1910s, 3/4, Erich von Stroheim, Review, Romance

Blind Husbands

Erich von Stroheim started his directing career with an adaptation of his own novel, The Pinnacle (a better title than Blind Husbands, I think), working with the original studio head of Universal, Carl Laemmle Sr. It was also the beginning of Stroheim’s problems with producers since they cut him out of the editing bay at one point and recut the film to their own liking (Laemmle was also known for wanting smaller, cheaper productions because of Universals lack of ownership of first run theaters, something that Laemmle Junior would try to change a few years later when daddy gave him the studio as a twenty-first birthday present). There was a new restoration in 2021 to bring the film closer to Stroheim’s original vision, but I couldn’t find a way to watch it. I ended up watching the copy held by the Museum of Modern Art, the copy that’s essentially been in some level of circulation for decades, and I was actually quite entertained.

Doctor Robert Armstrong (Sam De Grasse) and his wife Margaret (Francelia Billington) are going on vacation into the Dolomite Alps, and on the same wagon into the remote town at the foot of the mountains also rides an Austrian army officer, Lieutenant Eric von Steuben (Stroheim) who, as the intertitles tell us, loves wine, WOMEN, and song. He has obvious eyes for Margaret, an attractive young woman, and he can discern that there’s a certain distance between husband and wife that he can exploit to his own ends.

One of the interesting things I find in the film is how Stroheim cast himself as the absolute cad Steuben. His look fits the part perfectly, of course, it’s how an Austrian army officer should look, but Steuben is an awful human being. He goes from speaking sweetly in the ear of the woman tending tables in the inn to saying the exact same things to Margaret when she peels away from her husband to play on a piano alone. He’s really aggressive despite her protestations that she loves her husband, so when he buys her an expensive box as a present, forces himself into her room while her husband goes up the mountain to help some climbers in trouble, and keeps himself so close and so aggressive that she promises to meet him later. The middle third of the film is split between this “seduction” and Robert finding out about it, thinking that Margaret is an enthusiastic participant.

The action builds up to a climb up the Pinnacle with Robert and Steuben tied to each other as they go up. Through the action of the film there’s a minor character consistently on the side of the film, a mountain guide named Sepp (Gibson Gowland). He observes Steuben’s actions quietly, even changing rooms with Margaret at one point to deter Steuben from making a move in the middle of the night, and he provides Margaret some solace about the climb up the mountain that she knows could lead to terrible result, saying that the two men will be fine if they can leave their concerns at the foot of the mountain.

The location photography is great, obviously born of Stroheim’s need to get things authentic and refusing to shoot in a studio, and it helps provide a real sense of danger to the climb where the two men do seem to put everything aside…for a time. The thrills of the last act revolve around a letter written by Margaret to Steuben, the reveal of which allows Robert to demonstrate his resolve and honesty and for Steuben to reveal his duplicitousness and cowardice. The mechanical action around the letter (it gets thrown off the mountain and then Robert just picks it up on his way down) is not that believable and undermines it slightly, but it’s nice to see the character beats play out around it.

And I think that’s the core appeal of the film: it’s a fairly simple tale well told where good guys win, bad guys lose, and a lesson is learned by all. That it’s focused on an attempted affair is interesting for the period, showcasing the much more lenient air towards the content of movies before the rise of the Hays Office in the early 30s. The physical production is a real treat with location filming in northern Italy providing the wide expanse views of the mountains to give the finale, especially, a tactile reality that helps create a real sense of danger. The sets are lived in and detailed as well. Performances are strong as well, with nary a clasp at the chest to be found. Stroheim himself is great as the monster of the piece while Billington carries herself well as the embattled wife. De Grasse as the good, heroic, if absent-minded husband has a quiet dignity that’s really compelling as well.

Erich von Stroheim blew up his budget, the first time of many, and got kicked out of the editing bay by his producer, but the end result is a solid, well-told little cautionary romance.

Rating: 3/4

2 thoughts on “Blind Husbands”

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