Assistant director Luis Buñuel working with actors on set
Assistant director Luis Buñuel working with actors on set

The Fall of the House of Usher (French: La Chute de la maison Usher) is a 1928 French horror film directed by Jean Epstein, one of multiple films based on the Gothic short story The Fall of the House of Usher by Edgar Allan Poe. Future director Luis Buñuel co-wrote the screenplay with Epstein, his second film credit, having previously worked as assistant director on Epstein’s film Mauprat from 1926.

Directed by Jean Epstein
Produced by Jean Epstein
Screenplay by Luis Buñuel, Jean Epstein
Story by Edgar Allan Poe
Starring Marguerite Gance, Jean Debucourt, Charles Lamy
Cinematography Georges Lucas, Jean Lucas
Release date 5 October 1928
Running time 63 minutes
Country France

Luis Buñuel, who was Assistant Director, quit the picture after clashing with producer/director Jean Epstein over Epstein’s decision to basically ignore Edgar Allan Poe’s story.

The Fall of the House of Usher at IMDb here

On Some Motifs in Poe: Jean Epstein’s La Chute de la maison Usher by Darragh O’Donoghue

Extract from article by Shari Kizirian

Made from an amalgam of Edgar Allan Poe stories, including “The Oval Portrait” and “The Fall of the House of Usher,” Epstein’s film suspends time in the atmospheric tale of a painter whose actual wife fades as his portrait of her nears completion. It stars Marguerite Gance, wife of Abel Gance, whose La Roue Epstein revered. His most well-known film outside France, Usher was Epstein’s last to court the avant-garde and his penultimate silent. Widely praised, the film was considered by many critics to be, in the words of Henri Langlois, “not only the ultimate expression of ten years of experimentation but their justification.” Still, the film had its detractors. Surrealist poet Robert Desnos decried Usher as evidence of Epstein’s “lack, or rather paralysis, of imagination.” But the period of avant-garde experimentation in France was about to end, marked by the release of Buñuel’s Surrealist L’Âge d’or in 1930. Sound equipment was too expensive for these independent artists and American-style story films became the accepted standard for producers and audiences alike.

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Extract from notes by Richard Scheib

Jean Epstein makes a number of changes to the Edgar Allan Poe short story. Roderick Usher now no longer suffers from his hyper-acuteness of senses, although this is vaguely alluded to later on in one intertitle card that says that “the slightest sound exacerbated him” where this is seen as a reaction to the trauma of Madeleine’s death. In its place (at least during the initial scenes), Roderick seems to have an unhealthy obsession with painting a portrait of Madeleine – where this becomes an odd mix of Poe’s themes combined with ideas from Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Grey (1890) about the essence of a person being imbued into a portrait – now Madeleine is killed when Roderick obsessively transfers too much of her lifeforce into the picture. The most notable change is now that Madeleine is Roderick Usher’s wife rather than his sister – the upshot of this is that we end up with a film that is less set amid an overwhelming sense of doom and gloom than a work about a husband who is simply obsessed with his dead wife. The mood of the story also seems far more melancholic than the utter desolation of the soul and sense of decay that comes across in Poe.

Jean Epstein shoots some amazingly melancholic exteriors of the house and Usher estate. The grounds, filled with bare trees, water rippling on desolate and unwelcome lakes, the placid and unnaturally stilled surface of the lakeshore, the stone balustrades and pathways, echo with a haunted sense of grey emptiness.

There is a superb sequence following Madeleine’s funeral procession – where the cortege is first seen travelling down an avenue of trees, over which has strikingly been superimposed a series of candles, with the trail of her burial gown lying out of the coffin and drifting along behind them in the water as they cross the lake by boat to get to the crypt. The interior of the House of Usher is all vast, empty sets – like a soundstage with giant high walls and random pieces of furniture placed in the middle of the bare space around which the action occurs.

The depiction of the exterior of the house is somewhat unwound by a model that looks only so-so convincing today, where Jean Epstein tries to hide many of its shortcomings by covering the model set in mist.

Jean Epstein’s camera-work is often undeniably experimental – he does after all have the wife of France’s most avant garde silent director Abel Gance playing his Madeleine. The film is at its most experimental during the depiction of Roderick’s mental decay following Madeleine’s death, which comes emphasised by closeups of frogs, owls and cats, the ticking of a clock’s pendulum and cuts away to the interior of the clock, wavering double exposure shots and shots of guitar strings snapping.

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Review of the film by Roger Ebert

The great hall in Jean Epstein’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” is one of the most haunting spaces in the movies. Its floor is a vast marble expanse, interrupted here and there by an item of furniture that seems dwarfed by the surrounding emptiness. An odd staircase rises from one distant corner. It is not impossible that this vision, in one of the best-known French surrealist films, inspired the designers of the great hall of Xanadu in Citizen Kane. In both films, shadows are made to substitute for details that are not really there, and a man and a woman, their lives ruled by his obsession with her, move like wraiths through the haunted space.

The hall is not simply cold, enormous and forbidding, but has surrealistic details. “Leaves blow ominously across the floor,” writes the critic Gary Morris, and the long white curtains “flutter menacingly, as if the house is under constant, quiet, insidious siege by a vengeful nature.” This is not a room for human habitation, but a set for a surrealist opera.

