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Category Archives: Movie Crash Course

Movie Crash Course: A Note From The Projectionist’s Booth

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Time and technology are funny things.

I have been trying to watch everything in chronological order, as has more or less been captured by the 1001 Movies To See Before You Die books (and more or less compiled here).  I’ve been finding most things via Netflix, but many of the older films, most of which are in the public domain, I’ve been finding on Youtube.  Which is a boon – instead of random cat videos and clips of the kids from Stranger Things designing Pop-tart flavors or whatever, you can delve into cinema history for totally free.  There is a little of “you get what you pay for”, to be sure – the print quality isn’t always ideal, and sometimes the person who uploaded it has chosen their own music (the upload I found of Les Vampires had this super-monotonous electronic “creepy” music in a continuous loop that got occasionally annoying).

However, because some of these films are classics and are critically revered, sometimes they get a serious film-historian makeover, either because someone’s found some extra footage they thought they’d lost or someone’s restored the print or something like that.  And when that happens…it goes out of the public domain, and comes down from Youtube.  But that is also no guarantee that Netflix has it.  And after 20 movies, I’ve just run into that problem (which explains the delay in here).

I really was looking forward to the next film after Sherlock Jr. – it’s The Great White Silence, a sort of found-footage documentary from the tragic British Terra Nova expedition of 1913, when Robert Scott made an attempt to reach the South Pole first; only to be narrowly beaten by Norwegian Roald Amundsen. Scott’s team all perished during the return to base camp.  However, filmmaker Herbert Ponting was on hand to record the team embarking upon their trip, but Scott had him stay behind – and so he and his footage survived. The footage became Great White Silence in 1924, ten years after the tragedy, but the wound was still a little too fresh, and the public avoided the film and it sort of lapsed into obscurity until 2011, when it got restored and presented as a historic document.  Netflix doesn’t seem to have a copy, and all the Youtube links I see refer me to questionable web sites in obscure Baltic langauges where I can “downlode free streaming 100% free okay”.  No thanks.

I’m running into a similar problem with the next film after that – and to add insult to injury, the next film is Greed, an Erich Von Stroeheim four-hour epic.  Youtube does have a paid-viewing option for only a couple bucks, but…again, it’s an Erich Von Stroeheim four-hour epic.

The weather is supposed to be a little bleak this weekend, so I may just suck it up and watch Greed, and see if I can find a similar pay-per-view approach to Great White Silence.  But I may have to skip these and come back to them later; there’s too many other films waiting.

Movie Crash Course: Sherlock Jr.

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Hooray it’s another Buster Keaton film!  I clapped a little to myself as I put this in my DVD.

It’s not perfect, unfortunately.  The plot for Sherlock Jr. is actually a little thin; Keaton is a lowly movie theater owner who secretly fantasizes about being a star detective, and who is competing with the local playa for the hand of a lovely young thing in town.

One night, when both he and his rival are at the young lady’s house and her father’s pocketwatch goes missing, Keaton heroically offers to investigate. But his rival – who’s secretly stolen the watch and pawned it – plants the pawn shop ticket on him, and he is thrown out in disgrace.   He investigates the case a bit more, runs into trouble, and gives up, returning to the theater. But his sweetheart ultimately solves the case by just asking the pawnshop owner who sold him the watch. He quickly fingers the proper culprit, and she joyfully rushes to the theater to tell Keaton his name’s been cleared; he happily gives her the engagement ring he was going to give her earlier. The end.

In truth, the movie was created as a home for a series of visual gag sequences Keaton had thought up, most of which come during an extended “dream sequence” after his character dozes off in the projection booth.  The film he’s screening echoes the theft plot from his own life, and he dreams himself and his ladylove into the characters onscreen, expertly solving the case while adroitly escaping from the film-in-a-film’s bad guys.

But all that comes after the opening of the dream sequence – a plotless, but astounding, five-minute extended gag which was the very first thing Keaton thought of filming.  In the sequence, his character walks up to the screen in the theater, and then “into” the film onscreen – and is then stuck reacting to the environment changing around him as the shots themselves change.  One minute he finds himself at a pool, and happily goes to dive in – but the scene changes to a snowy meadow when he’s mid-air, and he lands headfirst in a snowbank.  He extracts himself, and goes to sit on a tree stump – which then vanishes as the scene changes to a formal garden, and he lands on his tuchas on the ground.  He stands up, brushes off, and starts to stalk off angrily – right into a column as the scene changes yet again.

