Erich Von Stroheim, a little stockier perhaps but still at 68 splendidly like the figure one had expected, frowned at the press cuttings of his first day’s visit to London. “The morons! Not a word about the films, not an intelligent word. It’s all the old stuff about the Bullet-headed Prussian again. I’m not a Prussian, I’m Austrian. It’s like calling an Englishman Irish. And my head isn’t bullet-shaped. I’ve seen bullets.”
It was easy to sympathise. Stroheim came to London to attend the opening of a 14-week season of his films at the National Film Theatre, and expected serious critical comments on his films. Later, when the films were shown to the press, he did, of course, get these, but for the moment there were the reporters.
“Is it true, Mr. Stroheim,” one of them wanted to know, “that you taught America how to make love?”
“No,” answered Stroheim, and patiently waited for the next question.
At the press conference that followed, one or two journalists asked him about his films, but by this time, after innumerable questions about his private life – “Do you believe in beating women off the screen?” – his mood was explosive. Since it was apparently expected of him, he started giving an imitation of his screen self and, being on the defensive, he attacked. One or two journalists will remember their brief encounters with him.
Stroheim’s public mask can be forbidding. The clicking of the heels, the curt bow, the severe scrutiny of each new face – all this is played only half tongue-in-cheek. Though he once was among the most influential and materially successful of directors, Stroheim has not made a film for 20 years and is sensitive to the slightest note of patronage.
He wants to be assured of his listener’s sympathy and interest before he will talk. Even then the mask never drops for long: it is, one soon realises, not a mask at all but an expression of the face itself. In the middle of an engrossing account of the making of Greed, a photographer’s assistant enters the room, and Stroheim interrupts his narrative to shake his hand with full ceremony, even though no one has introduced them – formalities are very important to him
Stroheim talks of the production of Greed as the central experience of his life. He recalls in astonishing detail the particulars of the original producer’s instructions that Frank Norris’s McTeague was to be followed to the letter; of the costumes and real-life settings; of the temperature during shooting in Death Valley; of his final interview with Mayer which sealed the film’s fate: “When it was all over, he dismissed me. Just before I left the room he said, ‘That’s a nice pair of gloves you’re wearing.”’
Questioned on his methods of direction, Stroheim was not very revealing; or, perhaps, revealing by omission. What seems to have interested him most, at any rate in retrospect, was the construction of sets and design of uniforms. Authenticity of detail was a passion with him which has not weakened: he talks at length and with love of the buttons and lapels of a uniform, immensely enjoying his expertise. Any attempts to bring back the conversation to mundane subjects like camerawork or editing are firmly side-tracked. “I hate technique,” he says.
Stroheim recalled a shot from Greed which gave a momentary glimpse into the workings of his temperament. Towards the end of the film, there is a shot in which Marcus Schooler hurls a knife at McTeague: the knife misses, piercing the door behind him inches from McTeague’s ear. “It was a very goddam tough scene to shoot, I tell you.” Stroheim ordered a professional knife-thrower on the set, but Gibson Gowland refused to let him use his face as a target. Stroheim pleaded with him, ordered, cajoled, finally decided to subject himself to the ordeal. Gowland admired the director’s courage but refused to emulate it.
In the end Stroheim was manoeuvred off the set; the shot was taken in reverse, starting with the knife lightly stuck in the door and then being pulled out with a piece of invisible horse-hair. What up to this point had been an amusing anecdote suddenly turned into an intense cri-de-coeur. “I hate things like that,” Stroheim shouted. “I can’t cheat – I don’t know how. My mind doesn’t work like that.”
Someone suggested that the trick did not in fact come off – that the actor’s expression in the shot was false. But Stroheim would have none of this. The point was not to be argued from results; this was a matter of principle. “The shot is perfect. Look, if I hadn’t told you about the damned thing before you saw it you wouldn’t have noticed it.”
There is naturally a temptation to relate the man and his work. One immediately catches in Stroheim’s conversation a refusal to argue or compromise, a firm belief in absolutes. If Frank Norris’s plot is to be followed faithfully in Greed, then it follows that the heroine must be given that “ridiculous long black wig that makes her look like a cluck” because this, too, the author described in the book. If authenticity is to be achieved then one must be completely consistent: if necessary, hurl knives at actors.
“But surely…“ one keeps wanting to say. “No buts,” he answers.
Stroheim’s films make great play with the ceremonial of life: one of their recurring themes is the contrast between the nature of the characters and their manners. In Foolish Wives it is the well-dressed and sumptuously housed that are wicked. In Queen Kelly the dissolute, beautifully uniformed prince is carried insensate after a night’s orgy up a huge polished marble staircase; the innocent little Queen Kelly sleeps in the cold stone dormitory of a convent.
The contrasts between Stroheim’s characters and the front they present are among the main fascinations of the films. Yet nowhere, perhaps, is this interplay more intriguing than in the man himself. Stroheim’s extraordinary mixture of personal charm and bluntness, sincerity and pomp, love of appearance and rigid adherence to principle make him the perfectly right man to have created Foolish Wives – and Greed.
Originally published: 22 September 2020