“Do not believe anything you hear and only half of what you see.”
It’s an Edgar Allan Poe maxim that also serves as the thesis for Netflix’s twisty “The Pale Blue Eye” (now streaming). The historical fiction thriller, based on Louis Bayard’s 2003 novel, follows grieving detective Augustus Landor (Christian Bale) as he investigates the grisly murders of several cadets at the West Point military academy in the 1830s. Harry Melling, a “Harry Potter” alum, plays Poe, a cadet and aspiring writer who assists Landor with the case.
Bayard and Melling tell us about the film’s real-life origins and shocking conclusion:
‘The Pale Blue Eye’ is not based on a true story.
Other real-life characters in the film include Generals Sylvanus Thayer (Timothy Spall) and Ethan Allen Hitchcock (Simon McBurney), both of whom worked at West Point. However, the story is entirely fictitious.
“There’s really only one part of this that’s true, and that’s that Edgar Allan Poe did spend six months at West Point,” Bayard says. “That’s something that people find surprising. It’s the reason I chose this setting because many people are unaware that he was present. And West Point has never made a big deal about that connection; I think they’re a little embarrassed by him.”
The film depicts a different side of Edgar Allan Poe.
Melling first encountered Poe in a Halloween episode of “The Simpsons” in 1990, before reading “The Raven” and “The Tell-Tale Heart” in school. But “Pale Blue Eye” defied his expectations of the author, who died in 1849 at the age of 40.
“It does reinvent the idea of who Poe is in some ways,” Melling says. “I think a lot of people will come into this film picturing this very dark, moody, sombre character. What I liked about him is that he’s a cheerful and eccentric character who is always trying to impress people.”
Poe’s parents died when he was a child, and he had a strained relationship with his foster father, who relocated the family between Virginia and the United Kingdom. Melling drew inspiration from the writer’s “very nomadic, lonely existence” in his relationship with the fictional Landor.
“It made sense to me why he would attach himself to this detective in such a strong way,” Melling says. “Perhaps Landor fulfils that sense of having a father in some way.”
That’very shocking’ twist is a tribute to Agatha Christie.
Landor and Poe’s investigation takes them to Julia Marquis (Gillian Anderson), whose daughter Lea (Lucy Boynton) suffers from seizures and uses black magic to treat them. Poe suspects Lea killed the cadets as part of an occult ritual until he notices Landor’s handwriting on a note found on one of the dead bodies.
Finally, it is revealed that Landor murdered the young men two years after his daughter was raped by cadets. The assault drove her to commit suicide, and Landor was out for vengeance.
“Under the right circumstances, we’re all capable of anything,” Bayard says. “This is a character who has dedicated his life to apprehending criminals and upholding the rule of law. When his own daughter is taken away from him, the traditional institutions are no longer adequate. He must take control of the situation.”
The twist is inspired by Agatha Christie’s “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd,” in which the narrator is revealed to be the murderer.
“That was shocking in 1926, and I believe it is still shocking today,” Bayard says. “We bring certain assumptions to stories: we don’t believe a detective will investigate his own crime. He’s our surrogate, so the fact that he’s known the whole time is a surprise.”
You can find Easter eggs about Christian Bale’s character if you look closely.
Viewers who rewatch the film after learning the identity of the perpetrator may notice some hints that it was Landor all along.
“That very first scene in which you see Landor’s character washing his hands in the stream – it turns out later that he’s washing a bloody implement,” Bayard explains. “And the scene he has with Thayer and Hitchcock about (West Point) and how it warps cadets by forcing them to follow all these rules – I think Landor is very much thinking in that moment about the cadets who assaulted his daughter.
“Looking back, you can see that Landor’s attitude toward the entire military establishment is pretty hostile, and it has to stem from his own and his daughter’s experiences.”
Other detective stories have been inspired by Poe’s “fearless” work.
Melling regards Poe as the “godfather” of the mystery genre, having influenced everyone from horror author H.P. Lovecraft to the creator of “Sherlock Holmes,” Arthur Conan Doyle. His prints have even been found on recent whodunits “See How They Run” and “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery.”
“You can feel his presence everywhere,” Melling says. “He’s one of those writers who has become so ingrained in our storytelling vocabulary.”
Poe’s writing, according to Bayard, continues to resonate because of his keen observations about human behaviour and obsessions.
“He was fearless,” says Bayard. “He plunged into areas that most of us are afraid to go in and found these unpleasant truths about us. He knew what we were capable of and didn’t hide it in his work. He looked into it. And I believe this is why his work affects us on a subconscious level: it touches on the stuff of nightmares.”