Foolish Wives, 1922
Dir: Erich von Stroheim
This is the first silent film that I have ever seen that I could describe as being absolutely bonkers. Bonkers for 1922, most definitely, and even now I kept mumbling at the TV (being slightly drunk), "I can't believe they let him get away with this." Well, Stroheim didn't really. When he brought in his original rough cut, he intended for Foolish Wives to run anywhere from 6 to 10 hours. What a madman! He didn't get his wish, and he made a huge stink about it. But that was what always got Stroheim in trouble. He didn't give two shits about producers and spent studio money out the wazoo way before Orson Welles was a problem child.
Foolish Wives is a film about impostors, greed and infidelity in Monte Carlo. Three Russian "aristocrats" are on the prowl for easy targets to scam and find one in Helen Hughes (Miss DuPont), the young wife of the much older Andrew Hughes (Rudolph Christians), the new U.S. Special-Envoy to Monaco. "Count" Wladislaw Sergius Karamzin (Stroheim) uses his many talents to charm and seduce her even under the eye of her husband, though he can sometimes be distracted by Sergius' cousins, the "Princesses" Olga (Maude George) and Vera (Mae Busch). They are also involved in a counterfeiting scheme, gambling with fake money to win the real stuff, which we know must end badly. Stroheim recreates Monte Carlo in rich detail, and many memorable aspects of the film occur in scenes as above, where we feel that we are in a real place, exotic and decaying and wholly tempting.
What makes this film so crazy then? Well, here's a few reasons why it was in 1922: Sergius dupes the gullible, lusts after a retarded teenager, and attempts to undo an innocent American. It's also never entirely clear, but his "cousins" may actually be his lovers as well as his scam team (there are hints). Stroheim was easily identifiable as the sleazy euro-baddie in many of his pictures, and because he grew up in Vienna, he knew the territory well. I think the most interesting thing about him in this is how his stoic Teutonic face shifts during scenes, as when he lets a moment of lust come over him in lip-licking frenzy and then slides back into to his disguise. The film invites us to relish Sergius' more subtle methods of enticement and delight in his grander fabrications. Many key scene are dominated by eye movement and glances, an ingenious device for silent film and one that could still work today in a really subtle and complex way. I think what really drives it over the edge for me are the instances when slow-motion is used to drive home a point, but not in a way that seems like it's hitting you on the head. Even in a very dark (thematically) scene, it can be very poetic and effective, and that stuff just gets me.
The problem with watching Foolish Wives is that it is not what Stroheim intended. The movie that premiered in 1922 was a skeleton of the original and was barely comprehensible from a spectators perspective. There are many things left out that are in his original notes that were to serve as climatic sequences: a rape (of a retarded teenager), a corpse shown at dawn in the midst of garbage floating out to sea, and a premature birth. These things were shot, but are missing from any version you get a chance to see. What I watched was a Kino reconstruction, what experts and film archivists believe to be the best guesstimate of what would be the closest to an intended film, but not all the footage survives so it's impossible to get a real "director's cut." Even in this, sometimes the time as known in the film is a little bizarre and you wonder what is happening or "when" exactly it is. All you can really do is enjoy what's given to you, but that is really easy to do if you enjoy a director showing dirty things in a film medium where you would not normally expect it. The film moves beyond the obvious sensationalist sex melodrama because of Stroheim. This is a masterpiece, however you see it.