by Allan Fish
(USA 1922 140m) DVD1
p Irving G.Thalberg d Erich Von Stroheim w Erich Von Stroheim, Marian Ainsley, Walter Anthony ph Ben Reynolds, William H.Daniels ed Arthur Ripley art Richard Day, Elmer Sheele, Erich Von Stroheim
Erich Von Stroheim (Count Wladyslaw Sergius Karamzin), Mae Busch (Princess Vera Petchnikoff), Maude George (Princess Olga Petchnikoff), Rudolph Christians (Andrew J.Hughes), Cesare Gravina (Cesare Ventucci), Dale Fuller (Maruschka), Patty DuPont (Helen Hughes), Al Edmundsen (Pavel Pavlich), Malvine Polo (Marietta Ventucci), C.J.Allen (Prince Albert I of Monaco), Robert Edeson, Nigel de Brulier, Mary Philbin,
When watching either of Von Stroheim’s great films – the same is also true of later classics Greed, Queen Kelly and The Wedding March – one cannot help but think of what might have been. With Foolish Wives one could argue that it suffered most; originally it was shown in Latin America and parts of Europe at over six hours in length. For a long time only 108m prints survived until a seventies restoration restored some half hour or so’s footage and used judicial tinting to heighten the drama.
In 1918, just after the revolution in their homeland, three Russian aristocrats live in the Villa Amorosa outside Monte Carlo; Count Sergius, a former Hussar cavalryman, and his, ahem, cousins, Vera and Olga. They seem to live a life of luxury, but all is not as it seems. They live on a combination of counterfeit money, supplied by Cesare Ventucci, and whatever money Sergius can wheedle out of rich foreign society women who he delights in seducing. He sets his sights on Helen, the bored wife of an American ambassador recently arrived in Monte Carlo, while also seducing his maid to trick her into giving up her life savings. Finally, the maid realises his duplicity and attempts to trap Sergius and Helen in a fire. They escape, but Sergius doesn’t live to benefit. Trying one seduction too far – the counterfeiter’s half-wit daughter – he is killed by her father.
There are few silent films as blatantly opulent as this, centring around a truly orgiastic full scale set of Monte Carlo, with even the interiors lovingly and painstakingly recreated. The Californian coast may have to substitute for the north Med, but it does so splendidly. But still the thoughts come back to that set, which set (excuse the pun) Richard Day – billed as Captain Richard Day on the credits – off on a long, distinguished career in art direction in Hollywood, which won him seven Oscars, but on none of those films did he work as awe-inspiringly as here. All the performances likewise could not be faulted, with special mention to George and especially Busch as the two hedonistic cousins. Oh yes, and Von Stroheim as the typically haughtily named Russian Count. It’s a performance to truly relish; slimy, ingratiating, greedy, lecherous, the personification of an aristocratic parasite. His truly unrepentant dishonesty exemplified in scene after scene, from his wiping his lips disgustedly after kissing a woman beneath him, or spying DuPont undressing through a hand mirror in a shack during a storm and licking his lips, or the contemptuous way he curls his lips when managing to go about successful bits of business. It’s probably his greatest star performance.
At its heart, though, it’s a typically cynical, satirical film, which pokes fun not just at the idle aristocracy but rather dullard Americans lost in decadent, old world Europe, and indeed at the very notion of living lives by chance. Visual analogies abound for those with eyes to see them, but none is more apt than the finale. We don’t see Von Stroheim killed – we only see him enter Marietta’s room to rape her and her father trying to get asleep next door. When we next see him, he’s a corpse propped up in a closet by his murderer. In that one single cut he of course seems to be showing that his death is too insignificant to be shown, but he shows us the disposal of the body, dumped unceremoniously in the sewer. In between the two scenes, his cousins are arrested and their wigs removed to show their real hair underneath; the façade truly cracked. Is it any wonder Von Stroheim always said he was twenty years ahead of his time? More like fifty.