Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): The Man You Loved to Hate/Foolish Wives

Sunday, August 3, 2008

The Man You Loved to Hate/Foolish Wives

I'm sorry to see that great image from Daisies disappear from the top of my blog, but the time has come for a new entry. Nonetheless, if any face could replace that memorable one, it's the slightly demonic, curiously hypnotic visage of the man early film audiences (and later, studio producers) would love to hate. I'll eventually be dealing with Erich von Stroheim in my AUTEURS series, so this may seem like jumping the gun, but between D.W. Griffith and him is Cecil B. DeMille, who has something like 3,921 movies on Netflix. By the time I get to von Stroheim in that project, I'm sure I'll have a fresh perspective.

On a side note, my egregious blog-pimping seems to have worked; thanks & welcome to those who commented on A dirty dozen. I hope you'll stick around - if you want to check out some of the older posts, I'd recommend The Virgin Suicides, The Brave Little Toaster, The Dark Knight, and I'm Not There among others. Let me know what you think.


As the 1980 documentary The Man You Loved to Hate (included on the DVD with Foolish Wives) reminds us, Erich von Stroheim fabricated his own mythology. He declared his roots in Viennese nobility - though we're left to wonder how he explained doing odd jobs in California before the Hapsburg dynasty fell. He was the quintessential European, the exotic foreigner, cruel when wartime propaganda required it, decadent when faced with naive American characters, and sadly noble when his career was crushed by the vulgarians who couldn't understand his greatness. Actually, von Stroheim was the quintessential American, a self-made immigrant who brushed off his past by inventing a new one (he actually may have been a Jew, was not a part of the aristocracy, and - despite his Prussian demeanor - had a hazy military record at best).

One of the pleasures of Foolish Wives (directed by and starring the Austrian) is the way it revels in this artifice. Von Stroheim plays a character who, like himself, fakes a noble background to impress others and take advantage of naive American gullibility. As Count Wladislaw Sergius Karamzin, a con artist posing as a Russian exile in Monte Carlo, he is constantly conniving. Yet there is something truly effective and impressive in his regal demeanor and air of sophistication, however contrived it may be. The man looks and feels like an aristocrat, from the perfectly crooked cap to the shiny toes of his boots (and the probably monogrammed underwear in between). It's not hard to see why the ambassador's wife he targets is swept up in his fantasy. Nor is she the only one to fall under his spell - a notorious ladies' man, the count seduces or tries to seduce his maid, the simple daughter of a partner in crime, and perhaps even his female "cousins," co-conspirators in a counterfeiting scheme. Eventually, these multiple affairs will lead to his downfall.

Meanwhile, sequence after sequence dazzles and the director's lavish sets provide convincing spectacle (in particular, a rainstorm seems entirely real, as if cast and crew stumbled upon it and happened to catch the effects on camera). But von Stroheim also creates the space for intimate detail, so that every seduction scene bristles with erotic passion and every gesture and tic of the count opens a window into his vain but suave soul. Images attach themselves to your mind and refuse to let go. There's the count spooning (real) caviar onto his plate, sitting on the deck of his villa while we slowly realize these luxury-dwelling aristocrats are a sham. Then the sharp, blinkered effect of the light shining through the shutters, onto the bed of the "half-witted daughter" (the titles' description, not mine) as the lascivious count sneaks up by her side. Or the estate bristling with flames as the count and his latest conquest cower helplessly on the balcony, firemen swarming below with their flimsy trampoline. And, finally, the count's face, defiantly arrogant to the end, revealed in close-up before his body is unceremoniously dropped into a sewer. The persona may have been an act, but on some level he believed it. And so, ultimately, do we.

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