My words don’t do it justice – it’s best if you just have a look.

The more I think of this sequence, and the tools Keaton had available to him, the more impressed I am. Keaton didn’t have CGI available to him – he had to measure the landscape precisely at each different location, plotting out exactly where he had to be standing in each new location to preserve the continuity. Apparently during filming, he enlisted a couple of surveyors to help him keep all the in-space correct; and the editing of that sequence more than doubled his usual production turnaround time.

Another stunt he does later in the film-in-a-film sequence raised even more eyebrows – Keaton’s detective character is trying to escape a couple goons, and gets trapped in an alleyway.  His assistant comes to help him, inexplicably dressed in a long robe and carrying a briefcase.  He positions himself against the wall, and opens the briefcase in front of his chest – and Keaton dives into it, vanishing.

For decades people would ask Keaton about that stunt, but all he would say is that he adapted it from an old vaudeville trick.  He did admit that it took a long time to set the shot up right; but happily reported that between that and the shifting-set sequence, “every cameraman in the business went to see that picture more than once trying to figure out how the hell we did some of that.”

When it came to stunts, though, Keaton would do them himself – and in this film he came very close to danger. There’s an early sequence just after he’s been tossed out of his girl’s house, when he tries tailing his rival.  But his rival is able to shake him by trapping him in one of a train’s box cars. Keaton’s character escapes by climbing out the skylight of the car, and then runs along the roofs of the moving train cars before finally jumping to grab hold of a passing water spout in the railyard, riding it down as it lowers to the ground before unceremoniously dousing him with water.

During one take, the water came out more forcefully than he expected and Keaton was slammed down against the tracks, his neck striking one of the rails.  Filming ceased that day, but Keaton returned to work the next day, and kept filming as scheduled even though he was suffering from monstrous headaches for the next few weeks.  Nine years later, a doctor pointed out during a routine physical that he had some unusual bone growth on that spot in his neck – and Keaton realized that he had actually broken his neck during the stunt and never realized it.

Movie Crash Course: Strike

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Is this my first Soviet film?  I think this is my first Soviet film.

Strike was released in 1925, and was the first film by director Sergei Eisenstein.  His better-known Battleship Potemkin was released that same year and quickly overshadowed this one in terms of notoriety; I was aware of Potemkin even as a child, well before starting this project.

In terms of plot, it’s a bit thin on the ground – a strike at a small Russian factory in 1903, which ultimately fails.  Eisenstein had planned it to be part of a series ending with the ultimate victory of the Proletariat; however, this was the only one of his planned seven-film series that got made.  Still, the thin plot is made up for with some striking visuals, starting in the very first scene as the factory’s workers are whispering amongst themselves about their dissatisfaction.

The owner of the factory, meanwhile – who is depicted as a fat buffoon – suspects that discord is afoot.

He enlists a series of spies to circulate amongst his workers and figure out what’s going on.  Eisenstein takes a break to introduce us to four of these spies, each of whom is named after a given animal, like “Monkey” or “Owl”.

However, after that build-up, the factory workers seem to be pretty good about avoiding them, and they are pretty quickly forgotten.

The strike is triggered when one of the workers steals another’s tool; the victim reports the theft to the manager, and is bizarrely accused of committing the crime himself and ordered to pay for it.  Instead he hangs himself, leaving his comrades a note decrying the manager. His comrades are angry enough to stop work then and there, and storm off the factory floor, spreading to the various departments of the firm and rallying the others before finally storming to the foreman’s office and loading him onto a cart and dumping him in the river.  They then head home, leaving the machines of the factory silent.

Things seem optomistic in the early days of the strike, with Eisenstein treating us to lots of idyllic vignettes as the workers enjoy their break. Fathers play with their kids. Families picnic by lakes. Everyone generally seems to be having a blast.

These shots are intercut with vignettes of pigeons roosting on the abandoned machines and the factory owner getting increasingly pissed off as undeliverable orders keep piling up.

He’s already sent in some toughs to threaten the strikers by the time he receives their written list of demands, bringing them to the factory’s shareholders to discuss a plan of attack.

