La chute de la maison Usher (1928)

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*. The old line about the popularity of Edgar Allan Poe in France is that he reads better in French translations. Well, a film is a translation too, and nearly a hundred years later this is still the best version of “The Fall of the House of Usher” we have.
*. But we don’t start out with Poe, or in France. Instead we’re off to Transylvania, as the unnamed traveler stops at an inn to get a ride to Dracula’s castle. Or the home of Roderick Usher. The men at the inn look nervous and say “Usher?!” When the traveler finally does get a ride the coachman will only take him so far and then make him go the rest of the way on foot. This isn’t part of the story. It comes from Stoker’s Dracula, by way of Murnau’s Nosferatu.
*. A lot of -isms have been thrown at this film. It’s variously cited as an example of expressionism, surrealism, and French impressionist cinema. For what it’s worth, I see a bit of the first (especially in the second half of the movie), less of the second, and I’m still not sure the third means anything.

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*. If you like labels, the surrealist Buñuel had a falling out with the impressionist Epstein, apparently over the lack of fidelity to the story. (As if the story meant anything, or Buñuel cared about such things. I think he was just hard to get along with.) I suppose the painting that is a mirror (and in which Madeline is clearly seen blinking) is a surrealist image. Impressionism is harder to pin down but it’s more something you feel in the poetic cerements the film seems draped in.

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*. The key expressionist motif is found in those gnarled trees outside (mentioned several times by Poe). They appear again in the twisted branches of the Usher family tree that the traveler carries around, are later drawn on the walls of the mansion, and can even be seen in the twisted banisters that line the stairway. It’s not quite the Dr. Seuss world of Caligari, but it’s in the same neighbourhood.
*. The story gets shifted around a bit jumping from page to screen, with no real loss. Roderick and Madeline are now married, which is convenient. And I like the invention of having Roderick’s old friend being the perfect complement to his hypersensitivity. The traveler, armed with magnifying glass and ear horn, is nearly deaf and blind. That’s not in the book.

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*. Jean Debucourt is Roderick and looks the part. His towering forehead (in Poe’s words “an inordinate expansion above the regions of the temple”) is a billboard for the aesthetic intellectual. He is nicely adapted too, as painting is not one of Roderick’s hobbies in the story but film needs the visual hook. Especially a silent film.

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*. What a trick that silence is! Poe’s story is all about the effects of sound, and yet here we are unable to hear a thing. But it still works. How? Roger Ebert on this film: “There are times when I think that of all the genres, the horror film most misses silence. . . . in a classic horror film, almost anything you can say will be superfluous or ridiculous. . . . The perfect horror situation is such that there is nothing you can say about it.”
*. This is well observed. Talk in a horror film is usually just whistling past the graveyard, an attempt to rationalize away our fears or just a bit of banality to lull us into a false sense of security. It’s interesting to note how in the other version of this story that came out the same year by Watson and Webber there aren’t even any title cards. The effect is all about creating a mood, that vague awareness of doom that Poe’s narrator senses but can’t explain.

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*. What a ginormous interior. The great hall looks the size of a soccer field.
*. That’s Marguerite Gance, Abel’s wife, as the wilting Madeline. Not much of a role, for any of the women who have played it.

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*. Does interpretation have its limits? I’ve tried to think what those two frogs have to do with anything, and I’ve come up with nothing. Are they merely surreal?
*. I do like how the nodding head of the doctor matches the strokes of the hammer pounding nails into the coffin. That really works, and provides a kind of aural-visual rhythm a silent film needs.
*. The “fall” of the house of Usher is both the collapse of the structure itself and the end of the family line. But the movie emphasizes falling throughout. We see books falling from their shelves, Madeline fall as she swoons to the ground, a suit of armour fall to the floor. All in slow motion. The House of Usher didn’t fall in a day, but gradually collapsed.

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*. It has an interesting structure, splitting neatly in half with Madeline’s death, and Roderick Usher going from artist to necromancer. At the same time there are changes in set design — this is when the house suddenly becomes more like Caligari’s madhouse, with the Usher family crypt being the most bizarre of the sets. We feel we’re entering a different psychological space, with different camera work, the use of multiple exposures and other trickery.

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*. I remember being underwhelmed by this movie the first time I saw it. It’s grown on me. The silent classics take time. It’s not Poe, and yet of all the versions I’ve seen I think it’s the one that best captures the spirit of his story. This isn’t a movie with an aesthetic style so much as a movie about the aesthetic experience. It’s a vision of the soul in turmoil, doomed and obsessed. The traveler’s blindness and deafness are his armour. And yet there are moments when you sense that even he has an inkling of the dangers all around him. Not booby traps, like the house in Roger Corman’s 1960 film is full of (a falling chandelier, a loose banister), but spiritual depths of loneliness and despair, intimations of mortality in something he reads, a dog that runs away when he calls to it. Soon his own house will be falling down, with no one to see it or notice its passing.

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