Legends of the Fall

Jean Epstein’s THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER, which played at Edinburgh’s Filmhouse with live accompaniment by the Southwell Collective (excellent — they even researched the music referred to in Poe’s story and used it as the basis of their work), was really the inspiration for Edgar Allan Poe Week — that, and the Cornell Woolrich comparison. Since I’d done a Woolrich Week, a Poe Week seemed essential, and also a nice way to build up to Halloween.

Where to begin? Storywise, Epstein goes surprisingly mainstream and literal for a European, tidying up a lot of Poe’s excess and illogic. The incestuous vibes of the Roderick-Madeleine relationship obviously made somebody uncomfortable, so the Ushers are now man and wife, which makes everything dandy (so long as they aren’t still brother and sister as well — that would be worse) and their friend, the narrator of Poe’s story, is a stodgy old duffer rather than a fervid neurotic. You don’t need a Degree in Eng Lit to spot that the craziest character in the story is the storyteller, but filmmakers generally avoid this implication, preferring to set a stable frame for the narrative — as if stability were in any way part of Poe’s goal.

Fortunately, Epstein’s visual approach compensates for his narrative conventionality — the movie is almost as ideas-packed as the classic Watson & Webber short, also from 1928. The ideas are mostly visual in both films, although Epstein also has the smart idea of folding in another Poe tale, The Oval Portrait. In said story, a man paints his beloved and as he nears completion, she gets sicker and sicker. In capturing her spirit on canvas, he extinguishes her life. Rather brilliantly, the painting in this film is an empty frame with the actual actress visible through it, standing still.

(I recently acquired a large-scale 1934 student film version of THE OVAL PORTRAIT, directed by future Twilight Zone director Richard L. Bare. But it’s not very good — an attempt is made to flesh out Poe’s story with a bookend structure, but the result is almost as clumsy as the British 1948 version of USHER, and much less interesting.)

The idea of padding one Poe story by allowing it to ingest another has been a popular one: Corman’s MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH swallow up Hop-Frog, and his Black Cat episode of TALES OF TERROR consumes so much of The Cask of Amontillado that it winds up resembling the second story more closely than  the third. Another Black Cat, Argento’s episode of TWO EVIL EYES, casts Harvey Keitel as a crime scene photographer, all of whose cases turn out to be drawn from Poe’s writings (Berenice, The Pit and the Pendulum…)

Epstein was a marvelously versatile filmmaker, with neo-realist, surrealist, and melodramatic tendencies, any of which could dominate utterly on any given project, or which could be allowed to battle it out with one another. USHER is naturally more in the surreal/expressionist vein, with a musty, misty, vignetted look which is far more alien and antique to modern eyes than his FINIS TERRAE, made the following year in a completely contrasting style.

Nevertheless, by whizzing the camera along at floorboard level, Epstein introduces “The Presence” that haunts THE EVIL DEAD films of Sam Raimi, and the slo-mo tumble of books from a cluttered, overflowing cupboard is a dreamlike pre-echo of Bunuel (who worked as assistant on this).


16 Responses to “Legends of the Fall”

  1. Luis Bunuel worked as an assistant of Epstein before he and Dali made Un chien andalou. Apparently he had a fight with him and walked off.

    On Halloween, I saw quite a few horror films, my favourite was Corman’s THE TOMB OF LIGEIA based on what is apparently Poe’s own favourite of his stories. Hope you come to that somewhere down the line.

  2. Godard also references “The Oval Portrait” in Vivre sa Vie.

  3. Godard’s short Puissance de Parole (made for French Telecom but never screened by them) is in part derived from Poe’s The Power of the Word. It’s pretty good, although not very Poe-like.

    Tomb of Ligeia was a departure from Corman’s scheme of shooting his Poe films in the studio. The locations, oddly, don’t wreck the artificial atmosphere, but are absorbed into it, making the film feel quite of a piece with his other movies in the series.

    I do respect the ways Corman kept the series fresh for himself: there’s the compendium Tales of Terror, the non-Price starring Premature Burial, the comedy The Raven — there are more exceptions than there are typical examples. And then there’s The Haunted Palace, taking its title from Poe but its story from Lovecraft!

  4. David Boxwell Says:

    Watson and Webber’s version now seems indistinguishable from a Guy Maddin film. In 1928 it must have seemed the summit of cinematic Modernism; now it’s kitsch of a very high order.

  5. What I’m longing for is a film of The Purloined Letter
    incorporating both Poe’s story and Lacan’s tour-de-force analysis of it. The same actor could play Dupin and Lacan.

  6. Sounds like a film proposal for Raul Ruiz. It’ll be a return to THE HYPOTHESIS OF THE STOLEN PAINTING which you can say incorporates among many other things both the Poe story and the Lacan film, thematically at least.

  7. Yowza! That is indeed a perfect blending.

    I’ve always felt that The Purloined Letter suffers, as a story, from the lack of a razor-wielding ourang. And on that note, I’d like to see a version of The Murders in the Rue Morgue that uses an ourang rather than a gorilla. Although in reality, a chimp would be the most dangerous, and most likely suspect. (If you ever encounter an escaped zoo animal, pray it’s not a chimp! They pose the biggest threat to onlookers.)

  8. Hey, Dario Argento has form in playing a chimp’s razor-wielding hands in gory closeups. Beware SPOILERS anyone who hasn’t yet seen PHENOMENA – this clip is the final scene.

  9. Argento ALWAYS plays the killers’ hands in his movies. Which is a touch suspect, I think.

  10. This incomparably gorgeous film is actually my favourite Poe adaptation, alongside TRE PASSI NEL DELIRIO/SPIRITS OF THE DEAD. The brilliant French actor Jean Debucourt (who plays Roderick Usher) gives what may be the definitive Gothic performance of all time.

    If Bunuel walked off this film in a strop, it may be because he knew he could never make anything half as good!

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