They ultimately refuse to give in, and as the strike approaches a stalemate, the workers’ idylls are broken up with tension and squabbling.  A man ransacks his house for things to sell so the family can buy food. Children cry over their hunger.  And the shareholders continue to increase the tension, up to the very end, when they send in a mounted police force to break the strike.  Shots of the mounted soldiers chasing the fleeing strikers and firing at them are intercut with some actual footage – which is frankly gory – of a cow being slaughtered.  After both bloodbaths, the film pretty much ends there.

The film wears its propaganda on its sleeve, seriously. The factory owners and managers are all depicted as selfish and cruel – one of them drops a lemon wedge on his foot as the team are reading over the workers’ demands, and he grabs the paper on which they’re written to wipe up the spill.  Eisenstein includes a pointed juxtaposition of clips a moment later, when one shareholder is showing off a new juicer to produce fresh-squeezed lime for their gin and tonics; “you just put the fruit here,” he says, showing off the contraption, “and you squeeze it to get juice!” And the subsequent clips of him letting his colleagues try it, urging them to “Squeeeeeeeeze!” are intercut with clips of the workers being threatened by some police toughs.

Subtle this ain’t.  And I really should warn anyone who may be wanting to watch along at home that the footage of the cow’s slaughter towards the end is really graphic. But – it absolutely gets Eisenstein’s point across.

Movie Crash Course: The Last Laugh (Der letzte Mann)

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This is a strangely, simply affecting fairy tale of a piece, about an elderly hotel doorman who loses his job.

No, that’s literally the entire plot.  Save for an epilogue which is so tacked-on that even the filmmaker confesses he threw it in at the last minute.

We never learn the name of our hero, a big Santa of a man; we never even hear him “speak”, there are no subtitles or intertitles in this simple film.  But his pride in his work is obvious – as he scurries hither and thither attending to his guests, he finds time to tend to his appearance, smoothing down his moustache and polishing off his uniform.

And he does look quite dapper. His uniform gives him an air of respectability in the little alley where he lives – when he heads home after work, the neighbors all greet him, children stop to watch him pass, ladies beating out their carpets stop so as not to sully his uniform. He is the unofficial mayor of his street.

He lives in a small apartment with a young woman – the film isn’t clear whether she is a daughter or a niece – who is preparing to marry a young man from elsewhere in their building. He takes such pride in his work, though, that he skips her actual wedding, promising that he will be at the reception afterward.

But that day, when he arrives at work, another man is minding the door. He is summoned to the hotel manager’s office and informed that because of his old age, he is being demoted – from now on he will serve as the washroom attendant.  It’s clear he sees it as an enormous blow.

His day as washroom attendant is demeaning drudgery.  But one of the real bummers is that he has to give up his magnificent doorman’s uniform – and he is so disturbed at this detail that he breaks back into the hotel after hours and steals it back, donning it to wear to his niece’s wedding reception.

He dresses back up in it as he leaves for work the next day, secretly changing in a nearby train station and leaving it in one of the station lockers before resuming his real drudgery.

But a neighbor has the idea to bring him some lunch that day, and discovers the truth of his new position.  By the time he heads for home – having retrieved the uniform and changed back into it – the news has spread through his alley, and his neighbors are all laughing at him.  His niece is crushed, his niece’s new husband worried that he’s demented. In despair, he flees back to the hotel, where the night watchman catches him in the act of returning the doorman’s uniform.  The night watchman takes pity and lets him go – but instead of returning home, our hero heads for the mens’ room, resigned to his fate. He eats a simple bowl of soup and then despondently tries to fall asleep right there, because what’s the point. The night watchman discovers him asleep there, and tenderly covers him with his coat.  The end.

But not so fast!

Here the filmmaker admits to taking an improbable turn into fairy tale, in one of the only intertitles in the entire piece.

Immediately following this notice, we are first treated to a series of hotel guests marvelling over an astonishing news piece about an eccentric millionaire who has just died. His will stated that his entire fortune would be left to the person in whose arms he happened to die – and by a stroke of luck, that person was the hero of our story.  And then the last several minutes of the film are a bunch of sheer wish fulfillment, as our hero, jolly once again, treats himself to an enormous meal and basks in the attention of the hotel waiters and footmen; as for the night watchman, he’s our hero’s guest.

