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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.
BLIND HUSBANDS was Von Stroheim's first directorial effort. It is
from his third (FOOLISH WIVES)by the lost DEVIL'S PASSKEY and seems a
seminal work re themes he was to use later in FOOLISH WIVES and indeed
were to have an influence on many of his films. Here he cuts the same
figure he does in FOOLISH WIVES and THE WEDDING MARCH - the Austrian
military man with shaved head, high boots, monacle and high military cap.
He has a dapper air with cigarette and either riding strap or walking
He essentially always plays the same character in these films - the roue,
out to seduce a married woman with the goal of obtaining either sex (BLIND
HUSBANDS) or money (FOOLISH WIVES). In one of his two masterpieces, THE
WEDDING MARCH, this character was to be softened by actually falling in
with an unobtainable woman, while pursuing a marriage of title. In BLIND
HUSBANDS he is also two-timing a jealous woman of the lower classes (here
inn maid). Although this sub-plot does not advance here, it does in
WIVES to the point of disaster.
Von Stroheim's films were certainly revolutionary for their time, in exposing the vice and duplicity in human nature that other film makers were avoiding. BLIND HUSBANDS is rather crude in its acting, cinematography and editing - it was, after all, Von Stroheim's first film and the medium was just teetering on the edge of its advancement as a true art form (something which Von Stroheim was to take full advantage of in GREED and THE WEDDING MARCH.) Here then it is the story that fascinates, not the production values.
Von Stroheim's character latches onto the neglected wife of an American surgeon, vacationing in Austria. He makes love to her behind her husband's back but observed by the husband's mountain-climbing guide friend. Eventually the two men are alone on a summit. Von Stroheim is the weaker men, having had to be helped considerably by the husband to reach the peak. There the latter finds a letter in Von Stroheim's jacket pocket in his wife's handwriting. Before being able to read it, Von Stroheim knocks it from his hand and it falls down the mountainside. Did the letter prove his wife's unfaithfulness? Von Stroheim says yes and the husband leaves him to rot on the summit (We see shadows of vultures on the rocks - obviously and badly originating in someone offscreen whirling a fake bird on a string). During the descent, the husband finds the letter and reading it, learns of his wife's innocence. Why did Von Stroheim lie and should the husband now return to save him or let him rot? I won't spoil the ending.
This is certainly a triangle with more thought involved in its writing and character development than is to be found in most product of 1919.
The film is interesting and might be worth pairing with FOOLISH WIVES. It is no great achievement on its own, but does gain significance when studying the developing writing and diectorial career of Herr Von Stroheim and is recommended more for study than entertainment.
The story is simple and unoriginal: a love triangle, plus man's
determination to conquer nature. But, this early effort by director
Erich von Stroheim displays great restraint, especially for a filmmaker
who would become notorious for excess. His films, such as "Greed"
(1924), are better known for their production and post-production
histories than for their actual merits. He would shoot an excessive
amount of footage for films of extraordinary length, which the
producers then butchered. That's not the case with "Blind Husbands",
though; this one has a normal runtime.
It also features the familiar Stroheim touches on a smaller scale. The acting is rather subtile. Stroheim introduces his typical role as a villainous Teutonic womanizer, with a scar, a monocle and a history of military service--"the man you love to hate". Here, he's the other man. Furthermore, the mise-en-scène takes precedence over camera movement or editing. The décor is detailed and occasionally allegorical to the melodrama. Attention to lighting is also evident. "Blind Husbands" is sensational and too contrived and ruminant at times, but, for the most part, the simple story is harmonious with the restrained, yet detailed, film-making.
"Blind Husbands" is a film in which Von Stroheim both directed and acted. The story seems somewhat routine now, but was considered racy for its day. It concerns a rather bland American doctor and his neglected wife on vacation in the Alps who cross paths with Lieutenant Erich Von Steuben (Von Stroheim), a military man with an eye for the ladies. He pursues the doctor's wife while the doctor is preoccupied with climbing the local mountains. Its main features are that the characters are well-developed compared with other films of the 1910's and also that the running time is a mere 90 minutes compared with later Von Stroheim efforts where he wound up going wild and shooting hours of film.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
A suspenseful struggle between devotion & betrayal, forgiveness &
revenge, lust & love in the time when dailiness made a wide path for
the immoral men, lurking the married women on the pretext of saving
them from the misery of their inadequate marriages.
