The scenario is original with Stroheim, a model for such compositions as Dmytryk’s The Mountain, Eastwood’s The Eiger Sanction and Zinnemann’s Five Days One Summer. Not the least elegant and involved consideration is Edwards’ The Pink Panther, which like Stroheim’s film is laid in Cortina d’Ampezzo.
The interloper finds himself on the Pinnacle (Zinne) and cannot get down. This is a very amusing spectacle emanating from a dream of the lady’s, Freud was at the time of filming a physician in practice.
The priapism of Stroheim’s Iachino abuts the stalwart Sepp, whom we instantly recognize as McTeague. The theme is precisely that of Queen Kelly, the doctor’s wife dreams leering Von Steuben in a closeup that is later supplemented by a reverse shot of horrified Kelly facing horrible Vryheid.
Kino International (the company you hate to love) has a patchy print at various speeds, mostly dawdling, but color-tinted and with piano accompaniment from the original cues.
The most perfect of Stroheim’s extant films was curiously misunderstood in its initial release at three hours long, Variety said it was “frankly salacious” and of no value beyond the set constructions. The real problem, as seen at the time, was identified by Motion Picture Classic as the portrayal of the ambassador, forgetting that the title is not “Foolish Husbands”. We now have, after some patient restoration, a film two-thirds the original length, or a little more than that (and Stroheim’s cut was much longer).
The character of the ambassador is so precisely rendered that it is indeed difficult to describe but impossible to misunderstand, especially after Blind Husbands. He is an American diplomat, white gloves are not an accouterment he handles with deft smartness.
Stroheim simply describes what a foolish wife in her deception never sees, the fall of her seducer. The comic slide of Sergius from merry target practice on a seaside cliff to corpse down a manhole is the substance overlooked by Variety and admired by Motion Picture Classic in spite of itself.
The attempted seduction of the ambassador’s wife is rained upon, Sergius carries her through mud and tempest to a wretched hovel inhabited by a crone, a monk interferes with his trifling.
His maid sets fire to his Monte Carlo apartments out of jealousy, his rendezvous with the wife is merely to beg a sum of money, the maid has a promise of marriage.
The ambassador is as diplomatically aware of all this as the casino croupier who sees the banknotes that are counterfeit given him to change by Sergius’s cousins, the princesses, who are later arrested but not before they see him leap from his burning balcony to the firemen below, well ahead of the wife.
The counterfeiter from whom the three crooks buy their goods has an imbecile daughter, a sort of parody if you will of Ibsen’s Nora (ever since her mother died, she speaks nothing and carries a rag doll, full-grown though she is). Sergius repeats the midnight attempt on this girl, and meets his fate at the counterfeiter’s hands but not before the ambassador has publicly thrashed and ejected him.
Beckett was asked to cut Murphy. “Will you therefore communicate... my extreme aversion to removing one-third of my work proceeding from my extreme inability to understand how this can be done and leave a remainder?”
We have the ruins of Stroheim’s masterwork, or if we prefer (and I know a critic or two who would smilingly assent to this), we can cut it still further down to the meremost preparation of the final image, enough to show Trina as the dead mule deranged from eating locoweed and shot through the canteen by Marcus, who lies dead beaten by McTeague, who sits on the floor of Death Valley handcuffed to him, in an extreme long shot.
Some of Stroheim’s Vermeer views are in the studio print, which at least one recent version has “expurgated, accelerated, improved and reduced”.
The Merry Widow
The bariolage of Stroheim’s style finds a very happy expression in this silent version of the operetta. The mise-en-scène is stylized anyway, Stroheim rolls along merrily, and bears with him the experience of Merry-Go-Round. Here, he keys up the performance of the leading actor, and finds in John Gilbert one of the cinema’s great masters, capable of acting almost directly to the camera in close-up after close-up of astonishing candor and grasp, then of withdrawing into aplomb or determination, but always with Stroheim creating a constant working consciousness with the camera.
The opening model shot shows the mountaintop country of Monteblanco with a modern highway bridge of concrete leading to its antiquities. This brief shot is nothing to a later matte view of the mountains from a corner of the kingdom, forming the horizon of a great valley.
The heir apparent (Roy D’Arcy) is an unscrupulous villain, prig and scoundrel, played by D’Arcy with a leer so energetic as to reveal the painful fool who exercises himself in it vainly, and at moments collapsing into a dark look of confusion until he thinks up new devilment. His death at the hands of a rascally assassin is rather pathetic.
