Erich von Stroheim is considered to be the silent era’s most unlucky auteur. Constantly having his films taken from him by people who do not trust his artistic direction, the films we do get to see of his are famously manipulated, mistreated, and cut without permission from him. Foolish Wives, the third feature he directed was went so dramatically over budget that Universal put up a sign in Hollywood showing how much the film was costing day by day until the amount reached over a million dollars hoping desperately to generate publicity and buzz around it. When von Stroheim submitted a cut that was over six hours long, the producers took the print and cut it down to two and half then released it without his permission. Those hours that were cut are forever gone and what remains is a tonally uneven, but still interesting film.
von Stroheim plays a Russian “aristocrat” who makes a living by counterfeiting money and taking advantage of rich wives in Monte Carlo. He encounters an American wife who he seduces through violence and danger. Her husband understands what is at stake and tries to save his wife ending in the death of von Stroheim’s character. von Stroheim exudes sinisterness that is appealing as well as appalling. Within a few shots of the film, you understand that his “cereal” is caviar and his “milk” is ox blood (which by the way is super gross… who eats and drinks that?) and that he is devilishly charming. He seduces the counterfeiter’s daughter with a few looks and gestures. He promises the maid that he will marry her if only he could have all the money she ever saved. Everywhere he manipulates and encourages people into trusting him although he is quite frankly really scary looking with his monocle, his cocked military hat and his white military uniform. I guess that is the whole point.
Just like Queen Kelly, this film has the potential to be a masterpiece if only people didn’t interfere with the obvious genius behind Erich von Stroheim. Of course the people behind the film are not solely to blame, after all he insisted on building a complete replica of Monte Carlo, using real champagne and caviar when they could use cheaper food that looks the exact same on-screen, and ordering couture dresses for the women and silk undergarments for the men in order to make them feel upper class. But I think if his sinisterness was sit on and let mature on-screen, he would have been an iconic villain on par with other dark but all too real villains of the film noir era. It is a pity… excuse me now while I mourn this masterpiece in quiet reflections.