Erich von Stroheim remains one of the most controversial filmmakers of the silent era. There is no being indifferent when it comes to this guy: you either love his weird mix of the grotesque, the baroque, and sexual deviancy or you roll your eyes at it. I am firmly in the former camp, though even I’ll admit old Stroheim isn’t for everyone. Out of the handful of films he directed in-between 1919 and 1933, Blind Husbands is arguably his most accessible for those who don’t much take to the Stroheim style (though some would say that title belongs to his kinky 1925 adaptation of The Merry Widow). With its brevity and understatement, it’s the Stroheim film I would recommend to newcomers, as the mammoth lengths and incredibly amoral characters in more famous fare like Foolish Wives and Greed may be intimidating.
Surprisingly for a Stroheim production, Blind Husbands was largely untouched by the studio, so it is a rare chance to see Stroheim, pure and unfiltered. The plot was based off The Pinnacle, a novel Stroheim had penned. The studio changed the title, probably to add a little bit of suggestion to catch audiences. Stroheim threw a fit, though apparently he mustn’t have hated it too much judging by the title of his 1922 masterpiece, Foolish Wives, a film which comes off as a spiritual successor to this movie. Of course, Foolish Wives is much more outrageous in terms of visuals and content considering that the plot involves implications of incest, adultery, rape, voyeurism, pedophilia, and polyamorous relationships, making Blind Husbands seem subdued by comparison.
During a carriage ride into the Alps, American couple Dr. Armstrong (Sam De Grasse) and his beautiful young wife Margaret (Francelia Billington) make the acquaintance of Lieutenant Von Steuben (Stroheim). Margaret has been coldly neglected by her husband, and the lusty Steuben decides to take advantage of her frustration once he checks out her excellent pair of gams. As the husband is called on to help some people in the area, Margaret is left defenseless when Steuben comes a-courting, giving her gifts and lavishing her with attention. Though flattered at first, Margaret slowly becomes unnerved by the lieutenant’s desires, particularly when he invites himself into her bedroom and tries to seduce her. Torn between wanting to assuage her loneliness and remaining faithful to the man she still loves in spite of everything, Margaret is caught in a tough spot.
Performances in Stroheim flicks are usually come in a weird mix of naturalism and expressionism, but Blind Husbands leans toward the former. Stroheim and Billington are the two standouts in the cast. Stroheim’s character is more than a little slimy with his serial womanizing and the way he knows he has a good chance of getting under Margaret’s skirts because of her loneliness, but despite his lecherous image, Stroheim gives off hints that this guy is not the Great Lover he wants to pass himself off as, predominantly so in one sequence. The scene where he invites himself into Margaret’s hotel room to seduce her would be played as turbulent and hot-blooded in a more conventional drama, but here it is flirting with comedy. When a half-dressed Margaret cracks open the door so the lieutenant can pass her a gift and he tries to kiss her fingers, she shakes him off and wags her finger the way one would at a disobedient pet. When he finally wheedles his way in, he has a quasi-goofy smirk on his face as he claws at her and sniffs her hair. Steuben has to stand on his toes to plant a forceful kiss on Margaret’s protesting mouth. Though she frets and shrinks from him, it’s not because she’s seriously afraid he’ll pin her down, but because she is trying so hard to cling to marital loyalty despite her husband’s neglect.
That brings us to Billington, who is magnificent as the neglected wife. Her performance is far from the histrionics that people think silent film acting required by nature, projecting alienation while also possessing a little bit of humor in her dealings with Stroheim. She gives this woman, who could have so easily been a trifle in less inspired hands, an inner life and agency. Her struggle does not come from a genuine attraction to Steuben; the temptation to succumb to him comes from estrangement, not carnality. It is Steuben’s words (“Your husband does not think of you—he climbs the mountains.”), not his caresses, that coax her toward an otherwise unappealing mess of a man. It’s such a shame that Blind Husbands was the high point of her career, with no more significant parts to follow; like Enid Bennett, Billington is one of the underrated talents of the period and deserves rediscovery.
The most interesting element of Blind Husbands comes from that it blames no one in this bizarre love triangle. There’s no simple categorization of the characters, no assertions that Armstrong is good and Steuben is bad. Steuben is a horny louse to be sure, but he also seems lonely and insecure, giving us some sympathy for him. Armstrong is noble and good-hearted, but his coldness towards his wife, which appears to stem from her unwillingness to start a family, does stain his image as the perfect man. Margaret is not some simpering ingénue or thoughtless flirt, but a flesh-and-blood woman facing temptation in a moment of isolation.
Unfortunately, this gem does have one major flaw and that’s the last quarter of the picture. While the marital woes of the Armstrongs and the attempted seduction of Margaret felt genuine, the plot descends into melodrama once the lieutenant and husband face off on a mountaintop. Had Blind Husbands been corn from the start this would be no issue, but Stroheim gives us a heaping of maturity only to finish it off with fluff.
Nonetheless, Blind Husbands is an assured and elegant debut feature. It’s Stroheim without any of his indulgences, which may be a good thing for some. Even as one who loves the Stroheim excess, I can tell you this is one of his finest.