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The Small Assassin (2006)

 

Production Credits Synopsis Review

"The Small Assassin"

"The Small Assassin" first appeared in Dime Mystery Magazine, November 1946.

Its first book appearance was in Dark Carnival (1947).

Production Credits

Screenplay: Brian Caunter, Josh Staman, Erin Elders, from Bradbury's short story

Directed by Chris Charles

Cast: David Marcotte, Lois Mathilda Atkins, Robert Breuler.

 

Synopsis

Alice Leiber is in labour, and the doctor decides on a caesarean delivery. It's a boy.

Over a celebratory cigar, Dr Jeffers warns David Leiber that his wife seems to have no affection for the newborn child. However, he says this is not uncommon.

On the journey home, Alice seems fairly comfortable with the child on her lap. But when David suggests they name the baby, she says they should wait.

Settling in together as a family, David has no trouble connecting with his son. Alice is distant, however, and says she misses how their relationship was before they had a child. Alice later confides that she is afraid of being alone with the baby.

David has to go to Chicago on business. Alice is alone in the house. David receives a call from Dr Jeffers, urging him to cut his trip short and return home immediately.

Alice is ill - mentally if not physically. She is convinced the baby has tried to kill her. Dr Jeffers tells David he must do all he can to love Alice, and that eventually she will come round to loving her son. David and Alice spend a lot of time together, and their relationship seems to be improving.

One night, David hears a noise and gets up to investigate. He slips on the stairs - he trips over a teddy bear that looks as if it has been deliberately left as a trip hazard. He looks in on the baby, but finds him innocently asleep in his room.

Things seem to be going well for the Leibers. Until, one day, David returns home and is shocked to find Alice collapsed on the floor by the stairs. She is dead, having tripped over the teddy bear, which has again been left on the stairs.

At the funeral wake, David is consoled by Dr Jeffers. David gets angry, and tells Jeffers that the baby killed Alice. David suggests the baby should be named Lucifer. Jeffers medicates David, and says he will visit him in the morning to see if he feels any better.

The next day, Jeffers arrives at the Leiber house, but David doesn't seem to be around. Jeffers heads upstairs. Opening David's bedroom door, he is immediately struck by the smell of gas. He rushes to the windo to ventilate the room, them turns to the bed, where David is lying. Dead.

Jeffers goes to the baby's room. The window is wide open. For ventilation? The door blows shut behind Jeffers. He looks in the crib. No baby.

Jeffers quickly puts it all together: the baby somehow turned on the gas to kill David, but when the baby's bedroom door blew shut behind him, he was unable to reach the handle to get back in. Jeffers figures the murderous child is loose in the house somewhere.

He goes to his medical bag and takes out a scalpel. Then prowls the house, looking for the small assassin...

 

Trivial Differences

  • in the short story, we only know that the baby was born by caesarean section at the end of the story. In the film, the caesarean is one of the first things we see
  • the short story is set in Los Angeles. The film doesn't specifically say where it is set, although it was filmed entirely in Chicago
  • in the story, David flies from LA to Chicago. In the film, he goes by train
  • in the story, David smokes when he, mother and baby are in the car. In the film, all smoking is confined to the celebratory cigars consumed in Jeffers' office
  • in the story, David trips over a ragdoll. In the film it appears to be a teddy bear.
  • later in the story, Alice is killed by tripping on the same ragdoll. She then lies at the foot of the stairs, dead, "like a crumpled doll that doesn't want to play any more". In the film, it's the teddy bear again.

More About The Film

 

Review

This is a very lavish short film. Shot on Super 35mm, with extravagant period costumes and settings - the film appears to be set in the 1940s or 1950s.

The adaptation is very close to the Bradbury short story, and is one of the better adaptations of his work. It's one of those classic early Bradbury stories of apparent paranoia - but a paranoia which is vindicated. What is unusual about "The Small Assassin" is that the paranoia infects a succession of characters. First Alice, the mother. Following her death, David, the father. And following his death, Jeffers, the physician.

The film portrays the transference of this paranoia quite well, although it is less convincing than in the short story. As we often see in adaptations of Bradbury, what is lost is the inner thoughts of the characters. Bradbury is uniquely able to convince us of the terror that a difficult labour can cause for a mother. In the film, this is suggested by the disorientating opening shot of the delivery table from above.

In his prose, Bradbury is able to take us inside each character's head in turn. The narrator in the short story shifts - sometimes omniscient, sometimes Alice, sometimes David, sometimes Jeffers. Although film is able to emulate this to some degree, by siding with a particular character in a particular scene, we are rarely able to read the thoughts of the characters.

Unless, of course, they monologue. Which they tend to do a little in this film. Unfortunately, it is during such scenes that the characters become less believable, as if they can only shift their point-of-view on events by verbalising them.

There is also a slight problem with pace in this production. David's trip to Chicago is illustrated, but uneventful. David and Alice's attempts to relax and lead a normal life is shown by a montage of summer activities - picnic in the park, playing golf. Again, uneventful. While the film visualises all of these scenes beautifully, with some great photography and production design, they slow the film down. The Ray Bradbury Theatre version has a slight edge over this version as far as pacing and characterisation is concerned, although this film has vastly superior visuals.

The Small Assassin also has a delightful music score, with shades of Bernard Herrman. This short video shows composer Greg Nicolett conducting the orchestra.

The film ends as it begins, with Jeffers producing his scalpel, the very instrument that brought baby Lucifer into the world, and which will now take him out of it.

"The Small Assassin", much to Bradbury's chagrin, has been much imitated over the years. It is ironic to see that some of the reviews of this short film have suggested the influence to Rosemary's Baby, apparently in ignorance of the fact that Bradbury's classic tale predates Ira Levin's novel (and Polanski's film) by over twenty years.

This is a very good example of what can be done with a Bradbury story in short film, a medium that seems ideally suited to his short stories.

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Page updated 8 March, 2019