GREED (1924)

  • Director: Erich Von Stroheim
  • Writers: Erich Von Stroheim, based on the novel McTeague by Frank Norris
  • Starring: Gibson Gowland, ZaSu Pitts, Jean Hersholt, Dale Fuller, Cesare Gravina, Frank Hayes, Fanny Midgley, Jack Curtis, and Tempe Pigott
  • Accolades: 2012 Sight & Sound Top 100 list (#84), 2008 Cahiers du Cinema Top 100 list (#11)
  • Where to Watch: Buy or Rent on Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV

Greed is another one of those unique events in film history, both in its creation and in its subsequent history. It was one of the first films shot entirely on location, enabling the perfectionist tendencies of director Erich Von Stroheim. For example, rather than filming the climactic desert sequence just outside Los Angeles, he trucked his whole crew out to Death Valley, where the scenes were supposed to be set, and filmed in heat of at least 110 degrees Fahrenheit. The final product turned out to be over nine hours, and was screened only once, for 12 people, with no breaks. At least two of those 12 people later said they thought that the complete version of the movie was “the greatest film ever made.” Faced with a seemingly unreleasable movie, Irving Thalberg, the studio head at Metro Goldwyn (one of the predecessors to MGM) had it cut and cut again, eventually releasing a two-hour version that ended up a financial failure. Most of the footage he cut is now lost, and is considered by many to be “the holy grail of lost films.”

The version I watched was a “reconstructed” film produced by Turner in 1999, using newly discovered production stills and the original shooting script (infamously longer the novel it was based on) to make a film that included as much of the original as possible. This version clocks in at nearly four hours. I’d say the success of this varies wildly, and I sort of wish I’d just watched the 2-hour version (which, after all, is the version that was still judged on the first two Sight & Sound Top 100 polls to be among the top 10 films of all time). I’ve had a lot of fun watching reconstructions of lost Doctor Who episodes over the years, which for the most part aren’t so visually different from the re-added sequences here, but those had the crucial advantage of mostly still having the original soundtracks. This is a silent movie, so at some points we’re just looking at a still photo while the score plays in the background.

Anyway, the legend of the lost original Greed would not have picked up the steam that it has over the decades if the movie wasn’t very good. Von Stroheim thought of it as being the tradition of Greek Tragedy, depicting its characters coming to bad ends because they cannot escape their nature. Here’s a super-condensed version: McTeague (Gibson Gowland) is a quack dentist operating in 1890s San Francisco. A friend, Schouler (Jean Hersholt), brings his fiancee, Trina (ZaSu Pitts) to him for dental work. McTeague becomes super creepily obsessed with Trina, up to and including kissing her while she’s unconscious in his chair. Schouler acquiesces to McTeague pursuing Trina, and the two of them get engaged. Then she wins $50,000 in the lottery and Schouler tried to basically take it back, but McTeague is basically “no take backs.”

Trina, who at first seems so warm and bubbly, turns out to be incredibly miserly with money, and refuses to let McTeague spend any of her lottery money after they get married. At one point she refuses even to give him 5 cents for bus fare in the rain, resulting in his getting soaked. Frustrated he bites her fingers, they get infected, and she has to have three fingers amputated. Eventually she is literally sleeping on a bed with her money, to keep it safe. You can tell she’s losing it because her hair becomes all crazy. So an increasingly crazy McTeague murders her, then flees to Death Valley with the money. Crazed with revenge, Schouler pursues him, and the two of them eventually engage in a brutal struggle that ends with McTeague beating Schuler to death. Even then, he finds himself in the middle of Death Valley, without any water and chained to a dead man. He releases his pet bird, which he has brought out to the desert with him in a cage, and it flutters weakly for a moment and then dies. The end, or as this movie amusingly states, “FINIS.”

Beyond any other issues, you can see that this was not exactly something that many people wanted to spend time with at the peak of the Roaring Twenties. Greed’s view of human nature is a relentlessly dark one, and the violence is startling realistic and brutal for a movie from 1924. Further, this was an era where the pursuit of money was all the rage, the Stock Market Crash still three years away, and here’s this movie spending hours and hours on the theme of “maybe money is bad, though?” Yet in the ensuing years it found its audience, and become something of a legend.

I have said before here that I think that silent comedy holds up better than silent drama overall, though of course there are many exceptions. This is at least partly because all the acting was very broad, because the actors had to communicate emotions without the benefit of dialogue. In comedy, this at least for the most part works with the material. In dramas, this just plays as way over the top today. This is not helped by Von Stroheim’s copious use of close-ups, which was remarked upon even at the time. He loves to spend several seconds just focused on a character’s face, looking angry or sad.

All of that said, I do think that the performances here are overall pretty good. Gowland’s McTeague in particular portrays a character with some essential goodness somewhere in there, driven to extremes by circumstances, all without words. This was his only starring role, as he mostly played out and out villains. You have also probably heard the name of Jean Hersholt, who plays McTeague’s rival, Schouler. He went on to become president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Scientists (AMPAS), aka the organization that gives out the Oscars. He was also instrumental in starting a fund that took care of sick and retired actors. For these reasons, the Oscars give out the “Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award” most years, even today.

The other aspect of Greed that really shines is the locations. The scenes in Death Valley look like nothing else on film from this era, because nobody else was dumb enough to shoot in actual Death Valley in an era before air conditioning. The crew nearly mutinied, and Von Stroheim reportedly took to sleeping with a gun under his pillow. Legend has it that Von Stroheim screamed at the actors while filming their final confrontation, “Fight, Fight! Hate each other as you hate me!” The sequences in a gold mine, meanwhile, were filmed in the actual mine featured in the original McTeague novel, which had to be opened back up for the production.

So Greed is an essential part of film history, but can I recommend it today? I don’t know. It has a lot of redeeming qualities, but it is definitely kind of a lot. Not just in length, but in tone. Few movies are more of a relentless downer in all of movie history. If you want to be a student of film history, then definitely watch it. If you’re looking to chill and have a good time, this is not for you.

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