This time I know what version of a silent film I watched; however, I don’t believe it’s an “official” one. I found The Fall of the House of Usher (1928) on YouTube with an “improvised score” recorded live on Halloween, 2016, by a man named Andrew MacKelvie. Then again, it’s a movie that’s in the public domain, so it’s probably as official as it gets.
While the music has been a problem for me in other silent films I’ve watched, I actually like it here. It’s as avant-garde as the movie itself, starting quietly with some violin and scratching noises. Later, it adds horns and bells. At the peak of the story’s insanity, the music is a loud, unsettling cacophony.
The print of the film is a little problematic, though. Often times, it appears as though you’re watching it underwater. It’s fuzzy and seems to ripple or move across the screen. This is a stark contrast to the intertitles, which are crystal clear. On the other hand, it tends to contribute to the atmosphere and mood of the story.
Although there was a short film with the same name in 1928, I believe this is the first full-length version of Edgar Allan Poe’s story, "The Fall of the House of Usher." From what I know of the source material, director Jean Epstein is more faithful to it than Roger Corman would be decades later in any number of Poe “adaptations.”
Sir Roderick Usher (Jean Debucourt) invites his friend, Allan (Charles Lamy) to the house with a note stating that his wife is sick. In the original short story, Madeleine Usher is Roderick’s sister. Whatever the relationship may be, Allan finds his old friend obsessed with painting a picture of Madeleine (Marguerite Gance). As he nears its completion, her health deteriorates.
If it’s not a hint that the carriage driver won’t take Allan to the house’s front door, an intertitle announces that the atmosphere of the house “seemed supernatural.” The concept is reinforced in various cutaways and short scenes showing books falling off the shelf and curtains blowing in front of open windows, as well as exterior shots showing barren trees in foggy woods.
The camera zooms in closer to the nature surrounding the house with images of a frog riding on the back of another frog and a white, horned owl peering out of the branches. It’s all very surreal. While the story may not be entirely straightforward, it’s not difficult to follow by the time the movie ends.
The Fall of the House of Usher incorporates familiar Poe themes like madness, paranoia and premature burial. The fuzziness of the print helps the climax because you can’t clearly see the details of the simple miniatures used to show the literal “fall” of the house. Of course, the title has figurative meaning, also, as Roderick descends into insanity and Madeleine “dies.”
I liked the odd experience of watching The Fall of the House of Usher. It kept me alert and perplexed throughout its 63-minute running time. It does a good job of bringing to life the abstract elements of the story. Roger Ebert included this on his list of “Great Movies.” I don’t know about that. As much as I enjoyed it, I’d have to see a better print, if one even exists.
Written by Luis Bunuel, Jean Epstein
Based on the short story by Edgar Allan Poe
Directed by Jean Epstein
Starring Jean Debucourt, Marguerite Gance, Charles Lamy, Fournez-Goffard
Released October 5, 1928 (France)
RT 63 min.
Home Video Amazon Video (streaming), YouTube