Our hero even excuses himself to the restroom, and makes sure he gives the rabbitty little man working the washroom now an enormous tip.  He and the night watchman finally exit to a cab – a team of fawning hotel attendants following them – and ride into the sunset.

It wasn’t until writing this piece that I made the surprising discovery that this film had the same director as NosferatuThe tone of each film is enormously different.  Although, in retrospect, both films did rely more on actors’ facial expressions and gestures than on language; the actors in The Last Laugh are fantastically expressive, and I was easily able to follow the action.

I’m not sure how I feel about that epilogue, though.  It is right on the edge of feeling a little too fantastical; but, on the other hand, it’s really cheering to see our lead looking so happy again.

Movie Crash Course – La Roue

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French director Abel Gance attracted a lot of attention with this 1923 work.  Two notable directors from the newly-fledged Soviet film industry came to France just to thank him for it, and the French filmmaker Jean Cocteau later said that “there is film before La Roue and film after, just like there was painting before Picasso and then after.”  Originally, however, it was also pretty long – some estimates put it to nine hours – and Gance was forced to cut it down to a more audience-friendly two hours shortly after release.  Modern film critics and scholars have restored it to about five hours, which I’m not entirely convinced was the right idea.  But – that much film gives you ample evidence of Gance’s skill.

The story itself is a tragic love triangle, kicked off shortly after a train crash in Provence.  Ace engineer Sisif (Severin-Mars) rescues a toddler girl named Norma in the course of helping with the accident, and when he discovers that no one has claimed her in the aftermath, he guesses that she’s been orphaned and takes her home, raising her along with his son Ellie, whom he’s raising as a single father.

Fifteen years later, Norma has grown into a fun-loving and quirky young woman, who loves palling around with her brother and dressing up both herself and her pet goat for fun.

Ellie has become a somewhat studious luthier, but is charmed by his “little sister”‘s hijinks and at one point gushes to her that he hopes one day to marry a girl as lively and pretty as she.

Sisif, though, is starting to act a little funny – going out drinking after work, picking fights, and barricading himself in the living room at night.  He’s harboring a dark secret – he’s realized that he’s starting to fall in love with Norma, whom he’s never told that she’s adopted.  After a fight with a co-worker and a near crash on the job earns Sisif a reprimand, he finally confesses his secret to one of his colleagues, Hersan, swearing him to secrecy.

Hersan is also charmed by Norma, though, and agrees to keep Sisif’s secret on one condition – that he be allowed to marry Norma.  Sisif reluctantly agrees, and after a few weeks’ of persuasion, Norma finally assents as well. A heartbroken Sisif insists on driving the train that takes the couple to Paris, and nearly gets into a second accident on the way.  A few months later, Ellie finally learns Norma is his adopted sister, and realizes with a shock that he actually could have married her, instead of marrying a girl like her.  Sisif – still lovelorn for Norma – figures out Ellie’s secret, and the pair bond over their shared unresolved passion, turning themselves into a hell of a weird support group.

Norma – who is miserable herself in Paris, and feels no love for Hersan – pays the pair of them a surprise visit, only to have the pair turn her away – baffling her, since as far as she’s concerned, she’s Sisif’s daughter and Ellie’s sister. Dejected, she returns to Paris and takes up violin lessons, figuring that if Ellie won’t talk to her, at least she can study his favorite instrument. Sisif, meanwhile, is distracted enough that he gets into one final accident – during which his eyesight is damaged – and is finally demoted to running a dopey little tourist shuttle train at Mount Blanc. Ellie, also seeking to escape memories, tags along.

Father and son live together in a shack in the mountains for a year, diligently at work on their separate pursuits; they’ve agreed that neither will bring up Norma at home, but both separately and secretly are obsessed with her; Sisif thinking of her while working in the trainyard…

….and Ellie thinking of her while working on his violins.

The pair are each able to keep their obsession at bay, though; and each has something else to worry about as well. Since his accident, Sisif’s vision has continued to deteriorate, to the point that he fears he’ll go totally blind one day.  Ellie has a happier challenge – he has been perfecting his violin design, and one day a visiting virtuoso offers to play one of his creations for an invited audience of other musicians, in an effort to promote his designs. Happily, the concert is a smash success, and Ellie thinks his luck is turning – but then sees that Norma, who is there on vacation with Hersan, is in the audience.  Sisif soon learns Norma is in town as well, and father and son try to keep each other from contacting her.  But Ellie, in a desperate moment, makes a violin as a gift for Norma – just so that he can write out a full love letter to her and secretly paste it on the inside.  She’ll never see it, he writes in the note, but she will have it, and that will be comfort enough.