In the meantime,the devotion of a woman to her husband despite her dissatisfaction, astonished an ill-sighted lieutenant, as well as her own over-occupied physician husband; in a way that such a devotion and persistence couldn't be realized by him until after the men reached at the inaccessible peak of the mountain of struggles; said to have one way up, but many ways down.
In the end, reconciliation is the only reasonable answer of the husband to the helpless fellow mountaineer, to his loving wife and also to himself.
This is a review of the Austrian version of the film, which is
available on the R2 Edition Filmmuseum DVD. I believe it is also
available in the States on Kino DVD in the truncated American version
that has a different sentiment.
Blind Husbands is a story about folks holidaying in the alps (Cortina specifically). The main characters are a famous American surgeon, his wife Maguerite, and Leutnant von Steuben, a German military man (the filmmuseum English subtitles are a bit misleading here because they translate the intertitles referring to him as an impostor, whereas I believe von Stroheim's intention was to portray him as someone unfit to wear the uniform rather than literally not allowed to wear it). Von Steuben is played by von Stroheim himself.
He's meant to be a philanderer of married women. He looks the part, excepting that he is actually very short, shorter in fact than Maguerite. The world may have changed a lot in ninety years, but I doubt the women back then were too different from women today who are generally unable to take the advances of men shorter than themselves seriously.
I'll give the world and the female race the benefit of the doubt for the movie's sake. Von Steuben is after a clinch with Maguerite, but he's already had a squeeze with two of the hotel serving girls by the time he gets round to her. He's got a soft target really, because the husband is much too self-involved to notice that his wife is feeling lonely and in need of rekindling. Obviously where the title "Blind Husbands" arises from.
There's quite a lovely dinner scene outside the hotel in Cortina at night, there's all these paper lanterns in lines interspersed with the permanent hotel lanterns, very pretty really. Maguerite excuses herself from the hubbub and goes inside to play the piano. Whilst sat at the piano we see her head shot against a totally black background, quite an unusual shot for a film of any era. It's at this point that she appears totally alone, not just lonely, but alone. Back to the normal shot and Steuben has sidled in. He picks up a violin and starts to play a duet. What a powerful thing to do to one in such a suggestive frame of mind! Part two of the plan is to buy her the marquetry box that hubby was too busy to notice that she wanted. It's apparently two hundred years old, the design on the lid is all lozenges and grains, really reminded me very much of a Matisse type pattern, we get a lovely close up of it.
As it happens there are another two shots against a dark background, one of a bell ringing in the bell tower (to mourn the dead) and one of von Steuben pointing his grubby finger at Maguerite.
Most of the film basically concerns the von Steuben/Maguerite cat and mouse game. Can't blame him for chasing Maguerite really, my favourite shot of her was her wearing these lovely antique sunglasses with wildflowers in the back of her alpinist hat band. The movie is all shot really quite sympathetically, I'd almost call it realism, a surprising term for a 1919 film! According to others the level of mise en scene is apparently not up to Foolish Wives or Greed standard, but I'll go with it on an absolute basis.
If you see the movie as containing realism, then the ending is a bit of a cop-out, a sop to dramatic cliché. However we'll let Erich off as it still kind of works. The movie turns into a bit of a bergfilm at the end, American superman, surgeon, strong, weakling German braggart, this being totally exposed as they climb the mountain, having been rather sotto voce before.
The only silly part of the film concerns the shadow of an eagle, which is blatantly produced by a crude silhouette hanging on the end of a wire (unless eagles can fly backwards), yikes! Other than that though I thought the movie was brilliant.
