband did NOT like the film — he is a Poe purist — and after the scene in which Edgar kills Carl and hides his body, he joked:

“When he stores you under the floorboards, I’m sure he’ll catalog you, too!” 😀

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