Any woman would be a fool to marry Judge Daryl Loomis.
Even so small a sun might save me now—I, who have given all to my country.
There may be no director in history quite like Erich von Stroheim (Greed). There have been plenty who made great films, plenty who went wildly over budget every time out, plenty who were regarded as tyrants, and plenty who were thrown off more pictures than they completed. I don't know of another director, though, who falls so completely into all four categories. As solid as his output was, though, it's hard to blame producers for essentially blackballing him. If you've put hundreds of thousands of dollars into a production only to have that money squandered on unnecessary detail and massive sets, and then to receive a 6-hour cut of the work declared finished by the man, you'd be pretty upset, too. Still, nearly a century after Hollywood shunned him, von Stroheim's work, or what's left of it, is a treasure, and here we have his third film, Foolish Wives, which may be his very best.
Facts of the Case
In the heady, decadent hotels and casinos of Monte Carlo, Count Wladislaw Sergius Karamzin (von Stroheim) stays with his two lovely female cousins in a room, eating caviar and living the high life. The only trouble is that Karamzin is no Count at all, but a conman lothario who lives off of counterfeit money while scamming women into forking over their cash, as well as their bodies. When an American ambassador and his wife arrive in town, Karamzin licks his lips, knowing that he's found his newest and biggest catch.
Foolish Wives features everything that I love about silent films and that makes them so much fun to watch. Conniving characters preying on the stupid and naive; ridiculous schemes that have no chance of succeeding, but succeed nonetheless (at least until the closing moments); massive sets that look incredible, but make no financial sense whatsoever. What all of that works out to is a Wild West feeling where anything can happen.
In Foolish Wives, all of it does. From a life-sized recreation of Monte Carlo's hotels and casinos to sniveling, cackling villains to even foot fetishism, it has a little bit of everything and it's one of the most hilarious, enjoyable two-and-a-half hours in silent film. Von Stroheim may have delivered a nearly seven hour cut to his producers, but there's no doubt that, even if it's not what the director specifically wanted, it's a seriously entertaining movie.
As writer, director, and star of the film, von Stroheim distinguishes the film as truly his, both in the perversity of the storytelling and in his fiendish characterization of the fake Count. Nobody else in the movie is particularly memorable in any way, but the strength of von Stroheim's performance makes that a moot point. They're all just foils for his character and, because he's so completely diabolical, he's all that's necessary for a genuinely great time.
Foolish Wives comes to Blu-ray from Kino Lorber in as good an edition as is probably possible. That said, the image has its share of problems. The 1.33:1/1080p transfer itself is strong and it features more raw detail than the movie has ever displayed, but that also helps to bring out the extensive damage that resides on the original elements. It's not the worst that I've seen out of silent cinema, but it's not very good, either. Scratches and damage are everywhere, but it's not the fault of the restoration, which is technically excellent. Additionally, this is the longest cut of the film available, giving the clearest picture of what von Stroheim intended, which is by far the most important thing. The sound is good, as well, with a soundtrack performed by Rodney Sauer from Sigmund Romberg's score written for the film's premiere. It's mixed nice and strong, without being overbearing, and has pretty good dynamic range. It is, of course, just a piano score, so there isn't that much going on with it.
The extras, though, are what really sell the disc. It starts with an excellent audio commentary with von Stroheim biographer Richard Koszarski. It's not particularly lively, but it is filled with great information on the film, including notes on what the director intended and great behind the scenes stories. It's on point, too, without much extraneous information on the director's career. We can get that stuff from the 1979 feature-length documentary, The Man You Loved to Hate. It's been available for a long time, but it's an excellent inclusion on the disc. It details the life of the director, from birth to death, moves well, and is quite interesting throughout. A brief featurette detailing the New York Censor Board recommended cuts to the film, a couple of short interviews that are excerpted from the documentary, and a photo gallery close out an excellent package.
In the short list of films that Erich von Stroheim both was allowed to complete and still exists, Foolish Wives is my favorite. Hilarious and deliciously perverse, it has all of the elements that make silent films so much fun. Massive sets, gleeful performances, and weird sexual fetishes abound, making for one of the most enjoyable silent film experiences out there. With as strong a Blu-ray as I could have hoped for, Foolish Wives is highly recommended.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Kino Lorber
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