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Saturday, July 13, 2013

BLIND HUSBANDS (1919)

After four years of knocking around the biz, mostly as a villain-specializing actor, Erich von Stroheim somehow talked Universal boss Carl Laemmle into letting him direct & star in an adaptation of his unpublished novel, THE PINNACLE. The terribly simple plot gets by on little more than a husband who takes his wife for granted and Stroheim as the Prussian officer who moves into the vacuum. But that, along with an Alps setting and the inevitable mountain climbing climax, turns out to be more than enough to spin a tale on using the natural mese-en-scène Stroheim had on call. And while he has yet to reach his later heights of realism & perversity (admittedly, a mixed blessing), his filmmaking proves, right from the start, something of an astonishment. Watch for a rack-focus shot toward the end of the first act that catches the wife looking at her carefully-put-together self in a bedroom mirror. Working closely with cinematographer Ben Reynolds, the shot holds as the focus shifts from the wife on the right hand side of the composition in a medium close-up to her husband in full shot filling the left side (inattentive, lying in bed). The frame holds as we dissolve over the husband to show the couple in happier times before the dissolve reverses to the husband still on his bed and finally pulling focus back to the wife at her mirror where she's been throughout the changing composition. Psychologically & technically, this is unheard of command for its time. (Naturally, Ben Reynolds gets his name misspelled in the credits.) There are dozens of telling visual moments like this in the film, including a remarkable guilty-dream sequence for the wife, and only the occasional moment of silent-film over-acting. It makes the loss of Stroheim’s next film, THE DEVIL’S PASSKEY/’20, all the more unfortunate, leaving a bare four completed productions directed by Stroheim. (Though it helps that they’re all masterpieces.)

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: The first part of this film’s climax is like a mirror-image of the famous finale of Stroheim’s GREED/’24. Here too, our male rivals will fight to the death; not over money, but over a woman; not in the water-starved heat & low-elevation of Death Valley, but atop the snowy heights of The Alps; and not chained together by handcuffs to face certain death, but freed to live or die when the husband cuts their safety-line rope, untethered from a shared fate.

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