Blind Husbands (Erich von Stroheim / U.S., 1919):

Postwar Europe is swiftly sketched as the distance between a noble mountain bear (Gibson Gowland) and a depraved uniformed peacock (Erich von Stroheim), America is the conflicted married couple (Francelia Billington and Sam De Grasse) caught in the middle. Cortina is the burg at the foot of Mount Cristallo, the august Dolomites setting also embodies the moral quandary: "There is only one way up, but many ways down." The evocative close-ups during the ride to the chalet -- the Austrian cavalry officer’s gloved grip on his saber, the wife’s provocative bare ankles, the husband’s complacent pipe -- are a lesson not forgotten by the Polanski of Knife in the Water and Cul-de-sac. Stroheim’s marauding aristocrat is a perfumed lothario who’s already pitched the same lascivious come-on to three women by the time the pious village celebrates the Festival of Transfiguration. Seduction is a sport like cliff-climbing, to him mountains are not the mystical entities venerated by Gowland’s salt-of-the-earth guide but "lifeless rocks" ready to be conquered. Billington’s neglected desires make her the officer’s natural prey: Their dalliance in the woods amid tall, makeshift crosses is aborted (Stroheim cheekily inserts a shot of the clueless surgeon hubby comforting a pregnant patient) but he ravishes her consciousness all the same, turning up in dreams armed with sprawling leer and fully erect cigarette-holder and finger. The peaks and precipices of human relationships, in a forthright style distilled from Griffith and Zola. Certainly the bedrock for the Riefenstahl-Fanck Weimar epics, though for Stroheim these alpine heights don’t warrant glory so much as they dissolve our civilized armors and bring us closer to the vultures. With Fay Holderness, Ruby Kendrick, Jack Perrin, and Valerie Germonprez. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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