Gilbert as next in line fights a duel with the Crown Prince, when the former has fallen in love with an American showgirl (Mae Murray) and begins to feel the pressure of his situation. This duel resembles the one in Barry Lyndon, Gilbert is badly wounded, but the villain is shortly removed, and the film ends happily.
Stroheim’s genius is, among other things, in “following the affair.” The hero seduces the girl at an inn, she cries, he is too much the hero not to act like one, character is fate, it’s a fascinating study. The Manhattanite is a farm girl at heart, next to this eager Prince she is all at a loss, ultimately a sensitive mass of feeling.
You never know where you are in a Stroheim film, or when a character will look at the camera and roll his eyes over something, which is where Fellini gets it. Stroheim always knows, his calculations and measurements of all these human quanta are exquisitely accurate, he has the dramatist’s ability to generate personæ who exist or rather who give the simulacrum of existence a full measure of reality by isolating or combining the elements of existence.
The Wedding March
Stroheim once incidentally compared his work to that of “Hugo, or Voltaire, or Shakespeare, or any writer of intelligence and sincerity.” This is the interview in which, with the tone of Beckett reprimanding the Irish, he is quoted as saying, “you Americans are living on baby food.”
Goethe is a signal influence. He names these authors because he is accused, or says he is accused, of making films “not fit for children.” His films are fairy tales for adults with princes, poor village girls, ogres and the like, and the simple question for the reviewer who likes pat endings is, will the prince marry Cinderella or be damned to a hellish loveless marriage? For Stroheim, the terms are set, the speculation is sufficient (it is also sufficient, necessarily, that such personages and dilemmas exist, hence the quiddity of his work). The really small differences of nuance between his films make for universes of astute perception. Here the hero or protagonist is Stroheim himself, not handsome but self-possessed, he is under duress for money, his father advises him to kill himself or marry a rich woman, he falls in love with a poor girl (Fay Wray) beloved of the brash village lout (Matthew Betz), the only question is as stated before.
The film ends after his marriage to the superb Zasu Pitts, who has money and a limp. It’s a self-contained film, the continuation is lost, the final third unfilmed. The real reason for the unconscionable maltreatment of his films is not that they are risqué, nor that his budgets were so large, but because his work is incommensurable with Hollywood’s understanding of cinema then and now (compare Sam Taylor’s Tempest, which is a Stroheim film only partially scripted by the master without credit, to see an artistic representation within the pale, as it were).
The fine color sequence portrays a formal military procession on a State occasion, is just the sort of thing Shakespeare would do, and gives a flashing taste of realism over and above the meticulous settings and costumes.
We are guessing, now, when we say that after Cinderella is whipped out of the palace she goes to the swamp beset by a storm that raises life out of amino acids and she then becomes the madam of her establishment, Queen Kelly of Kronberg. That is the five hours of film envisioned, shall we say, by Stroheim initially as The Swamp.
The remnant was gathered up by Fellini into Juliet of the Spirits. Beckett’s triple music (Murphy) is anticipated. The first part of the fairy tale has its echoes of course in Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Sweet Bird of Youth. A particularly monumental reflection of Stroheim’s fragments is High Plains Drifter.
The restoration by Kino (running speeds have not been observed—though it was filmed at 16 fps, if projected at 24 fps Griffith’s Intolerance is compressed from three hours to a herky-jerk two by any fast arithmetic) shows us a work on a monstrous scale tending toward the ideal Stroheim. The palace at Kronberg is almost painfully beautiful, the accumulation of details has the precise qualities always sought for, the thing itself. The camera sees what is before it, there is an art of photography, these two divergent facts make up the play of forms.
What we now have is Kronberg and Dar-es-Salaam, the first a classic Stroheim in excelsis, the second roughly approximate to Greed in style, say, by comparison. The illusion of vice looms like Shakespeare’s Pandarus at the last, all in a champ contre champ across the bed of a dying madam (Kelly’s aunt), the same way Stroheim films the lovemaking in Prince Wolfram’s rooms. An African priest performs the last rites and the wedding ceremony, altar boys and whores are the chorus.
The reasons given or mooted for halting the production are, as always when it comes to Stroheim, mysterious and nonsensical to the very last faint idea of a degree. The film as it now stands is a provocation and a revelation. “A poet must leave traces of his passing, not proofs. Only traces make you dream.” (René Char)