“I am writing a love letter to your wife.”
Directed by and starring Erich von Stroheim, the 1922 silent film Foolish Wives centers on the ne’er-do-well Russian, Count Karanzim (von Stroheim) and his two ‘cousins’–Princess Olga (Maude George) and Princess Vera Petchnikoff (Mae Busch). While this trio live high on the hog in a splendid villa overlooking the ocean in Monte Carlo, in reality they’re impoverished. The Count’s story is that his Russian estates are entangled due to the Revolution, and this often leaves him short of cash. But behind a whirl of social events, the Count and his cousins live on the proceeds of counterfeiting and money laundering with the Count fleecing the occasional rich woman as a hobby. The first few scenes establish these three as a nasty bunch. One of the princesses spitefully pinches a servant, and the decadent Count downs his daily dose of Ox-blood as a breakfast aperitif.
The American envoy to Monaco, Andrew Hughes (Rudolph Christians) and his much younger, naive wife Helen (Patty Dupont) arrive, and it doesn’t take long before the Count is whirling his monocle at his latest victim. The Count–a “notorious heartbreaker” exploits Helen’s tendency towards romanticism, and his designs–which ostensibly are towards her wallet–also include compromising her and taking advantage of her vulnerability. He exploits Helen’s loneliness and her husband’s inattention by saying, “Husbands are foolish. With them, a woman won is a woman secure.” Then he proceeds to romance her with flattery and attention.
Erich von Stroheim steals the film with his well-defined role of the ‘noble’ scumbag–he’s incredibly slimy in spite of his immaculate clothing and matching Borzois. The film allows glimpses into his dastardly schemes, and one of the best scenes takes place when he wrests his servant’s life savings from her. He’s already promised to marry the poor deluded girl, and a few well-placed crocodile tears from the vain Count are all it takes to convince her to hand over her meager savings. In another excellent scene, the camera captures the servant Maruschka’s spiral through the mental states of rejection, jealousy, revenge and madness.
The Alpha DVD is acceptable. There are few problematic, overly dark scenes that occur at night inside the home of a haggy procuress, and the print is a little scratchy in places. Fans of silent cinema and/or von Stroheim should enjoy this tale of wickedness and deceit.