Foolish Wives is a 1922 film directed by, written by, and starring Erich von Stroheim. Here von Stroheim plays Count Wladislaw Sergius Karamzin, who may or may not be an actual Russian count. He is in Monte Carlo in 1919 along with his two partners in crime, Princess Vera and Princess Olga, who are pretending to be his cousins but are definitely neither his cousins nor Russian princesses. In any event, all three of them are definitely con artists, funding their stay in Monte Carlo by passing off counterfeit banknotes created by Ventucci, another one of their partners in crime.
The count and his partners sense opportunity with the arrival of Andrew Hughes, the new U.S. envoy to the principality of Monaco. The idea is that Count Sergius, who specializes in exploiting lonely and/or frustrated ladies, will seduce Hughes' wife Helen and bleed her of money. The main complicating factor in this scheme is the sensual appetite of Count Sergius, who, besides targeting Helen Hughes, is sleeping with Karamzin maid Maruschka (and exploiting her for money as well) while lusting after Ventucci's daughter Marietta, who is both underage and mentally disabled.
Foolish Wives was von Stroheim's third directorial feature and his first Troubled Production. The film, originally budgeted for $250,000—already an expensive production for The Roaring '20s —eventually checked in at $750,000, according to von Stroheim, or over a million, according to the studio. Whichever was the true sum, it was a hugely expensive production and established von Stroheim as a Prima Donna Director and The Perfectionist, a man who could not work within the studio structure. At one point Universal tried to fire him, but they couldn't, because von Stroheim was the star as well as the director. Production didn't stop until Universal literally took von Stroheim's cameras and crew away. Von Stroheim then submitted an eight-hour cut of the film to Universal and refused to make any more cuts, so the studio did it for him (the version that survives is cobbled together from several sources and runs about 2:20). Studio clashes like the one around this film ended von Stroheim's directorial career by the end of the decade, although he worked as an actor for many years after that.
Tropes in this film:
- An Arm and a Leg: A legless veteran is shown in one scene. Also, there is a rather taciturn man in a U.S. Marine uniform who irritates Helen when he refuses to pick up something she dropped. Helen later learns to her shame that the taciturn man is missing both his hands. The movie, of course, is set in the immediate aftermath of World War I, when there were disabled veterans all over Europe.
- Caught in the Rain: Deliberately engineered by Sergius, who takes Helen off on a walk through the country while knowing in advance that A Storm Is Coming.
- The Casanova: Sergius, who specializes in seducing ladies.
- Celebrity Paradox / Recursive Canon: When she's not flirting with Count Sergius or blowing off her boring husband, Helen is reading a book by Erich von Stroheim called Foolish Wives.
- Counterfeit Cash: Sergius and the faux princesses are passing off Ventucci's fake French banknotes.
- Crocodile Tears: Sergius, who is so evil that he wants to fleece Maruschka of the two thousand francs that are her life savings, actually dribbles drops from a finger bowl onto the tablecloth, to make it look like he's crying.
- Dies Wide Open: Sergius, as shown in a closeup when the sheet that Ventucci wrapped him up in slips.
- Disturbed Doves: A bunch of pigeons are shown flying off a roof as Ventucci chucks Sergius's body down a manhole.
- Driven to Suicide: After burning down the house that the Count and the ladies are staying in, poor Maruschka flings herself off a rock into the ocean.
- Enter Stage Window: Sergius climbs through Marietta's window, presumably to rape her. It doesn't work out for him.
- Fake Aristocrat: It's actually unclear if Sergius is one or not. The natural presumption is that he's a fake, but he makes a comment to Olga and Vera about how he, "a Karamzin", finds it distasteful to have to float counterfeit banknotes. However, Olga and Vera are definitely fakes. They are arrested at the end, and shown their extensive rap sheets. And if that isn't enough, their wigs are knocked off.
- Fake Shemp: If the Troubled Production of this film hadn't already been troubled enough, actor Rudolph Christians (Andrew Hughes) died during production. Von Stroheim was forced to cast a body double. Viewers will note that in several scenes Hughes is shot from behind, from a distance, or with his face obscured by scenery. In some scenes, close-ups of Christians are awkwardly inserted into scenes they obviously don't match. This unfortunately impacted some important scenes, such as Hughes' final confrontation with Sergius. This may be the Trope Maker.
- Female Gaze: The camera briefly adopts Helen's perspective when she checks out Sergius in full military regalia for the first time.
- Foreshadowing / Papa Wolf: Ventucci says that after the death of Marietta's mother, he's all she has in the world, and that if anyone ever tries to hurt her Ventucci will kill them himself. Guess what happens to Sergius?
- Have a Gay Old Time: A title card descibes Monte Carlo as "irresponsible and gay as ever."
- High-Class Glass: Sergius wears one as part of his aristocratic veneer.
- Kavorka Man: Sergius is short and plain but very charismatic to both bad and respectable women.
- Killed Offscreen: We see Sergius climbing through Marietta's window and making a "shh" gesture—but the plant he knocked over has already woken up her father. The next we see of him is when Ventucci is dragging his corpse out of a closet.
- Male Gaze:
- A super-creepy scene when Sergius checks out Marietta, who, don't forget, is both underage and mentally handicapped. The camera, adopting Sergius' point of view, pans up Marietta from her feet to her face. Cut to Sergius, who licks his lips.
- See Toplessness from the Back below for a second example.
- Real Life Writes the Plot: The original idea for the story was that the fake princesses would target Andrew Hughes for seduction while Sergius went after Helen. The part where the princesses pursued Andrew was abandoned after the death of Rudolph Christians (see Fake Shemp above).
- Scare Quotes: Just in case the audience was wondering, one title refers to one of the fake princesses as Sergius's "cousin".
- Sexy Soaked Shirt: Helen has to strip out of her clothes after she and Sergius are caught in the rain.
- Sleeping Single: Not yet an Enforced Trope in the 1920s, and noteworthy here because Andrew and Helen are sleeping in separate rooms, not just separate beds. He makes a halting effort at intimacy but she is obviously as bored with him as she is enchanted with Sergius.
- Three-Way Sex: It is rather strongly implied that Sergius is sleeping with both Vera and Olga.
- Thunder = Downpour: One lighting strike, boom, massive thunderstorm.
- Toplessness from the Back: Helen during the Watching the Reflection Undress scene.
- Villain Protagonist: They don't come much worse than Count Sergius, the con artist, seducer, and rapist.
- Watching the Reflection Undress: Von Stroheim became famous for pushing the boundaries of sexual content in film far beyond what anyone else dared. In this film, the most dramatic shot comes when Helen has to change out of her wet clothes. Sergius, being a creep and pervert, turns his back but then holds up a mirror. The mirror catches both Helen topless from the back, and Sergius' leering grin.