But then a couple days later, a suspicious Hersan breaks the violin in a rage – and finds the note. He storms to the shack to confront Ellie. And Ellie – by now probably glad that finally he can do something – proposes that they fight for Norma, and the pair set off to a remote cliff for a man-to-man contest. During the struggle, though, Ellie shoots Hersan in the stomach – then falls off the cliff, catching himself on a ledge below and hanging on for dear life.   Norma has followed Hersan to the shack, and she and Sisif are waiting when Hersan struggles in, makes a confession, and dies there in the room. Norma and Sisif rush to find Ellie – but just as Norma reaches the ledge where he is hanging, his grip loosens and he falls to his own death as well, leaving Norma to break the news to Sisif when he finally shows up.  He doesn’t take it well – he blames her and drives her away too.

The film glosses over the next couple years, during which Norma struggles with money following a botched execution of Hersan’s will.  Finally, she sneaks back to Sisif’s shack to beg forgiveness, but finds that his eyesight has been totally lost. So instead she spends a week secretly living there with him, quietly fixing things around the house, and earning her way back into his good will before revealing herself.  Sisif, too enfeebled and sad for his old obsession, takes her back.

The last sequence – set a few months later – is actually really lovely. Norma has been devotedly caring for Sisif, and some of her old spark is starting to come back. Then one day, a group of other young men and women invite her to an outdoor hiking and dance party they’re having in the mountains nearby. Norma isn’t sure about leaving Sisif alone, but he encourages her to go ahead. After a flash of her old quirkiness – she changes her mind about wearing a hat, and instead places it on the head of the family dog – she skips out to join the others, leaving Sisif sitting by the window, imagining her dancing happily with the other young men of the village. As he sits, realizing she is finally happy again, Sisif dies, at peace at last.

….Okay: in some places, this felt really long.  There were plenty of moments of characters’ reaction shots just running on way too long – too many shots of Sisif glowering in bars towards the beginning, too many seconds of characters looking into the camera and looking tortured. In the scene where Sisif’s eyesight is damaged, a minor character reacts as Sisif is taken to the doctor – and we are treated to a full fifteen seconds of him grimacing and wincing and biting his nails, watching Sisif be carried off.  I can only hope that the two-hour version cut those bits out.

But Gance also used some inventive surrealist techniques for some of his shots, and I’m hoping they stayed in. I’ve used some clips above, with double-images showing Norma’s face superimposed on violins or on smokestacks; another scene from Mont Blanc shows Ellie and Sisif at home, each retreating to opposite ends of the shack after dinner to work on their private tasks, and slowly the word “Norma” fades up into view between them, superimposed over the scene as a literal wedge between the pair. Gance also liked to use sequences with a lot of quick cuts, and one in particular was especially haunting – right before Ellie falls to his death, just as Norma is calling to him from the cliff’s edge, Gance intersperses shots of Ellie struggling to hold on with a lot of brief clips of the fun-loving, charming Norma from earlier in the film.  And it is only after this rapid-fire series of images of Ellie interspersed with clips of Norma that his grip loosens and he falls.  Which only served to make me wonder whether Ellie let go on purpose, a question I’m still struggling with.

Movie Crash Course – Our Hospitality

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My word this was fun.

Set in the early 1800s, Our Hospitality is an early Buster Keaton film, taking the story of the Hatfields and McCoys and playing it for laughs.  Keaton plays “Willie McKay,” the only surviving son left in the McKay family.  When he was just a tot, his father died in a mutually-fatal shootout with one of the patriarchs of the Canfield family; his mother fled with him to her sisters’ place in New York City, hoping to save him from meeting the same fate at the hands of the surviving Canfields.  But twenty years later, an estate lawyer tracks him down and informs him he is the sole heir to his father’s estate, urging him to take ownership.

He excitedly runs home to pack, but his aunt warns him of the feud. No matter – he’s determined to go, picturing a grand mansion waiting for him to move in. On the train to the mansion, Willie gets quite cozy with Virginia, a young lady headed to the same Blue Ridge Mountains town as he is.  It’s something of a bumpy ride, and they’ve bonded by the time they arrive in town.

