Blind Husbands (1919)

Film Review

BLIND HUSBANDS

Release Date: 1919

Studio: Universal

Director: Erich von Stroheim

Starring: Sam De Grasse, Francilia Bellington, Erich von Stroheim

Special Notes: Great American Films, 1911-1920

This film has been selected to our list of Great American Films, 1911-1920, which focuses on obscure and under-appreciated American film masterpieces.

Synopsis

Dr. Armstrong (De Grasse), his wife Margaret (Bellington), and Lieutenant Erich Von Steuben (von Stroheim), an Austrian, arrive by coach at a village in the Dolomites, a mountain range in the Italian Alps. The observant lieutenant has noted that Margaret is beautiful, that her husband ignores her, and that she is bored and dissatisfied. Soon after their arrival in the village, the climbing guide "Silent" Sepp, a friend of the doctor, notes Von Steuben's attentions to Margaret. At the inn, Von Steuben pursues the neglected wife. He buys her a gift and uses it to gain entrance to her room. He presses her with his embrace and kisses. She agrees to a rendezvous.

Dr. Armstrong and von Steuben have arranged to climb the Pinnacle, one of the highest peaks in the Dolomites. The doctor, Margaret, von Steuben and Sepp travel to a lodge which is the staging point for the climb. That night, Margaret slides a note under von Steuben's door. He reads it, smiles, and puts it in his coat pocket. However, his attempt to enter Margaret's room is thwarted by Sepp.

The next day, Dr. Armstrong and von Steuben, roped together, climb to the top of the Pinnacle. Dr. Armstrong sees his wife's note and takes it out of the pocket of the lieutenant's jacket. Before he can read it, the lieutenant reaches for it and knocks it away. The note floats down the mountain. The doctor seizes Von Steuben by the neck and demands the truth. Did his wife agree to a meeting? When Von Steuben says 'yes', the doctor sits down in brooding sorrow. Von Steuben takes out a knife and contemplates stabbing him, but does not. Despite Von Steuben's protests that the doctor cannot leave an inexperienced climber, the doctor cuts the rope joining them, and starts to descend alone. Partway down the doctor finds the note. In it, Margaret writes that she promised a meeting only to save herself and that she loves her husband. She tells Von Steuben not to bother her any longer. The doctor, realizing that Von Steuben lied, starts back up, but slips and falls.

At the lodge, Margaret has become anxious and convinces Sepp to lead a rescue party. Sepp goes ahead of the party, finds the injured doctor, and lowers him to Margaret and the rescue party. Sepp, Margaret and some of the others take the doctor down the mountain. The remainder of the party continues after von Steuben. At the Pinnacle, the terrified Von Steuben has been calling for help. The shadow of a large bird crosses over him, and he sees a figure nearby. As the rescue party ascends, his body hurtles past them. A title says that "The spirit of the mountain had spoken, everything was still, as still as everlasting death." Their holiday ended, the doctor and his wife leave the village in the coach. Sitting close together, the doctor holds her hand and kisses it.

Discussion

Blind Husbands was the first film written and directed by Erich von Stroheim. The scenario was derived from a story, "The Pinnacle", also written by von Stroheim. The film features the first appearance of von Stroheim's favorite screen persona, the lecherous, perfectly mannered, immaculately dressed Austrian officer. The character's principle interest is flattering and making love to any available young woman. Wine, song and jewelry are his tools; boudoirs and ballrooms are his preferred localities. However, the Austrian officer is weak and defenseless when pitted against the men attached to these women, and this frequently leads him to disaster and death. For Lieutenant Erich von Steuben, the end comes when he is isolated atop the Pinnacle with the doctor. He is unable to admit his failure at seducing the doctor's wife, preferring the doctor to believe himself a cuckold. This misplaced pride proves Von Steuben's ruin, as he lacks the skills to descend the mountain by himself when he is abandoned by the furious doctor. Blind Husbands was the protoype of this character, who would appear again in subsequent Von Stroheim films such as Foolish Wives (1922) and The Wedding March (1928).