Thursday, 17 March 2016

The footage fetishist … Blind Husbands (1919) with Michael Pointon, Cyrus Gabrysch, Cinema Museum

Ernst Lubitsch said that most directors created short stories or novellas with their films whereas Erich von Stroheim wrote novels. It’s a reflection on the immense detail the director put in his films and led him to produce a finished product of over 40 reels for Greed and to turn The Wedding March into a two-parter (the second now lost).

On commenting on his attempt to show a character’s foot fetish in The Merry Widow,  his arch enemy Irving Thalberg, allegedly responded that he was “a footage fetishist”. Bravo Irving, but the man he loved to hate would prove unstoppable on more than one occasion.

Erich and Francelia Billington
So many choice quotes were revealed during the first half of tonight’s tribute to Erich at The Cinema Museum, as film historian Michael Pointon took us through the extraordinary career of Erich Oswald Stroheim. He started with the ending of Sunset Boulevard as Gloria Swanson goes into meltdown; von Stroheim directs the news cameras for her final scene with a look of nuanced pity, love and pure understanding.  Auteur and tyro he may have been but Erich could act and he had a presence far more malleable than you might expect.

The stiff Junker attitude and starched militaristic demeanour were adoptions made after he emigrated from Austria to the US in 1909 and whilst he played these characters often, his own writing and direction showed far more emotional intelligence as did his acting. When Hollywood – literally – couldn’t afford his extravagance as a film maker, he fell back on his acting for most of the rest of his career.

I'll hum it and I'll play it!
Pointon showed clips from top-notch performances in La Grande Illusion alongside, B-movie fodder enriched by his ability to menace with just a twist of his neck, the raising of his chin and the twinkling of his eye. But before all this, he had worked under DW Griffith for four years prior to Intolerance and absorbed every lesson.

Famously another émigré, Billy Wilder, attributed his downfall to the fact he was always ten years ahead of his time – “twenty!” was Erich’s response.

So it proves with tonight’s main feature, von Stroheim’s first Blind Husbands from 1919 which could easily have come from the late twenties and beyond. The climbing sequences would have made Leni Riefenstahl proud whilst the editing is far pacier than you’d expect – maybe he was trying to fit all of that extra footage he no doubt captured.

The story is based on von Stroheim’s own book, The Pinnacle, a title that was hyped up to indicate a sex-comedy but certainly not a mountain adventure. The two are of course inter-linked and the husband in question has to scale the highest of peaks to look down on the truth of his own emotions.

Sam De Grasse: busy

For most of the time, this husband, Doctor Robert Armstrong (Sam De Grasse) is busy doing his reading and looking after patients and pretty much everyone else in preference to his wife Margaret (Francelia Billington). Margaret is loyal and long-suffering, living in the hope that someday Doctor Robert will reciprocate as he once did.

There’s a terrific sequence as she brushes her hair looking into her dressing table to see if Robert is noticing her, he and she drift in and out of focus until we see that the Doc has dropped off to sleep. Margaret walks over with a weary look, kisses him on the forehead, places his book on the bed-side table and folds his arms under the sheets.

A marriage lacking focus...
Must young love turn sour?
All of this neglect is compounded by their arrival in the Austrian Alps for their holiday. Away from their daily routines Robert simply turns in on himself, looking far out to the mountains or down into his books as well as looking after other people’s patients (no NHS in Austria then or now… just saying).

Poor Margaret is tortured by the sight of a loved up honeymooning  couple (Jack Perrin and Valerie Germonprez) whilst Robert shows more affection for his old friend Silent Sepp, the mountain guide (the excellent Gibson Gowland who would go on to star in Greed) who’s life he once saved. Sepp swore to be his friend for life; male bonding that carries more weight than the marriage vows as things seem to stand.

Silent Sepp is not so impressed with the new arrival
This can’t go on, especially as there’s a smooth German officer in town, Lieutenant Eric Von Steuben (Erich von Stroheim) whose hobbies the title cards tell us are “wine, WOMEN and song” but not, necessarily, in that order.

Von Steuben makes love (in old money terms…) to the female staff at the chalet but has his eyes set on Margaret with her fine turn of ankle and clearly loaded sense of frustration. He’s no sooner told a lass from the village that he loves her before accompanying the Doctor’s wife on violin as she plays mournfully on piano and then declaring love for her too.

But he’s too quick for her and she won’t be won away from her husband so easily…

No, the Lieutenant will have to pop a bouquet of Edelweiss in her shoes along with a note and then buy her a 200 year-old casket she admired but couldn’t afford, before he stands a chance.

Meanwhile three “men from home” perish on the mountainside and the looming presence of Alpine danger begins to exert a pull on the narrative. As Von Steuben’s efforts begin to loosen Margaret’s resolve, Robert discovers there’s something going on. He is due to ascend Monte Cristallo – the most dangerous climb in the area and asks the soldier to accompany him… Roped together and with von Steuben struggling on the scrambles, the truth is about to come out and well, it’s not a very safe environment for reasoned discussion…

Cyrus Gabrysch accompanied with plenty of romantic flourishes, maintaining a high tempo to match the film’s energy. His playing was as rich in detail as Von Stroheim’s narrative and design and also responsive to the obsessive cross-cutting that generates audience anxiety – this is not a film a film you can relax with.

The print was a good one and is the same 2003 restoration as used on the Kino DVD – available direct or from Amazon - complete with The Great Gabbo (1929), whilst there's also a version on the Edition Filmmuseum Shop.

Von Stroheim acts his caricature well and the contributions from De Grasse and, especially, Gowland – who has a natural expressiveness that is far away from McTeague’s intensity. Francelia Billington is an actress I haven’t seen before and who gets a lot of close-up attention from Erich’s camera-gaze. She has some of the film’s finest moments even though you wonder how Margaret or any of the women could fall for the Lieutenant’s lines… Still, a man in uniform eh?

The Lieutenant is followed by a crowd of children who mimic his walk...don't underestimate the Teutonic sense of humour.

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