The Sealed Room
Reviewed in July 2009 / Click Here to Comment
Director: D.W. Griffith. Cast: Arthur V. Johnson, Marion Leonard, Henry B. Walthall, George Nichols, Anthony O'Sullivan, Mary Pickford, Linda Arvidson, Gertrude Robinson, Mack Sennett, Owen Moore, George Siegmann. Screenplay: Frank E. Woods (based loosely on "The Cask of Amantillado" by Edgar Allan Poe and "La Grande Breteche" by Honoré de Balzac).

Photo © 1909 The Biograph Company
Poe ought to be a perfect match even for the rudimentary narrative flexions of early cinema, and The Cask of Amontillado, with its key trope of claustrophobia and its invitation to brute cross-cutting, should have been especially conducive to the nascent partnership of D.W. Griffith and cameraman Billy Bitzer. But The Sealed Room is just awful, and actually gets worse as its eleven minutes pass. Griffith can't block the early shots articulately enough that we have any idea what Arthur V. Johnson's Count wants to do with this single-entrance alcove he has just "discovered" in his castle, and this allegedly intimate nook looks just as airy and wide-open on screen as the grand hall does. Everyone is over-dressed, in particular Henry B. Walthall as the lute-strumming minstrel who is Griffith's idea of a romantic lure for the Count's wife, played with ghastly overstatement by Marion Leonard. The second half of the film beggars belief: the extra-curricular lovebirds simply don't notice that they're being walled up by a trio of bricklayers, who do a mighty job of making those stage-prop stone slabs look heavy to lift. That velvet curtain between the canoodlers sure must absorb a lot of sound, or else Walthall has amplified his lute up to Eleven. In either case, the pantomime of asphyxiation is even more garish in the context of Griffith's refusal to do a single thing to make the sealed-up vault any darker or more cramped-looking than it was in the initial shots, and the cross-cuts to the mad cuckold are awfully rote. Besides the cute touch of the American Biograph logo branded on one of the faux-bricks in the back wall, there's precious little to savor here, though it's instantly easier to perceive why early-century highbrows thought the cinema was so hopeless. Grade: D+

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