Blind Husbands (1919)
** 1/2 (out of 4)
A doctor (Sam DeGrasse) and his wife (Francelia Billington) travel to the Dolemites in Northern Italy where their rocky marriage shows. The doctor pays very little attention to his beautiful wife, which an Austrian military officer (Erich von Stroheim) notices and decides to try and seduce her. After viewing this film I must admit that I was rather shocked about all the positive reviews it has received over the past several decades. Apparently the film was very popular when it was first released, which is shocking too because I found the film to be way too simple. Half way through I really started to think I was watching a film by D.W. Griffith due to how simple the story structure was. It's pretty simple as we have a lazy husband, a bored wife and a jerk who wants her. There's no problem in keeping all of this simple but the issue I had with the entire film is that I found all the characters to be under-written. We never learn why the doctor is so uninterested in his wife. We never learn why the wife puts up with it. She never mentions anything to the husband and instead just sits back doing nothing. We get a few hints at the type of person the military officer is but von Stroheim's story really doesn't give him too many details either. This type of simple storytelling can be effective but I found a lot of the 91-minutes here just to wonder on without anything either going for them or the scenes just leading to no where. Many of them just run on and on for no apparent reason so perhaps a good ten-minutes edited out would have helped the flow of the film. The issues with the story are the main problem and the rest is pretty good. The performances by the three leads make the film worth viewing and of course von Stroheim stands out as the creepy. You can tell he's having a good time playing this jerk and it looks rather effortless so perhaps he's just playing himself. The opening credits explain the situation of the film and it's written as if the director was trying to explain himself to many husbands out there. I found Billington to be extremely effective as well as she does a very good job at showing the character's boredom without going over the top. Another plus is the vision of the director as each scene has a very nice look and the cinematography really packs a nice punch. BLIND HUSBANDS is far from a bad movie but at the same time I just didn't think there was enough here to make it a classic or something that is a must see.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
As a director/writer, Erich von Stroheim is a bit of an acquired taste.
A great deal of his work revels in the grotesque and in being rather
long-winded, which is why Blind Husbands (1919) may be the most
accessible of his films, along with The Merry Widow (1925).
A meditative piece on love and fidelity, Blind Husbands follows the story of a marriage which has grown cold due to the husband's workaholic nature. As they vacation in the mountains, the wife is pursued by a lecherous lieutenant who, when unable to get her in bed, urges her that her husband does not love her and entices her to run away with him.
It's the stuff of melodrama to be sure, but everything is so underplayed and von Stroheim engenders a great deal of atmosphere into the picture. The only flaw would be the finale, where everything is resolved much too cleanly and in the typical melodramatic fashion. It's a rather childish ending to an otherwise mature movie.
A basic marital morality tale, enthused with Stroheim's lust for
self-loathing. He plays an over-sexed, effete, lizard of a Prussian
Officer, named Von Steubens, who zealously seeks to dishonour the wife
of an American doctor holidaying in an Alpine retreat.
Interestingly, Stroheim is said to have virtually stalked Carl Laemmle, the head of Universal, in order to get his story, The Pinnacle, made into what would become Blind Husbands. Not the least hint or sign, then, of the crazy, obsessive auteur, a part that Stroheim would pioneer! As a director, Stroheim does have a wonderful visual eye (scenes of men climbing mountains etc.). There are also some very inventive shots, such as when the wife is looking at her practically impotent husband, the doctor, sleeping in bed, via a mirror, and then sees a young couple at the lodge in place of him, completely in love, before going back to the snoring doctor.
Moreover, the English actor who would go on to play McTeague in Stroheim's much greater, later, work: Greed, here plays a mountain guide. He is a symbol of the people of the mountains, strong, pious and devout, a complete opposite to Von Steubens' decadent Officer, who uses his cultural refinement only to guarantee his baser purposes, wooing the local peasant girls with poetry for instance, and wooing the doctor's wife with a violin.
But that's the problem with film. Although the characterisation isn't completely two-dimensional, the esteemed doctor, for instance, shows envy and hatred. His wife also admits an ambivalent interest in Von Steubens unwholesome charm. But Stroheim seems to idealise these mountain people from the get go, which is stupid romanticism. Anyone who has such romanticism should read An Alpine Idyll, a short story by Hemingway.
Still, an interesting early Stroheim.
This is really a bookend with "Foolish Wives" for me. The later film
was perhaps more melodramatic but they both share the Euro-womanizer
and gullible wife angle. In "Husbands," Stroheim casts himself
unsympathetically (and rather courageously, if you think about it) and
seems to relish the villainy and cowardice of the role. The cast is
excellent with particular credit due the off-balance wife for her
uncomfortable acceptance of the Leutenant's attention.
Stroheim's strength as a director always pivoted on his ability to move a story forward, however, and that's the very quality that makes this film work; one is always interested to follow along and see what happens.
It's a real shame that the world of cinema was denied the complete development of Stroheim's directorial skills as it would have been fascinating to see how he developed full-formed in the sound era.
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