Tuesday, December 30, 2008


Three Russian con artists pose as aristocrats, rent a villa near Monte Carlo, and use counterfeit money to gamble. The two women, Olga and Vera, pretend to be countesses and Sergius (Erich von Stroheim) poses as their cousin, the Count Karamzin. He is on the prowl for a rich woman to fleece and finds one in Helen, the young and restless wife of the staid and older (and newly arrived) American ambassador to Monaco. Karamzin is free to show her the sights, take her on boating trips, and help her out in the casinos. He even contrives to get her stuck with him overnight during a storm when they take refuge in an old woman's house in the marshes, but a monk who has also come in out of the rain winds up in the same room with them, putting the kibosh on that plan. As he ups the seduction attempts, he also carries on a lackluster affair with his plain-looking maid, whom he has promised to marry, and has designs on Marietta, the mentally handicapped daughter of his counterfeiter. Eventually Karamzin gets Helen alone in his villa and tells her he needs 90,000 francs to settle a debt of honor; she offers him the money, but the maid, overhearing them, sets the house on fire before throwing herself into the sea. When the count leaps to safety before Helen, he is disgraced and runs off in the night to sneak inside Marietta's window, apparently with rape on his mind. But the next morning, the counterfeiter drags Karamzin's dead body out of his house and stuffs it down the sewer. In the end, Helen appears to learn a "Wizard of Oz" lesson, to be happy with her stuffy old husband and not to seek exotic thrills outside of her own back yard.

This is one of the many movies Erich von Stroheim directed which were drastically edited down by studio bosses from several hours (over 6 in this case) to a more commercial running time. Most of the original cut is lost, but Kino's restoration, which comes in at around 2-1/2 hours, still manages to feel both too long (many individual scenes could be edited down a bit) and incomplete (we don't know what happens in the counterfeiter's house at the end, and the character of Vera seems totally unnecessary). Stills from his silents show Stroheim looking quite wicked and decadent, but here, his character is essentially a weak and desperate man trying to project both a charming and bullying persona, as needed. He actually comes off more like a naughty boy than a sinister lothario. Some of the acting is in the exaggerated silent style of the era, though Stroheim and Maude George as Olga are less mannered than the rest. This was the first movie which cost over a million dollars to make, mostly due to its sets, with Monte Carlo reconstructed faithfully, and many scenes are striking, such as the midnight storm and a water carnival. In an amusing self-referential joke, throughout the film, Helen is seen reading a book called "Foolish Wives" by Erich von Stroheim. [DVD]

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