Blind Husbands (1919)
Director: Erich von Stroheim
Cast: Sam De Grasse, Francelia Billington, Erich von Stroheim
Synopsis: 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.
Blind Husbands, Erich von Stroheim’s first effort as a director, was based on a novel the contemporaneous press would have us believe he wrote while languishing in prison for killing another man over a duel while serving as a Royal Palace Guard to Emperor Franz Joseph. Hmmm. To be honest, if von Stroheim — who was yet to acquire that ‘von’ and is credited as plain old Erich Stroheim — had spent as much effort on the plot of Blind Husbands as his publicist had on that cock-and-bull prison story we might have had a film that didn’t wait until its final ten minutes to come alive. Von Stroheim hated the title, apparently, which was selected from a shortlist of eight by New York exhibitors, preferring instead The Pinnacle, which was the title of his source novel. He even took out a full-page ad in Motion Picture News to proclaim his disgust. It is a poor title, but it probably has more relevance to the movie’s tepid love triangle plot than Von Stroheim’s choice.
The story takes place in the Italian mountainside village of Cortina d’Ampezzo, which was still part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire when the film was shot. Dr. Robert Armstrong (Sam De Grasse — Intolerance, Heart o’ the Hills) and his wife, Margaret (Francelia Billington) arrive for a holiday in the same carriage as Austrian military officer Lt. Erich von Steuben (von Stroheim — Five Graves to Cairo, Sunset Blvd.) who, sensing Margaret’s dissatisfaction with her marriage, immediately orchestrates a concentrated effort to seduce her.
We’re given only vague hints as to why the Armstrong’s marriage is in such a moribund condition, but von Stroheim repeatedly compares the state of their marriage with that of a pair of newlyweds (Jack Perrin and Valerie Germonprez), who can’t keep their hands off one another, to emphasise Margaret’s loneliness. It’s true, the doctor always seems to have his nose buried in a book but, when we see him playing with a local toddler, the film suggests that the source of their dissatisfaction lies with Margaret’s reluctance or inability to bear him a child. But then, as quickly as it’s suggested, the idea is dropped. Either way, it’s difficult to sympathise with Margaret. Most women in her position would at least broach the subject with their husband, but she simply sits around feeling sorry for herself and comes across as weak and vacillating.
While Armstrong might be a bit slow to read the signs (he does get there eventually), Margaret’s obvious dissatisfaction isn’t lost on the creepily attentive von Steuben, who’s quick to impart to the neglected wife the exact same words of romance he was minutes earlier trying on the hotel’s rather butch maid (Fay Holderness — Hearts of the World, A Dog’s Life). Von Steuben cuts a small, slight figure in his tight-fitting uniform, and the local children laugh as they follow him around the village. He’s arrogant and pompous and vaguely ridiculous, and thinks nothing of making a move on Margaret while her husband is away saving a sick villager’s life.
Blind Husbands searches for some measure of importance as it draws out its slight tale to a too-long 92 minutes (the original print, which ran another seven minutes or so, has been lost) but succeeds only in emphasising its ordinariness despite some arresting shots and fine location photography. Regarding his prey through narrowed eyes as he draws on his cigarette, Von Stroheim makes an enjoyably hissable cad, and Sam De Grasse struggles manfully to convince us of Armstrong’s unlikely transformation from bookish doctor to commanding mountain man when the time comes. The outcome is never in doubt, to be honest. The film’s age counts against it, making a drama out of a situation that would be brushed aside in an instant today, but it would have been more watchable if we had been able to care about any of its characters.
(Reviewed 9th September 2014)