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The Fall of the House of Usher

The Fall of the House of Usher, 1928

A man named Allan (Charles Lamy) is summoned to the home of Roderick Usher (Jean Debucourt). Roderick is obsessed with his wife, Madeline (Marguerite Gance), who is dying of some sort of disease that leaves her in death-like states. Roderick is fixated on painting Madeline, and equally fixated on the fear that she will be buried alive.

Sometimes when you're watching a movie from the 20s, there's a scene that's framed kind of flat, or a performance that just doesn't work, and you think "Well, yeah, the early days of film and they were still figuring things out." But then you watch a movie like this one, and it's like, "No, that's right, people did know what they were doing."

This is a film that runs only about 65 minutes, and I'd say a solid 30 minutes of that is just mood. Curtains billowing in the wind. A frog atop another frog, leaping out of a mountainside tomb. A vast, cavernous room that dwarfs the men sitting within it.

The image above--in which a Madeline who may or may not be a figment of Roderick's imagination looms in a billowing white dress--is probably my favorite from the film, but there's so much good stuff to choose from here. Often I find the use of color filters kind of cheesy and distracting, but here it feels like it's all part of the same fever dream. We the viewers and Allan are similarly called on mainly to witness the madness that is the demented relationship between Roderick and Madeline.

This version of the story (I've also seen the Vincent Price version) slightly softens some of the perversity of the original story by making the Ushers husband and wife instead of siblings. But it doesn't soften it that much. As Roderick paints Madeline, it almost seems as if he might be stealing some of her spirit. I read online a comparison to The Pocture of Dorian Gray, but it also made me think of a short story from the collection called The White People where a man slowly steals his wife's soul in a crystal he's created. The love that Roderick feels for his wife totters on the knife edge of affection and obsession.

We've discussed whether or not movies can "age" in a negative way. I think that this film is a great example of how age can actually work with the intent of a movie. A man helping out his bereaved friend by reading him a short story might seem strange to modern eyes and, um, yeah, it's REALLY WEIRD. I have to imagine that even in a time period where such an act between friends would seem more normal, this scene would still have some charge. From a modern point of view, it seems even more alien and bizarre.

I've been waiting ages to find this film somewhere I could watch it, and a silent film channel on YouTube just uploaded a very nice looking print.

Highly recommended.