La Chute de la Maison Usher: Review
La Chute de la Maison Usher was filmed in France in 1928, under the direction of Jean Epstein. The film is based on Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The Fall of the House of Usher” and the story was adapted by Luis Bunuel. Overall the production remains fairly true to the original text, but there are a few differences, the most notable of which it that in Epstein’s version Madeleine Usher is Roderick’s wife. In Poe’s story she is his sister. The film also ends differently because it allows both Ushers to survive and live to love another day whereas in Poe’s story both of them die.
At the beginning of La Chute de la Maison Usher Roderick Usher’s friend Allan arrives on foot at a country inn. He has received a letter from Roderick, who states that his wife Madeline is dying and that he believes that he will not long survive her. In his letter Roderick begs Allan to come to their aid and, good friend that he is, Allan is already on his way. Getting any farther than the inn, however, proves to be hard work. When he enquires, “Could one of you drive me to the house of Usher?” it appears that the name of Usher is well known to everyone assembled in the bar, but it is a name that does little to inspire sympathy towards a stranger needing a lift. “Usher,” they echo, one by one, and by their reactions he might as well have been asking for a lift to Castle Dracula.
Allan is not short of money though, and so he does manage to find a lift, but his driver will only take him part of the way. “No!” says the driver. “Not for all the gold in the world will I drive my horse one step further.” But it is hard to blame the poor driver because the house and surrounding countryside appear to be tainted with an air of gloom.
Once Allan is inside the house of Usher Roderick greets him warmly while the family doctor looks on with disinterest and seems about as lively as a shop mannequin, but shop mannequins do not look quite that creepy, if they did they would scare all of the customers away. Nothing is going to scare Allan away though and he follows Roderick up to the main living area, and it is there that Allan sees Madeleine for the first time. All be it in canvas and paint. Roderick has been busying himself with painting her portrait and the viewer is informed that, by some strange quirk of heredity, every male descendant of the Usher family devotes himself passionately to painting his Wife’s portrait.
Roderick has not finished the portrait but it is already extremely good and as he works on it later in the film it seems that with each stoke of his brush the painting becomes more lifelike, while its subject’s vitality seems to fade by an equal amount; and when Madeleine eventually slumps unconscious to the floor, Roderick hardly even seems to notice. Yet he does love his wife – very much – and when he finally snaps out of his trance-like state he is inconsolable and when the doctor later pronounces Madeleine dead, Roderick finds it hard to accept and states that she may still be alive. He even forbids anyone to nail down the lid of her coffin. Ultimately though, in this matter, Roderick’s wishes are not adhered to, which is unfortunate because the Lady Usher is indeed still alive.
I cannot help but be impressed with the depth and range of emotions displayed on the actor’s faces. In silent films like La Chute de la Maison Usher expressions and mannerisms play a big part in telling the story and Jean Debucourt, who played Roderick Usher, did a particularly good job in this respect. For a lot of the film Roderick appears to be totally deranged and the expression on his face tells the viewer so. At other time though he is confused, distraught, or filled with longing. His face shows all of these emotions and many more. The rest of the cast are also good, but it is definitely Debucourt who steals the show. As far as the doctor goes, far from being the spanner in the works, his lack of any expression or emotion works very well, he comes across as a very creepy character and I am sure that this is exactly what Epstein intended. If you used that guy’s face to head a campaign to stop children accepting sweets from strangers, dentists everywhere would be going out of business. I’ll say it again: he is one creepy dude.
La Chute de la Maison Usher has a runtime of about an hour and five minutes. It is a silent film and because it was made in France and intended for the enjoyment of a French audience the original storyboards are all in French. It’s a great little film though, and very enjoyable. If you want to you can watch it on the player at the top of this page.
Director: Jean Epstein
Jean Debucourt … Sir Roderick Usher
Marguerite Gance … Madeleine Usher
Charles Lamy … Allan (The Guest)
Fournez-Goffard … The doctor