The Pale Blue Eye, Scott Cooper

‘The Pale Blue Eye’ Looks Upon the Poe You Didn’t Know

Scott Cooper’s The Pale Blue Eye has Edgar Allan Poe (Harry Melling) making an unconventional partner to Christian Bale’s 1830s sleuth.

The Pale Blue Eye
Scott Cooper
6 January 2023

One of the things highlighted in Scott Cooper‘s horror/mystery, The Pale Blue Eye, now streaming on Netflix, is what a strange and unclassifiable character Edgar Allan Poe was. Harry Melling’s portrayal of Poe in his early 20s, prior to his literary fame, leans into transcendental mannerisms and lofty poetic discursions but also incorporates Southern courtliness and unique charisma. Poe’s fans today tend to see him as a haunted and crepuscular proto-goth, but the actual man wasn’t so easy to pin down; he invented the detective story, found success on the lecture circuit, was highly social, and during his lifetime was one of America’s most famous and prolific literary critics. He was even athletic for at least part of his life. One of the most seemingly incongruous details of his biography is that he served in the U.S. Army, rapidly earning promotions to the rank of Sergeant Major of Artillery.

Poe’s subsequent time at West Point as an officer in training didn’t go as well as his previous years in the military, and he was out in seven months. It’s hard to see how Poe, bookish most of the time and occasionally profligate, saw a future for himself as an officer in the United States Army. Either one is a straight-backed defender of one’s nation, or one is the author of “The Bells” and “The Masque of Red Death”. Surely a person cannot be both. 

This young, conflicted Poe arrives early in The Pale Blue Eye, acting and speaking unlike any of his West Point contemporaries, as he assists former constable Augustus Landor (Christian Bale) in the investigation of the strange death and even stranger post-murder mutilation of Cadet Leroy Fry (Steven Maier), whose heart was mysteriously removed from his corpse in the evening following his killing. Finding Landor in a pub, Poe tells the investigator that the murderer must be a poet, like himself, as the act of taking out a heart is one of pure symbolism and not an offense one could ascribe to typical criminal motives. Even though he’s no fan of poetry, Landor likes Poe and brings him into the investigation as an informal assistant, hunting for clues and tells among the other cadets, especially those who knew Fry.

The West Point command who brought Landor in to investigate, Captain Hitchcock (Simon McBurney) and Colonel Thayer (Timothy Spall), want a fast resolution but instead only get more murders, first of local farm animals, who also have their hearts removed, and then of another unfortunate cadet, Ballinger (Fred Hechinger) – one who had violently confronted Poe. Ballinger was friends with Cadet Artemus Marquis (Harry Lawtey), the son of West Point’s resident doctor (Toby Jones). Ballinger was also in love with Artemus’ sister Lea (Lucy Boynton), who had started spending more time with Poe. Hence the confrontation.

Over the course of Landor’s investigation, Poe becomes more deeply enamored of the fragile Lea who, like many women to which the real-life Poe was attracted, is pretty, artistic, well-read, and suffering from health problems (he really had a type). The desecration of Fry’s corpse puts Landor and Poe on the track of a possible satanic person or group that is dabbling in antique black magic rites. Landor and Poe learn much about each other, with Poe presumably picking up tidbits to use in his forthcoming C. Auguste Dupin detective stories and Landor catching glimpses of Poe’s belief in the afterlife and its frequent incursions into our earthly realm.

As in any mystery, characters are guarded and unknowable, with the exception of Poe and one other. We know that Poe isn’t the killer because 1. historically, he wasn’t a murderer, and 2. as he’s presented here, he’s just very odd. No good mystery has the strangest character as the criminal – you can’t lurk in the background when all eyes are on you. The only other character in The Pale Blue Eye who goes toe-to-toe with Melling’s peculiar performance is Gillian Anderson as Dr. Marquis’ wife. While Melling’s Poe is made sympathetic by his vulnerabilities and his sincerity – he’s something like the smart oddball that some cautiously befriended in school – Anderson’s off-kilter matron, with her costume of whalebone skirts, leg-o-mutton sleeves, and starched lace headgear, is just flat-out weird. Anderson keeps her performance within the realm of the unsettling while skimming the boundary of unintentional comedy.

Anderson is just helping to set the tone for the final act. Much of The Pale Blue Eye is set among the beautiful and slightly sinister forests, cliffs, and creeks of the Pennsylvania countryside, here representing New York’s Hudson Valley. The snow on the ground and the frost in the air blend perfectly with Howard Shore’s resonant score to construct an atmosphere of dark contemplation, where detectives ponder the solutions to perplexing crimes, and writers pause for a moment while they reach into their imaginations for the perfect line to close a poem.

This sense of chilly calm, maintained even during the course of some murders, becomes hysterical when the ancient cultish rituals are at last brought out into the open. It’s hard to fit a scene with human sacrifice and chanted Latin gobbledygook into a natural, plausible drama. An actor streaking their face with blood and holding an occult dagger aloft is always going to come across as outré. These are scenes that work better when they’re described in books than when they’re portrayed in films – it’s why Vincent Price always showed up to his black masses with a smirk below his petrifying gaze. 

An epilogue brings The Pale Blue Eye back to that cold and still setting, where Poe perceives more in the shadows than anyone around him, even Landor. The mystery gets a final and very satisfying last chapter, one that fits powerfully within the landscape the film established in its first scene. 

Adapted from the 2003 novel by Louis Bayard,  the film presents a bewhiskered Bale in fine form as Landor, a detective as smart and methodical as Poe’s Auguste Dupin, though troubled by a family episode in his recent past. Like much of the cast, Bale speaks his period dialogue with an unforced delivery and keeps everything watchable for modern audiences while mindful of historic norms and cadences. Melling is the real standout, breaking with the familiar gloomy conception of Poe and giving the audience a quick-witted, critical, and rounded depiction of the singular writer and cultural figure. Just as one of Poe’s many innovations, the detective story, was born in the Western hemisphere and then brought to amazing heights by British authors like Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie, Cooper’s adaptation of The Pale Blue Eye has a British actor creating one of the more memorable performances of this true American original.

RATING 7 / 10