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Erich von Stroheim
Sam De Grasse,
An Austrian military officer and roue' attempts to seduce the wife of a surgeon. The two men confront each other in a test of abilities that ends surprisingly. Written by
Jim Beaver <email@example.com>
Erich Von Stroheim's first film as writer/director stands as one of his most satisfying works. Not so coincidentally, it is one of only two films he directed that was left largely intact by the 'Front Office' executives of his studio, Universal, at least on its initial release. (The other would be his 1925 version of The Merry Widow, made for MGM.) Surviving prints of Blind Husbands lack some material cut for a 1924 reissue but are otherwise substantially complete. After this successful debut Von Stroheim's productions became more elaborate, his off-camera behavior more outrageous, and his relationships with studio chiefs and money men behind the scenes more contentious, almost always resulting in the films being taken out of his hands and re-edited by others. (The movie career of Orson Welles would follow a sadly similar trajectory.) But the trouble and notoriety came later. In 1919 Erich Von Stroheim was still a little known character actor noted for playing sadistic Huns in war movies, and this maiden effort as screenwriter, director and star took Hollywood by surprise.
In comparison with Von Stroheim's later, more elaborate, and often bizarre works, Blind Husbands is simple and straightforward. The story concerns an unhappy romantic triangle involving an upper class American couple, Dr. Robert Armstrong and his wife Margaret, and a Lieutenant Eric Von Steuben, whom they encounter while vacationing at a resort in the Austrian Alps. The tension between the three is apparent from the beginning, as they share a carriage ride uphill to the resort. The husband is inattentive to his wife; she is frustrated; and the lieutenant, having quickly analyzed the situation -- and Margaret's legs -- begins a determined campaign to seduce her away from her seemingly indifferent husband. This opening sequence gives us the essence of the plot in a matter of moments, primarily through visuals instead of wordy title cards.
We soon learn that Lieutenant Von Steuben has other irons in the fire, so to speak: he is a 'serial seducer' with a number of lady friends at the resort, including a frumpy middle-aged chambermaid and a young local girl who pathetically takes his protestations of love at face value. Dr. Armstrong, on the other hand, treats his wife coldly, and the only clue we're given as to why this is so comes when he cheerfully holds a villager's baby -- then shoots a significant look of unhappiness at his wife, who is shopping and doesn't notice. Clearly, this man wants to have a child, and his wife is either unwilling or unable to accommodate him. We have to assume that the former is the case, because as the story develops we learn that although the doctor is something of a cold fish he is also a basically decent guy, and not someone who would resent his wife for a medical condition beyond her control. Margaret appears to be considerably younger than her husband, and presumably doesn't feel ready to settle down to child-rearing.
Whatever the reasons for the friction in the Armstrong marriage, the plot turns on Margaret's response to Lieutenant Von Steuben's brazen advances; this is the crux of the film and what makes it worth watching today. Viewers unaccustomed to silent drama might expect a great deal of arm-waving, eyebrow-waggling, and other histrionics associated (with some justification) with the early days of cinema, but here is where Blind Husbands made its mark in 1919, and why it's still surprisingly watchable today: director Von Stroheim, a one-time assistant to D.W. Griffith, inspired his actors to give intensely felt yet remarkably restrained performances which for latter-day viewers might suggest Ingmar Bergman's ensemble company, or, more specifically where this material is concerned, the triangle at the center of Roman Polanski's A Knife in the Water. Thanks especially to the understated work of Francellia Billington as Margaret Armstrong, a great deal of information is conveyed with glances, shrugs, half-smiles, and frowns; no arm waving is necessary. It is clear to the viewer that Margaret is startled and then flattered by the lieutenant's audacity, at least at first, but also that she soon feels he has overstepped his bounds and is more upset than pleased about the situation. Von Stroheim's own performance as (his alter ego?) Von Steuben is highly enjoyable and set the standard for some of his later screen scoundrels, although the character is rather limited in scope in this early incarnation. Also notable in a sympathetic supporting role is Gibson Gowland, who would later embody the dentist MacTeague in Von Stroheim's masterpiece Greed.
The plotting of Blind Husbands turns hokey at the climax, when the doctor confronts his rival face-to-face on a mountain top. (The original title of the screenplay was "The Pinnacle.") There is some melodramatic hokum over a letter Margaret wrote to Von Steuben, but after all that understatement a little melodrama is forgivable -- and, frankly, rather fun.
An earlier posting concerning this film suggests it's a comedy, which it's not, but there are nice comic touches throughout. I first saw it at a museum screening a long time ago, and still remember the laughter when Von Steuben approaches two different women at a party and uses the same pick-up line, verbatim, on each of them. That device is still amusing today. And this movie stands as one of Erich Von Stroheim's strongest achievements in his all-too-brief, star-crossed career as a filmmaker.
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