#16. Foolish Wives (1922)

Probably not far-fetched to look at Erich von Stroheim’s face just once and know immediately that everybody hated him in elementary school.

Foolish Wives is beautifully shot and well-acted, and the story’s structure is really clever, but there’s something about the movie that kinda turns me off. I think it’s that Eric von Stroheim, who writes and directs and stars in this movie, has a really contemptible face. Not ugly or stupid, exactly; I just hate it. He looks a lot like this kid with whom I went to elementary and middle school named Rodero who got a bunch of us in trouble back in fifth grade because even though the school’s internet access was pretty heavily censored, with porn and violence being all but impossible to find, somebody in the class, a boy, had come upon this innocent-sounding phrase that, when you Googled it, pulled up a huge collection of pornograpic Marvel fan art, the most graphic of which showed Spiderman fucking Black Widow against a brick wall, and that phrase, which had become precious to all of us, was desperately protected. We only ever whispered it, like monks. “Rosebud” to us all. Then Rodero, fucking sycophantic shithead Rodero, blabbed the phrase to our teacher, Ms. Stys, who Googled it for herself while the whole class watched and then clutched her mouth and I think she may’ve found it kind of funny, not sure, but she got it blocked throughout the school anyway. The loathsome specter of Rodero hovers over every shot of von Stroheim in this movie – which is nearly all of them.

Foolish Wives is about a dude named Kramzin (von Stroheim) who wears a military uniform and pretends to be a count so tha the can hang out among the social elites. While living with his two cousins, Vera (Mae Busch) and Olga (Maude George), he makes his living by seducing married women and conning them out of their money. The movie takes place in Monte Carlo, chronicling Kramzin’s efforts to seduce and swindle a rich American woman named Mrs. Hughes (DuPont), and Monte Carlo kinda becomes one of the stars of the movie. Von Stroheim frames it with love.

Not sure if this demonstrates the “visual depth” thing I was talking about, but it’s a very pretty coupla shots to watch on loop, I think.

What’s unique about Foolish Wives, what makes it innovative for its time, is the depth and activity of its shots. Yes we occasionally get the D.W. Griffith-type of flat distant shot, an appreciation of the spectacle, but mostly the camera here is focused on our characterswhile the extras, the sets, are purely there for background. And it works so well! Obviously this is common practice in modern movies, no longer a spectacle, but it’s really remarkable to see it done here for the first (?) time. I felt more immersed in this movie’s setting than I did with the settings of any other movie on this list. Even the huge and meticulously-crafted sets of Orphans of the Storm or Intolerance feel kinda flat by comparison. So that was great. There’s also some really cool camerawork throughout. One particularly spectacular shot of von Stroheim rowing a boat through a storm.


I’m writing this caption way down the line, after I’ve seen 100+ movies on this list, and I’m realizing that boat stuff comes up a LOT. Way more than train stuff. Interesting.

The aforementioned cleverness of its story has to do with set-ups and payoffs. Things like an ostensibly rude American soldier, an overprotective father, a manhole cover and a servant’s unrequited love are made to seem like world-building bits of miscellany, meant only to provide texture or nuance to a scene, but they all end up shaping the story’s trajectory toward a gratifying ending.

Foolish Wives is a film to admire, if not to really love, and definitely a key instalment on the List.


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