This article originally appeared in Bright Lights Film Journal in October 2001
Poe's Favorite Story Dressed to Kill by a Legendary Surrealist Auteur
by Gary Morris
Poe has proven to be one of the more enduring sources for filmmakers, not only because there’s something modern, indeed timeless, in his limning of altered mental states but, more prosaically, because his work is in the public domain and thus free to adapt. The Internet Movie Database lists ten versions of one story alone, The Fall of the House of Usher. These run from a 1928 silent version by the pioneering gay directors Watson and Webber to Ken Russell’s 2001 remake called The Fall of the Louse of Usher, which, according to one critic, transforms Poe’s moody masterpiece into the story of “a vicious wife-murdering rock star being treated in a lunatic asylum.”
While most cinephiles know and revere the 1960 version starring Vincent Price at his fruitiest, there was a second silent adaptation made the same year as Watson and Webber’s by film theorist and surrealist Jean Epstein that deserves equal, if not more attention. This version has traditionally been more talked about than actually seen. Film school teachers and obscurantists have ranked it with Dreyer’s Passion of Joan of Arc and Robert Wiene’s Cabinet of Dr. Caligari as a masterpiece of silent-film expressionism. Now that it’s been issued on DVD, in a decent if not stunning print that’s probably the best we'll ever see, it’s possible to test such claims.
Poe’s story of the decline and fall of the last two members of a family line (Roderick and Madeline Usher) is too familiar to need recounting here, so let’s move immediately to Epstein’s version of the story. First let it be said that this Usher, which runs roughly an hour, is as much a sampling of Poe as an adaptation of Usher: Elements of The Oval Portrait, Berenice, Ligeia, The Pit and the Pendulum, and no doubt others can be found by the attentive viewer. Some of these references are casual and witty, as when the name Ligeia appears on a crypt in the background, or a giant pendulum blade swings against a black background. Others are crucial elements of the film, such as the motif of a painting sucking the life from its human subject, taken from The Oval Portrait. As with any adaptation of such a noncinematic author, there are deviations from the original. The most telling of these is Epstein’s peculiar recasting of Madeline Usher into Roderick’s wife rather than his sister, effectively killing one of the story’s most resonant themes, incest. To liven things up, he increases the triangle of narrator-Usher-Madeline to include a couple of Roderick’s pals who loiter around the Usher mansion. While such strategies may detract from the purity of Poe’s vision, the film more than compensates with bravura camerawork, lighting, and a convincing air of mystery and strangeness (rather than horror) that eclipses all other contenders.
The Usher mansion, at least from the inside, is remarkably visualized, and as much the star -- as it must be in a story like this -- as Roderick or Madeline. Most of the “action” occurs in a vast, gloomy central space that dwarfs its pathetic human inhabitants. Leaves blow ominously across the floor, and curtains, sometimes half-lit in a way that recalls Rembrandt, flutter menacingly, as if the house is under constant, quiet, insidious siege by a vengeful nature. The outside is a charming miniature, almost papier-mache looking against a backdrop of cut-out stars. Despite the obvious miniature, the land surrounding the mansion is a convincing “blasted heath” of the kind familiar to Poe fans. Cameraman George Lucas brings this dead land to life in gorgeous tableaux of glistening still streams and gnarled vegetation smothering under swirling fogs.
Indeed, the film’s triumph lies in the visualization of this altered world, both inside and outside the mansion. Poe’s sense of cosmic anguish is beautifully rendered in a sequence in which a crazed Roderick (Jean Debucourt) races through the house in close-up (seemingly on a dolly) carrying the dead Madeline. While Madeline (played by Abel Gance’s wife Margueritte) registers as more decorative than credible and moving, Epstein attaches some of his strongest effects to her. She gradually transforms from Roderick’s sickly wife-model to a kind of luminous ghost lost in an undisclosed netherworld. When she dies, she’s placed in a coffin in white wearing an enormous bridal veil that spills out of the closed casket. Rolande de Cande’s 1970 score, adapted from medieval melodies, helps in conjuring a mood of sheer weirdness around this character. When she appears posthumously, the music becomes a clattering dissonance that’s genuinely unnerving. The final sequence, the “fall” of the title, is a captivating display of low-budget special effects.
The film was rescued from obscurity in the 1960s by well-known collector Raymond Rohauer, who was also a key figure in the reassessment of Buster Keaton’s work. The DVD version was taken from Rohauer’s 35mm preservation positive, and looks pretty good, all things considered. Sound is crisp and without hiss. No extras except an essay by Epstein in the insert. Jean-Pierre Aumont's voice can be heard reading an English translation of the intertitles. Luis Bunuel worked briefly on the film before quitting over a disagreement with Epstein, and he said later that the film was entirely Epstein’s.