"Foolish Wives" is an exceptional film in so many ways, that it's rather difficult to imagine what audiences must have thought of it upon its intial release in 1922.
Erich von Stroheim can be a difficult figure to discuss. His reputation is so clouded in myth and exaggerated publicity claims that we tend to overlook the delicate artistry he brought to every film he directed. But to speak of his body of work is also problematic, as so much is either lost, or survives in cut-down or fragmented versions that do not reflect his original vision. As it is, only his 1925 version of "The Merry Widow" is the only one of his films not to bear some evidence of studio tinkering (it's also one of his most conventional projects in any case, which explains why it wasn't tinkered with). Looking at "Foolish Wives", for instance, we must remember that it was cut down from a nearly seven hour running time to its current version, which runs about a one and three-quarters hours.
Stroheim takes his time in setting up the premise: Count Karamzin and his "cousins", who are staying in Monte Carlo as "Russian nobility". What's remarkable about the characters Stroheim gives us in this film is that no one is exactly who they seem to be, always motivated by some ulterior motive, usually greed or lust. Karamzin sets his sight on the Helen Hughes, wife of American Andrew J. Hughes, American envoy to Monaco. Her wealthy husband neglects her, as Karamzin is quick to point out, and the two strike up a relationship, much to the concern of Mr. Hughes, who distrusts the Count. The Count is after her money of course, and the entire charade ends with disastrous consequences for Karamzin.
Stroheim does not seem interested in plot, as such, but rather in presenting a highly detailed character study of the deception and relationships between the various players in his story. In particular, the scene where he meets Mrs. Hughes is brilliantly handled through an exhange of glances and gestures, such as the moment that she catches him staring at her while she lounges on a chair. The desperation and pathetic air of the Count's charade is perfectly conveyed through the moment when he pays off a page boy to page him, "the louder, the better", to attract the attention of Mrs. Hughes.
Stroheim himself plays the role of Karamzin, of course, and makes a striking figure with his glistening white uniform, monacle, and cane. He gives the role the perfect amount of self-importance and heightened, mannered dignity. It's easy to forget that Stroheim, in addition to being one of the finest directors of his time, was also an excellent actor. He was, to borrow a term from Jerry Lewis, a "total filmmaker", and his involvement in every aspect of a production ensured a certain amount of creative control and, as the star, would have to remain on the project through completion (indeed, it's significant that the film that he was fired from, "The Merry Go Round", did not feature Stroheim in the cast). He presents us with a protagonist who is almost entirely despicable, yet we can't help but find him an attractive character when compared with the rich but dull Hughes and others like him. Stroheim is clearly working here with a very high attention to character dynamics. In one sequence, he and Mrs. Hughes hole up in a small dwelling during a terrible storm, and there is great tension and frustration as he tries to maintain his composed, ultra-mannered behavior while simultaneously struggling with his attraction to Mrs. Hughes. There is also an excellent point during this sequence in which she becomes distinctly uncomfortable with his behavior, setting up the turn the story will take in the following sequences leading up to the ending.
His cinematic style is incredibly subtle, really on par with Lubitsch in that regard. The compositions, especially the framing of the actors, is striking in its simplicity and effectiveness. There are the brilliantly subtle moments, such as when he uses a mirror to watch Mrs. Hughes undress. There are also moments that are breathtakingly shot, such as the extreme wide shots of sprawling Monte Carlo. Despite the worn print and occasionally patchwork editing, the film displays a distinct if subtle visual style.
Perhaps the most inspired part of the film is Stroheim's choice of Monte Carlo as the location. It is the perfect setting for Karamzin's deceptions. Stroheim presents Monte Carlo (in a hugely expensive set re-created on the Universal backlot) as a sprawling pleasure-ground, where people from all walks of life are brought together and, whether rich or not, share the same dreams of winning big at the casinos, or finding excitement in this bustling entertainment center. His depiction of Monte Carlo and the lure that it presents for the characters is not unlike modern day Atlantic City or Las Vegas, existing in a heightened state of pleasure, excitement, with the chance of bigger things to come out of the experience. Stroheim's intertitles perfectly capture that combination of thrill and chance that the casinos provide, which is really what the core of his story deals with in terms of Karamzin's relationships with the characters around him.
The film is very effective in conveying its characters' motivations and plot through as little intertitles as possible. The print that I viewed was issued on VHS in the 1990s by Kino, and was restored by Arthur Lennig in the early 1970s. It shows the signs of being a combination of different prints, but we can be thankful to have the film at all, considering its history of being edited and re-edited. "Foolish Wives" also represents the first time that Stroheim butted heads with Irving Thalberg, then Carl Laemmle's executive assistant at Universal, who would later take control of Stroheim's epic 1924 masterpiece, "Greed", editing it to a more manageable length and attempting to heighten it's "commercial" appeal in the process. Stroheim's outlandish budget on this film and his notorious attention to detail began the tensions between the two men.
As it is, "Foolish Wives" remains one of the most powerful character dramas of its time, featuring a magnificent leading performance by its director, and displaying a subtle visual style that brings the film up to the level of a masterwork of silent cinema.