I must admit that I had never heard of Boris Segal’s 1956 51-minute television version of Poe’s classic tale. But being a great fan of both Poe’s story and the 1960 feature-film version directed by Roger Corman, I wasted no time in checking it out.
What I found was certainly more than what I had expected. There are interesting similarities and interesting differences in both versions. One of the things I always admired about Richard Matheson’s adaptation of Poe’s tale was the immediacy he brought to it. Instead of the hero simply being a friend summoned by Roderick Usher he became the fiancé of Roderick’s much younger sister Madeleine. This introduced an element of conflict that every teen audience member could identify with: my girl’s dad doesn’t think I’m good enough for her. Vincent Price’s masterful performance as white-haired and moustache-less Roderick introduced sly hints of incestuous longing for his dark-haired beauty of a kid sister. But Matheson’s script gave Price a deeper method for his madness–the Ushers, it seems are a depraved and cursed lot. Madeleine must not marry; must not bear children to carry on the evil Usher line.
It turns out that Robert Esson’s television adaptation first introduced the notion of the Ushers as an evil brood. With only 51 minutes to spare, Esson passes over this bit of bad news rather casually, whereas in Corman’s and Matheson’s more expansive version Price gives the audience a full-blooded tour of Usher depravities, complete with gruesome expressionistic portraits of the ancestors painted by Master Roderick himself. Likewise in both versions Roderick believes that the Ushers must atone for their ancestors’ sins. Tom Tryon’s Roderick is like a little boy, half fearing and half fascinated by the rod. Price’s older Roderick is a saturnine fatalist who believes that there will be no peace or salvation for the Ushers in this world or in the next. In Poe’s tale, nothing is said of Usher evil and they are in fact depicted as a very old and honorable line, noted for their good works. Clearly for dramatic purposes, Evil works better than Good. More importantly, Esson’s adaptation honors Poe’s original concept of Roderick and Madeleine being twins, with actors Tom Tryon and Joan Elan somewhat resembling each other. This loses the frisson of possible incest, but gains the idea of their being a psychic link between the twins. so that Roderick literally experiences everything that Madeleine does.
In both versions Roderick knowingly buries his sister alive to prevent her possible child-bearing and thus to end the Usher line. I seem to recall that in Poe’s tale Madeleine’s premature burial was a ghastly accident rather than an intentional attempt at murder. But Esson’s adaptation sticks closer to Poe by having the resurrected Madeleine literally frighten her brother to death when her swaying shrouded form topples over onto him. Matheson gave audiences a more chillingly gothic finale in which the resurrected Madeleine, once so mousey and submissive to Roderick, emerges from her coffin violently insane and fittingly enough strangles her brother as he works on his latest Usher portrait–a portrait of Madeleine.
I’m glad to have seen the Sagal/Esson adaptation of “Usher.” It had all the limitations inherent to 1950s live television productions, But Tryon was surprising good as a younger, more sensitive Roderick and although I still consider the Corman/Matheson version the finest adaptation of Poe’s work, this one is nothing to leave buried in the basement crypt.