But in the rush of arrival, they lose each other in the crowd; Virginia is too excited to see her family again anyway. And who’d have thought – her family name is “Canfield”.  Papa Canfield, along with one of her brothers, whisks her home, while the second brother lingers in town long enough for Willie to ask him directions to the McKay estate.  Brother Canfield offers to show him the way, seeing the perfect chance for a revenge killing of Willie – except, he’s unarmed.  He stops them at each of the first two houses they pass, excusing himself and running inside to beg at each residence for the loan of a pistol. But no one he asks is armed; and by the third house he stops at, Willie has decided to strike off on his own anyway.  He arrives at the house and soon discovers it’s a ruined cabin, and dejectedly turns back for town.

But on the way, he passes by the Canfield’s house, where Viriginia is strolling in the yard, and Willie takes the opportunity to reconnect.

A delighted Virginia invites him to dinner that evening, and an equally-delighted Willie accepts. The rest of the family is initually just as delighted that Virginia has met a charming fellow and look forward to meeting him at dinner – but are stunned to see that it’s Willie.  The Canfield sons scurry for the gun cabinet, but Papa Canfield stops them – it would be a violation of their code of hospitality to kill him while he is a guest in their home.  (And besides, the Parson is also due for dinner as well.)  He makes them all promise to be perfectly fine to Willie during dinner, but the second he leaves the house, he’s done for.  Willie, meanwhile, has consulted with the family butler and learned whose house he is in.  By the time all assemble for supper, things are a little….tense.  And almost as soon as they are done, Papa Canfield all but strongarms Willie to the door, telling him through a grit-teeth smile that he must come back again some time.

Willie dawdles as long as he can – “losing” a hat, “forgetting” an umbrella – and the Parson finally decides to take his leave first. But a storm has come up outside, and Papa Canfield declares that it’s not a fit night for anyone to travel and invites the Parson to stay with them for the night.  As Virginia shows the Parson upstairs, Willie follows, inviting himself to stay as well.

Willie is still lingering in the house the next day, knowing he’s done for if he leaves.  Fortunately this gives him a chance to sweet-talk Virginia more.

But Papa Canfield finally takes her aside and tells her who Willie is. The initial shock causes her to reject Willie, and he starts to leave, dejectedly – then realizes one of the Canfield boys is laying in wait outside.  So he takes a somewhat desperate measure.

The Canfields figure things out soon enough, though, and the last act of the film is a zany chase scene, with Willie leading the Canfields on a madcap chase as he tries to escape on horseback, by train, and then a raft down river. Virginia, who has by now regret spurning him, sees him struggling with his raft and sets out to rescue him in a rowboat – but she too founders, and soon both are in danger of being swept over a waterfall.

But Willie manages to acrobatically save Virginia, and they clamber ashore just as the Parson is passing by.  The rest of the Canfields arrive back home just in time to find the Parson wrapping up a spontaneous wedding service marrying the pair.  The brothers rush to the pistol cabinet to find it empty, and Virginia tearily turns to Papa Canfield, asking him to accept Willie.  Papa finally relents, urging his sons to disarm themselves.  And – when they do, Willie does as well, returning all the Canfield guns he’d taken and hidden in his coat.

My words do not do this justice.  I repeatedly laughed out loud watching this – there were moments that were straight out of Warner Brothers cartoons. Keaton’s performance only underscores the comedy; any kind of wide-eyed mugging in the midst of the slapstick would be overkill, but Keaton’s famous deadpan face is the perfect foil for the action. There is a take he does to the camera when he realizes he’s about to be pulled off a cliff that had me howling.

Movie Crash Course – Foolish Wives

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With 1922’s Foolish Wives, we also have our first meeting with a larger-than-life filmmaker – Erich von Stroheim, the son of an Austrian Jewish hatmaker who emigrated to the United States at the age of 24 and claimed to be an Austrian count.  He found his way west to Hollywood, and after an unofficial apprenticeship to D.W. Griffith (he was one of several assistant directors on Intolerance), and after appearing in some World War I-era films as the German villains, he struck out on his own, making and starring in his own work.

