The Pale Blue Eye: Reviving Edgar Allen Poe
The Pale Blue Eye (2003) is one of novelist Louis Bayard’s most successful books. The plot couldn’t be more compelling. After a brutal murder on the grounds of the West Point military academy, they hire the services of a veteran New York detective, Gus Landor. In his investigations, he has the help of a rather special figure: Edgar Allan Poe.
Netflix didn’t hesitate in buying the rights to this bestseller, making it one of its biggest gambles at the beginning of 2023. The Pale Blue Eye is a movie with a mesmerizing gothic atmosphere that has its greatest attraction in Poe. For the first time, we see the classic figure of American literature portrayed at a time when he was still an outstanding poet in the making.
Misty settings, barren trees, snowy forests, cawing crows, streets lit by flickering gaslights, ritual murders, and enigmatic messages. This production, directed by Scott Cooper, has everything to conquer the heart of any lover of mystery or the fanatical Bostonian writer. However, beyond the two powerful performances of its protagonists, there are certain elements that are strangely out of tune.
Edgar Allan Poe entered West Point in July 1830. The military academy overlooked the Hudson River. For a time, Poe distinguished himself as a good student. However, just seven months later, he was tried by a court martial for neglecting his duties and disobeying orders.
Poe at West point: the poet with the soul of a detective
The fact that Edgar Allan Poe left West Point in 1831 was a boon for the history of literature. His biographers say that he was bad at mathematics and that he didn’t really comply with military discipline. However, this period of his life at the academy, by the Hudson River, was a fascinating time. It’s little wonder that Louis Bayard used it in his novel.
This isn’t the first time that Poe has been portrayed in a detective role. The first was in The Raven (2012), in which a magnificent John Cusack portrayed the tempestuous poet investigating some atrocious murders based on his own poems. This production, like The Pale Blue Eye, was based on a pretty solid foundation. Indeed, the famous poet and writer was a great lover of criminology. As a matter of fact, Sherlock Holmes wouldn’t ever have existed if Conan Doyle hadn’t been fascinated by Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin in The Murders in the Rue Morgue or The Mystery of Marie Rogêt.
The origins of The Pale Blue Eye
Edgar Allan Poe died when he was just 40 years old after a life of more darkness than light. As well as leaving behind an exceptional literary legacy, he remained something of a mystery. Therefore, the mere idea of glimpsing certain episodes in his life, even more so, his origins, is fascinating.
The Pale Blue Eye opens with a view of the Hudson Valley, with its snow-dappled misty forests, trapping us in an atmosphere of subtle mystery. Masanobu Takayanagi, director of photography, has given this movie one of its greatest attractions in the creation of a setting that emanates feelings of sadness in a haunting gothic setting.
Before long, we meet detective Gus Landor, played by Christian Bale. He’s accomplished at portraying difficult characters, the kinds that mask dark secrets. This character is no exception. He’s commissioned to investigate a supposed suicide in West Point, a place he dislikes as it’s full of bad memories for him. However, it doesn’t take long for him to recruit an assistant, a cadet who suggests that the murderer he’s looking for is a poet.
“To remove a man’s heart is to traffic in symbols. And who better equipped for such labor than a poet?”
-Poe, The Pale Blue Eye-
Poe and Landor, two traumatic figures
Edgar Allan Poe (portrayed perfectly by Harry Melling) and Landor are two dark souls who instantly connect. The latter is a widower suffering from the trauma of the loss of his wife while Poe talks to his deceased mother. In effect, the detective is the mirror of what the Bostonian writer and poet will become in the future, an alcoholic scarred by the loss of several female figures in his life.
The best thing about the movie is the bond between its protagonists. It’s almost like a father-son bond and both feed off each other. Whether due to their undeniable ingenuity, complicity, or mutual admiration, the two men build a shared refuge in which they explore suffering, disappointment, sadness, and even institutional corruption.
The origin of Poe’s lurid literary universes
Scott Cooper, director of The Pale Blue Eye, is also its screenwriter. One of the purposes of the movie is to allow us to see the origin of many of the obsessions, stories, and literary figures of Poe’s stories. In fact, it’s reminiscent of The Murders of the Rue Morgue and there are echoes of more than one of Poe’s characters.
These elements both keep us alert and make us smile. However, unfortunately, despite the juicy plot, the ritual crimes, and the esoteric and enigmatic games in the style of Dan Brown, in the end, it’s all rather disappointing. While the narrative of the mystery demands attention to detail, it’s not long before the plot becomes predictable and even superficial.
Our fascination with the protagonists means we wish the movie had delved into more details, and given us more tempting titbits of information. Instead, everything is all rather hollow and sketchy.
A chiselled face and a mind that left its mark on the world
Harry Melling’s Poe is mesmerizing. He’s all cheekbones, chin, and cavernous eyes full of verve and passion. It doesn’t take long for us to realize that this West Point cadet, with his speeches, reasoning, and sensitivity, is someone who’ll leave his mark on the world.
That said, we also sense that he’s the kind of person who dances with darkness and despair. And sometimes, those who border on the extraordinary, come to tragic ends. But, we appreciate the fact that the movie tries to trace how Poe’s life could’ve been. Such an undertaking isn’t easy. Moreover, Poe’s work is difficult to portray on screen.
Later in the year, there’ll be an exciting opportunity to prove this last statement wrong. Mike Flanagan (The Haunting of Hill House, Midnight Mass ) will bring us a new adaptation of Poe’s work, The Fall of the House of Usher.It might interest you...
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- Wang, H., Chen, Y., & Zhang, Q. (2018). The effects of low and high levels of sadness on scope of attention: an ERP study. Frontiers in Psychology, 9, 2397.