In Murder in the Cathedral (1936), four tempters visit Thomas Becket as he retires to his rooms. The first three tempt the Archbishop and former Chancellor of England with royal favour, carefree joy, political power, and the support of English lords. An unexpected, mysterious Fourth Tempter (“you know me, but have never seen my face”) offers a vision of heavenly glory such as only martyrs and saints enjoy. Becket admits to “have thought of these things,” but also spurns the last tempter. Whereas the first three aspects of temptation were easy to dismiss, the fourth is especially powerful in picturing the archbishop´s secret ambitions.
A film adaptation of Eliot’s play was directed by George Hoellering in 1951. The director persuaded the author to join with him in writing the screenplay, adding an opening trial scene with Henry II at Northampton Castle. Eliot was also asked to record the text of his play, so that actors became familiar with its intrinsic music and rhythm. He agreed to take an active role in Hoellering’s project – curious to learn how cinema worked, and keen to explore the possibilities of poetry in that medium.
In reflecting on verse in film [*], Eliot argued that image and word should have equal standing and be in perfect conjunction. He also laid emphasis on audibility, comparing cinemas with theatres: in a cinema, it was possible for all audience members to listen in much the same way. Sound technology, therefore, opened favourable prospects for the reception of poetry in film. Eliot would have a further opportunity to contribute to this development when Hoellering asked him to lend his voice to the Fourth Tempter.
In this scene of the film, we hear Eliot’s voice, his characteristic reading tone and inflections with background music, which builds up the tension. We see a variety of images, outdoor and indoor, still and moving – clouds covering the sun, the knights riding towards Canterbury, a crucifix, a column capital, a wall relief, decorated tiles. But more importantly, we see Becket. First we see him from a distance, in the seclusion of a small chapel; then the camera follows him. Finally we are close up, rather as a ghostly presence that may be identified with the Fourth Tempter. His speech is, as a means of psychological characterisation and foreshadowing, a climax in both the play and the film.
[*] See, for example, Eliot’s “Dossier on Murder in the Cathedral: Playwright Presents Both an Evaluation and Appreciation of the Film Version,” New York Times (March 23, 1952) in Complete Prose 7, eds. Iman Javadi and Ronald Schuchard, Johns Hopkins University Press and Faber and Faber, pp. 673-76.