The occupants of the house are Roderick Usher and his young wife, Madeline. In the original story by Edgar Allen Poe, they were brother and sister, but the implication of incest has been removed by Epstein, who explains with a title card that the men of the house of Usher have all been obsessed with painting their wives. Roderick is consumed with fear that his wife will die, and no less fearful that she will be buried alive. Does he hope that his portrait will transfer her essence to a form that will live forever?

To the house an unnamed friend is summoned. There are echoes of the Dracula films and of the silent classic Nosferatu (1922) in the way the locals refuse to convey the visitor to the house, even though poor Roderick Usher is merely demented, not vampirish. The friend’s arrival is curiously staged, with Roderick standing at the top of a flight of steps and leaning far forward to extend his hand to the other man, but apparently not daring to take even one actual step down to approach him. An umbilical cord seems to tie him to the interior.

The exterior of the house, seen in the midst of the obligatory blasted heath, is obviously a drawn miniature, and critics point out the unconvincing stars in the sky, proudly fake. This kind of obvious artifice, which hardly even attempts to fool the eye, owes something to the German expressionist tradition in films like The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. Although the interior of the house looks more real, or at least more physically present, its nightmare details and vistas are also less concerned with realism than with effect.

Epstein’s assistant director on the film was young Luis Bunuel, who had just finished his notorious collaboration with Salvador Dali on Un Chien Andalou, a boldly surrealist film. Did he contribute to this film’s weirdness? No doubt, although Epstein was a surrealist himself and the underlying story itself is less interested in psychological plausibility than in the creepiness and oddness of its immediate impression. (Bunuel eventually quit after a quarrel with Epstein.)

Roderick is played by Jean Debucourt, more convincing than many silent stars, who goes less for the demented madman effect and more for the aura of a man consumed by his fears. Madeline is played by Marguerite Gance, wife of the French director Abel Gance (“Napoleon”). Her task is to be an object. All attention and animation is concentrated in the two men, while Madeline poses for her painting and slowly sinks toward the grave. The visitor and narrator is Charles Lamy.

There is an amusing ambiguity about the painting, which we see at regular intervals throughout the film. In some shots it is a real canvas, which Roderick daubs at. In others it is the real Marguerite Gance standing within the frame and pretending to the camera she is the painting. “In a motif lifted from Wilde’s ‘Picture of Dorian Gray,’ ” writes the critic Mark Zimmer, “her life and vitality pours into the painting, such that it begins to blink and move, as she dies.” Perhaps, but not according to the critic Glenn Erickson, who writes, “Roderick’s portraits are represented by having Madeline sit very still behind the frame and pretend to be a painted image. Unfortunately, she blinks in almost every take, ruining the illusion.”

Both critics are seeing exactly the same thing. Which critic is correct? The surrealists would have been delighted by the confusion.

Jean Epstein (1897-1953), born in Poland, studied medicine before falling into the Parisian orbit of the surrealists in the 1920s. He directed films throughout the 1920s, finding as others did that silent films gave themselves naturally to fantasy and impressionism; the talkies would discover that dialogue tended to tilt stories toward realism. “The Fall of the House of Usher,” made in 1928, the last great year of silent films, was based on a Poe story that is more atmosphere than plot, anyway. There have been many versions of “Usher,” from another 1928 silent film through to Roger Corman’s excellent 1960 version with Vincent Price. Epstein seems to focus less on the mechanics of the situation than on its very oddness: The man and woman both trapped by his mad obsession with death, the woman almost helpfully fading away.

I was struck, watching the film recently on a new DVD, by how completely it engaged me. Some silent films hold you outside: You admire them, but are aware of them as a phenomenon. With “The Fall of the House of Usher,” I barely stirred during the film’s 66-minute running time. A tone, an atmosphere, was created that actually worked. As with “Nosferatu,” the film seemed less a fiction than the realization of some phantasmagoric alternative reality. Epstein’s openness to the grand gesture is helpful, as when Madeline is in her coffin, and her white bridal veil spills outside and blows in the wind.

Characters in horror films tend to pose. They are presented not in terms of complex human nature, but within the narrow definition of their obsession, or weakness, or limitation. Stories often involve an outside visitor whose function is to provide an audience and, later, a report. The story of Roderick and Madeline would be less dramatic if there was no one there to witness it and provide the reaction of a normal person. Yet more than many horror characters, Roderick and Madeline seem complete in their drama, as if they do not need the observer. Roderick thinks only of death, decay and the Poe’s beloved dread of being buried alive. And Madeline–well, why did she marry him? What was their courtship like? Has it ever occurred to her to simply walk away? One does not ask such practical questions about a horror film, I know, but Marguerite Gance succeeds in suggesting that Madeline has fallen under the spell, whether willingly or not, and is also caught up in the obsession.

There are times when I think that of all the genres, the horror film most misses silence. The Western benefited from dialogue, and musicals and film noir are unthinkable without words. But in a classic horror film, almost anything you can say will be superfluous or ridiculous. Notice how carefully the Draculas of talkies have to choose their words to avoid bad laughs. The perfect horror situation is such that there is nothing you can say about it. What words are necessary in “The Pit and the Pendulum”? “The Fall of the House of Usher” resides within its sealed world, as if–yes, as if buried alive.