Erich von Stroheim, like Lars von Trier after him, was not really a “von.” Even as early as Josef von Sternberg directors were adopting (through hook and crook) the self-styled nobility of Stroheim in imitative honor. The pioneer of this trend started his directing career with the film in question. One wonders whether this movie also began the habit of filmmakers to shoot in (or depict) Cortina d’Ampezzo. Through the years we would see both the Pink Panther and James Bond franchises gravitate towards the little Alpine village in the Dolomites.
One thing is certain: after almost 100 years this story (also by Stroheim) feels modern and the direction is equally modern and stunning (especially for a first-time director). Just two years later, Charlie Chaplin would begin (with The Kid) a string of self-directed features (with himself cast as the lead) which would rocket him to international stardom [the exceptions being A Woman of Paris (1923) and Chaplin’s last film A Countess from Hong Kong]. So one might argue that Stroheim started yet another trend (starring in self-directed features) which became inextricably integral to the development of film. Later echoes would present themselves in the work of Orson Welles and François Truffaut (to name just two).
There are several innovative uses of the camera in this picture. One, when Francelia Billington is combing her hair at the mirror, sees the focus go from her to her husband asleep in his bed. Not content with this coup, Stroheim then has the husband morph into a memory of the young wedded couple in their happier, former days. Another instance of ingenious directing comes when Billington is having a fevered nightmare ridden with guilt. Stroheim (who plays The Other Man) appears as a disembodied, grotesque head. As he smokes lasciviously from his long cigarette holder the dream sequence then cuts to his nicotine-stained hand and a solemn index finger which slowly comes to point at the dreamer. Such imagery anticipates Hitchcock’s gun sequence from Spellbound (not to mention its dream sequence for which Hitch employed the design skills of Salvador Dalí).
Another poignant auteurist touch comes near the end when Stroheim (as actor) is stranded atop a mountain peak. His dire situation is reinforced by the birds of prey which gradually start circling, yet we first only see them as shadows against the rock.
Most notably, this film was released just two months after the end of World War I. Stroheim plays a Lieutenant in the Austrian cavalry (Austria-Hungary being one of the Central Powers battling the United States which was among the opposing Allies). It was the assassination of an Austrian which triggered the war and the first shots fired were by Austrians on Serbians in retaliation. Keep in mind that Blind Husbands is unquestionably a Hollywood production (Stroheim having emigrated to the U.S. in 1909).
Moving back to the theme of this film, one senses a shifting, secular morality pervading throughout. Perhaps Stroheim was “urged” to make the whole thing a morality play, but he sure seems to be enjoying the role of the womanizing dandy. The end of the film is not convincing enough to deduce that Stroheim really cared one way or another about the moral “lesson” ostensibly conveyed. The only strange caveat is the shot of him (The Other Man) desperately praying atop the mountain. That and, in my cut of the film, we never see Stroheim plunge from the cliff after having been attacked by vultures. Perhaps I am still becoming versant in silent film and the fall escaped me. Viewers with ADD stand no chance of making it through this “blockbuster.” Those who have successfully absorbed the linguistic disconnect of Shakespeare from modern English will have a good idea of the patience it takes to delve into lesser known silent films on a regular basis.