There have already been numerous portrayals of Edgar Allan Poe as a character in literature and popular media alike, and Netflix’s “The Pale Blue Eye” is the latest film to do so. Based on Louis Bayard’s novel, the film presents our beloved Poe as a peculiar young cadet who is getting his training at United States Military Academy at West Point. It is at this Academy that the man meets with a veteran detective, Augustus Landor, who is appointed by the military to solve the strange suicide of a cadet. Through his time spent secretly serving as an assistant to detective Landor, Edgar A. Poe makes new friends, experiences new losses, and ultimately solves the mystery of the murders himself. And as would be expected, themes of the occult and macabre surround the two characters and the events that unfold in the film.
To begin with, Edgar Allan Poe was actually enlisted in the US Army in 1827 after having lied about his age. He had then also moved to the Military Academy at West Point, New York, and was actually a cadet there in 1830, which is the year shown in “The Pale Blue Eye.” However, there is no record of Poe actually being involved in solving any murder case during this time, or ever in his life for that matter. The characters of Landor and the Marquis family and all the events of the film’s plot are fictional, first written by novelist Louis Bayard and then adapted to the screen by director Scott Cooper. By his time at West Point, Poe had already had his first book of poems published, which is why the characters in the film make reference to the young cadet as an already-published poet. In reality, Poe wanted to end his time at West Point around 1831, and he intentionally got himself court-martialed and removed from the military. Following this, the man went on to practice poetry and literature, and then established himself as an immense figure in the history of literature and culture. According to novelist Bayard’s own words, his work, and therefore this film, is almost like an origin story for Poe, which is undoubtedly fictional but closely tied to his real life.
Despite having a really warm and soft soul, young Poe’s exterior words and expressions are always serious and even grim. The man finds the act of ripping someone’s heart out of their dead body poetically symbolic. He talks of death and despair with an ease that is not usual among people. But it might also be argued that the heavily morbid and macabre imagery or tone that Poe’s literary work is marked with is still not present in his character. It is almost as if this Poe, in “The Pale Blue Eye,” was a young man before he became a mature artist of the macabre. Perhaps the experiences here start to drive him toward that darkness. There is something about the death of cadet Fry and the subsequent theft of his dead heart that amuses Poe, for he is the one to approach the investigating detective and try to get acquainted with him. The character of Augustus Landor is still unknown to the young man, and so the only possible reason for him to approach the detective might be to somehow get to learn more about the case. It is actually not difficult to imagine Edgar Allan Poe being amused by the carving out of hearts from dead cows, sheep, and men. Once he starts working for Landor, trying to find out more information from within the Academy and the other cadets, a friendship, or companionship at the very least, starts between the two men. Poe uses his brilliant skills with the English language to decipher the message on the small note found in Fry’s hand, and at this very moment, he realizes that Landor, too, is quite skilled. The fact that Poe starts to admire Landor for the detective skills that the veteran possesses is evident, and he truly fulfills the role of the sidekick.
This admiration is not just on Poe’s side either; it is felt at one point in Landor as well. When the detective is informed that both Fry and Ballinger had fights with Poe before they were murdered in such a horrific manner, Landor does grow concerned. He confronts Poe about this and shows frustration at the fact that the cadet had not told him of all this. While Landor had himself broken off the fight between Poe and Ballinger the night before the latter’s death, the fact that a similar altercation had occurred with Fry, too, was unknown. Inside his mind, Landor obviously knows who committed the murders—it was he himself—but he is also now worried for Poe. Everyone, including the officials at the Academy, knew of this animosity between Poe and the dead cadets, and suspicion obviously fell on the poet. Captain Hitchcock actually tells Landor directly that they suspect Poe the most and only need the detective to find proof of all this. When the plot about Artemus Marquis stealing the hearts for the occult rituals for his sister’s treatment is revealed, Landor does not have to think twice about putting the blame for the murders on Artemus. Therefore, it is not that Landor is struck by guilt when someone else is suspected of his crimes. Landor’s character, after all, is that of a hardened and sharpened man, a veteran not just in his profession as a detective but in general life as well. But he still looks out for Poe because, by this time, Landor has developed an admiration for Poe too. It needs to be mentioned that the young poet, played brilliantly by Harry Melling, does have a charm and confidence that are impressive. At the very end, when all confrontations and confessions are made, Landor actually admits that he wishes it was Poe who his daughter Mathilde ran into on the night of the Academy Ball instead of the three cadets who forced themselves upon her. Landor knows that Poe’s kind heart and respectful attitude are not common among the men of his age all around, and for as long as he can, he does enjoy the young apprentice’s company.
