Friday, March 4, 2016

Before I Die #563: Foolish Wives (1922)

This is the 563rd movie I've watched out of the 1,172 films on the "Before You Die" list that I'm gradually working my way through.

Director: Erich Von Stroheim

One of the more laborious silent films that I've watched. I can make a guess as to why it is considered a "must watch," but I had to do some mental work to arrive at this guess.

The movie follows a trio of con artists posing as Russian aristocrats in Monte Carlo during the 1920's, when the area was already a noted playground for the wealthy and "social elite." One of the thieves is an authentic Russian aristocrat, the womanizing Count Karanzim (Erich von Stroheim), but the other two are mistresses of his who are posing as his cousins. Though Karanzim is essentially broke, the three are living off counterfeit money as they hatch their newest scheme - to swindle a large amount of money from Helen Hughes - the wife of a visiting U.S. ambassador. The young and gullible Mrs. Hughes falls for Karanzim's charm, agreeing to give him the money and even falling for him romantically. Karanzim's maid, whom he has been stringing along for years, becomes jealous and attempts to burn the Count and Helen alive in their rental estate. The pair escape, but Karanzim eventually meets a brutal fate at the hands of the protective father of another of his female "conquests."

This film was a good example of why I am not a connoisseur of silent film. Like many of its peers, Foolish Wives is slow in pace and rather shallow in characters. Of course, this is an easy reaction to have when the film is seen 93 years after its release. The advances in film technique and storytelling have simply far outstripped the innovations which progressive filmmakers like Von Stroheim were employing nearly a century ago. Taken with other "classics" from the era like D.W. Griffith's Orphans of the Storm and Broken Blossoms, Foolish Wives is part of a group of older films which were essentially simple fairy tales containing a few themes that were relatively mature for their day. Every character is a one-dimensional villain, victim, or hero, with no real attempt to explore deeper motivations or emotions. It can make for rather dull viewing, especially when the story takes nearly 150 minutes to tell.

One of countless wide shots which showed scope and
perspective that only the best-funded and well-directed
movies of the era could boast.
I can only guess that the film is considered a classic because of its technical merits. The locales, sets, and costumes are as lavish as anything you are likely to see from a film made at that time period, and I imagine that this was a further growth of the scale on which a story could be told through cinema. More impressive, though, is the camerawork and editing, which is clearly among the absolute best of the era. Viewers may have to remind themselves of the context of filmmaking's history to see it, but this film was among the first to exhibit mastery of camera techniques that have long since become standards of the art.

The only other Von Stroheim movie I've seen is his much later The Grand Illusion, which was released in 1937 and which I enjoyed far more. That later film added the sophistication of plot and character that I found sorely lacking in Foolish Wives.