His lead role in Foolish Wives is a bit of a wink to his past.  He plays “Count Wladislaw Sergius Karamzin”, one of a trio of Russian con artists trying to live high on the hog in Monte Carlo between the wars; it’s never established whether he really is a Count, but since his “cousins”, a pair of women on the run from Moscow, certainly aren’t royalty, it’s safe to assume he isn’t either. But they have much of the glitterati fooled, thanks to criminal instincts, a stylish home, and regular visits to a local forger to purchase fake bank notes.

But the Count’s real M.O. is seduction – winning over wealthy women and swindling them out of money.  Their maid, Marushka, is already wrapped around his finger, and throughout the film reminds the Count of his promise that one day they would marry.

However, since she only has a few grand, he has bigger fish to fry. Like, say, the wife of the newest American envoy to the city.

Helen and Andrew Hughes arrive in Monte Carlo amid much pomp and circumstance, and the Count quickly notices that Andrew is a bit older and stodgier than his wife – and both are clearly rich. He gallantly offers Helen his acquaintance so that she has someone to hang out with on the dull days when her husband has diplomatic duties, and Helen readily accepts, soon spending more time with the Count and his “cousins” than she does with Andrew.

On one notable outing, Helen joins the Count and his “Cousin Olga” on a day trip to a small nearby town. While Olga relaxes at an inn, the Count and Helen rent a rowboat to do some exploring.  The Count seems strangely unconcerned about an impending storm, and when it finally strikes, he seems unusually certain that they’ll be able to find shelter in one of the local neighbors’ cottages for the night.  (This isn’t the first time the Count has done this, mind you.)  At first all does seem to be going to plan – they “discover” the peasant woman’s cottage, and she sets up a bed for Helen and relegates the Count to an easy chair – but when both women have fallen asleep, the Count tries making a move – only to be interrupted by a traveling monk who is genuinely lost and in need of shelter.

The party returns to the city the next day; Helen’s husband is unsuspecting, as Olga has sent the message along that all three stayed at the inn for the night.  The Count renews his efforts to win over Helen, further discomfiting Marushka.  The Count is even working on a third conquest – the daughter of their forger, a developmentally disabled girl who is awed by the Count.  It’s clear that the Count sees her as just a bit of skirt on the side, though.

Finally, The Count makes a plan to corner Helen during a society ball, whisk her to another room for an intimate dinner and put the moves on her there.  If she gives in, he’ll have made his score – if she resists, she can be blackmailed for being alone with him.  Luckily for the Count, it seems Helen is on the verge of giving in – but then Marushka, driven mad by jealousy, snaps and starts a fire in the tower where the Count and Helen are meeting.  The Count is so panicked at his plans gone awry that when the firemen come to rescue them from the balcony where they are cowering from the flames, he shoves Helen out of the way and jumps to safety first – a fact which Helen notices in the midst of her own panic. She is rescued soon after, though, and whisked off to safety by Alfred.

Things unravel quickly after that – the police soon catch the Count’s “Cousins”, fingering them as a pair of escaped convicts from Moscow.  Marushka has drowned herself from grief after setting the fire. Helen is being tended to by Alfred.  The Count still figures that well, at least he can try getting some other action, and goes after the forger’s daughter, climbing through her bedroom window – but the forger hears him, kills him, and dumps his body down the sewer.  And thus endeth the Count, and pretty much the movie with him.

The plot felt a bit…slim, and I actually found myself nodding off a few times while watching. But the original run time Von Stroheim had in mind would have been absolutely interminable – he originally wanted the film to run a full six hours.  The studio said no, however; especially after seeing the bill for the shots that von Stroheim was doing – using real caviar in meal scenes, taking copious takes of each scene for “safety”….instead of six hours, the film clocks in at a bit more respectable two hours and change.

There is one scene I quite liked, though.  The first time the Count meets Helen is on a hotel balcony; she’s just seen Alfred off with the Prince of Monaco, and has settled in with a book.

The Count follows her, and for the next five minutes proceeds to go to progressively greater lengths to catch her attention – edging closer and closer in his seat, paying a messenger boy to page him “and the louder the better”, and such. But Helen seems to find it ridiculous, pausing each time only to give him a cocked-eyebrow glance before returning to her work. Finally  the Count gives up and just asks someone to introduce him to Helen.

I admit I was a little disappointed to see how easily Helen fell for his antics after they were introduced.