Poe’s character is also given adequate depth, given the fact that he is such a crucial part of the plot. He shares with Landor the struggles he constantly has to face in trying to fit in with society, something that continues throughout the poet’s life. At the Academy, his appearance, knowledge, and personality are a matter of ridicule and contempt. Cadet Poe’s appearance and poise do stick out among the very traditionally masculine figures all around. He is very unlike Artemus or his friends Ballinger and Stoddard, but Poe’s charm can also make him friends with them, which he does solely for the sake of the investigation. It is through this friendship that he first meets Artemus’ sister, Lea, and the attraction he feels is almost instant. This works both ways, too, as Lea’s fluency in French and admiration for Byron’s poetry charm her as well, and she agrees to spend time with Poe. In perhaps the most apt fashion, Poe takes Lea to a cemetery on their first outing together instead of any usual spots for romance. When Lea has a seizure during this outing, she probably expects her date to flee the scene or fear for their safety, and so when Poe helps her out throughout the experience, she is even more touched. It can be considered that Lea was ultimately looking for someone willing to sacrifice themselves for her ritual, and that Poe was an easy target for this. But such a consideration perhaps takes away from the romantic possibility that was actually present between the two characters. Lea did genuinely believe in the ritual that she wanted to perform, and so her love or admiration for Poe was also probably very genuine. Had she wanted to just lure a man in, then Ballinger would have been a far easier target. Of course, when Edgar Allan Poe is involved, the occult cannot be far off, and so the whole part about the Marquis family being descendants of Father Henri Le Clerc and them trying to cure Lea’s sickness with black magic is rather fitting. The man was already interested in death and the grim imagery in the film before this, and perhaps this experience, which nearly kills him, only brings Poe closer to his gothic style and perspective on life.
In “The Pale Blue Eye,” Edgar Allan Poe as a poet is not as important or crucial as he is as an individual. The young cadet does express his desire to keep writing poetry in life, and he does look confident about becoming a practitioner of literature in the future. He even tells Landor that he will make himself and his work memorable through poetry. But what counts more is the loss of trust and love that Poe experiences through the events of the film. Probably his first romantic relationship in life was with Lea Marquis, but she dies when the icehouse burns down, along with her brother Artemus. The poet is gravely affected by this but is even more appalled by the fact that his closest friend and companion at the time, Landor, had also let him down. Not only had Landor turned out to be a murderer, but he had kept this fact hidden from Poe as well. Despite the cadet opening up to Landor about himself and his deepest struggles, he was kept away from Landor’s deepest secret. This secret is also deeply linked with Landor’s sorrow, which is the loss of his daughter, and this seems to affect Poe the most. The fact that Landor had kept his sorrows from him even though he considered himself a friend of the detective gravely hurts him. Had Poe not been so intelligent and attentive to minor details, he would have never known about Landor’s sorrows and his crimes. Ultimately, though, a shade of selflessness is there in this character of Poe, and it is perhaps made to be one of the most noteworthy things about him. Individuals who open up to him and give him the company he secretly craves will find that Poe will do just about anything to help. This is why he agreed to be a live dummy for Lea’s ritual, and this is also why he lets Landor be at the end. With tears in his eyes and a heavy broken heart, Poe burns the small note that could have proved Landor’s murder. This sadness is perhaps not because of the realization that he had been helping a murderer for this long; it is because Landor had made him believe his lies too. This sadness is perhaps because Poe had not just lost a lover in Lea but had also just lost a friend in Landor as well.