All Day Entertainment presents
The Fall of the House of Usher (La Chute de la Maison Usher) (1928)
"By some quirk of heredity every male descendant of the Usher family devoted himself passionately to painting his wife's portrait."- Narrator (Jean Pierre Aumont)
Stars: Margueritte Gance, Jean Debucourt, Charles Lamy
Other Stars: Jean Pierre Aumont
Director: Jean Epstein, Luis Buñuel
Manufacturer: Complete Post DVD
MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (bizarre imagery)
Run Time: 01h:06m:15s
Release Date: 2001-05-15
DVD ReviewWhile the stories of Edgar Allan Poe seem as if they should be naturals for the cinema, they have proven notoriously hard to adapt. The primary reason for this is that they are not so much narratives of events, but rather creations of mood and sense of unease. This makes them a perfect target for the surrealists, such as Luis Buñuel, who in 1928 had just made the infamous Un Chien Andalou. In collaboration with Jean Epstein, Buñuel took on one of the best known of Poe's works, The Fall of the House of Usher.
Oddly enough, the film hews quite closely to Poe's story. The unnamed narrator (Charles Lamy) is summoned to his friend Roderick Usher's (Jean Debucourt) palatial but secluded home. Usher's wife Madeleine (Margueritte Gance) is in declining health and near death. Roderick obsessively paints her portrait. In a motif lifted from Wilde's Picture of Dorian Gray, her life and vitality pours into the painting, such that it begins to blink and move, as she dies. When she is taken to the bizarre family crypt, Roderick begins to go completely mad: Does he imagine that he hears Madeleine clawing her way out of the coffin? Or has she been buried alive?
During the first segments, when the narrator is in the outside world, the film is quite naturalistic. Harkening back to the opening of Dracula, no one will convey the narrator to the Usher house. It is only once he is within the house that the imagery becomes more and more strange. Beginning with the animated painting, and progressing into multiple exposures, nightmarish visuals and peculiar intercutting, we fall into madness along with Roderick. Much of the intercutting is of imagery on a purely surreal level: most notably, shots of nails being pounded into Madeleine's coffin are intercut with mating toads and a brightly lit owl that at first glance looks like an obscenely bloated pustule. The mental deterioration of Usher is neatly symbolized in the snapping of his guitar strings one by one as he obsesses over the loss of his wife.
In such a film, the acting is hardly expected to be naturalistic. Margueritte Gance has little to do but look faint and fall over; Dubucourt has an intriguingly haunted look throughout that gives us the feeling that he could plausibly go mad at any moment. The narrator begins with a natural acting style, as befits the outside world, but he becomes increasingly mannered as he begins to share in the insanity of the Ushers.
The cinematography by Georges Lucas is intriguing, with many rapid tracking shots. When leaves blow across the floor of the Usher house, the camera moves with them at the same rate, possibly simulating the movement of the spirit of Madeleine or a long-dead Usher ancestor. At other times, such as the discussion of the Usher family tree, the camera sways crazily, reflecting the degeneracy of the family line.
This was not the only adaptation of Poe's story in 1928; for a very different but also bizarre take on it, see the Treasures from American Film Archives set.
Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: B+
|Aspect Ratio||1.33:1 - Full Frame|
|Original Aspect Ratio||yes|
Image Transfer Review: The original source print (from the collection of Raymond Rohauer, who is also responsible for preserving most of Buster Keaton's films), has a number of problems. There are abundant speckles and scratches throughout, and the beginning of the final reel has some nitrate decomposition affecting it. Despite these problems, All Day Entertainment provides an excellent transfer, making the most of what's here. The video bitrate is consistently over 7 Mbps, spiking up to over 9 at times. This is necessary because of the intentionally soft photography and the mist and smoke that permeates the film. These manage to come through compression without looking digital in the least, indicating how far the art of DVD compression has come in a few years. Blacks are deep and rich, and contrasts are not excessive. When the picture is not intentionally soft, plenty of detail is visible. The transfer would rate a very solid A if the source print were in better condition.
Image Transfer Grade: B+
Audio Transfer Review: All Day Entertainment pleasantly retains the French intertitles, giving a spoken English translation of them instead, which is an innovative (and to my mind preferred) method of presenting a foreign silent film. Behind the narration (which is infrequent) is a haunting score by Rolande de Cande, based upon medieval melodies but enhanced and twisted by electronic sounds. The effect is quite overwhelming and, I must say, perfectly suited to the film. No noise or hiss is to be heard anywhere. The music has excellent resonance and range, and the narration is clear throughout.
Audio Transfer Grade: A
Disc ExtrasFull Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 12 cues and remote access
Extras Review: The sole extra is a brief essay on the film by director Jean Epstein. While more theoretical than illuminating, it is a decent addition, considering it also dates from 1928. However, beyond that there is nothing at all, making me wonder how All Day justifies calling this a "Collector's Edition" disc.
[Editor's note: Our thanks to David Kalat of All Day Entertainment, who responds to say that they "...had planned a featurette that was going to have CUNY film professor Stuart Liebman doing a scene-by-scene comparison with Un Chien Andalou...delving into the role Usher played in Luis Buñuel's development. Weeks before we were going to start shooting the piece, a dispute erupted...." He goes on to explain, "When the legal battle ended in our favor...the production of the featurette had to be scrapped...." He ends by saying that despite this now "stripped down" version, it is their "#1 top seller of all time." ]
Extras Grade: D+
Final CommentsA dazzling display of surrealism and gothic unease, in a very good transfer, and with a particularly apt score.
Mark Zimmer 2001-05-12