Wednesday, June 23, 2010


Greed, 1924
Dir: Erich von Stroheim

In my extremely impressed state after having watched Foolish Wives (1922), I decided to look up some other films by Stroheim in an attempt to be blown away again. Greed is an adaption of the Frank Norris novel McTeague, and is considered by many to be his ultimate artistic achievement, even if the film got the same chop treatment as Foolish Wives. That in itself causes many problems, like I said earlier, and here the film was supposed to, according to Stroheim, have been some crazy length again like 10 hours. It was butchered in the editing room, and the excess film destroyed. So how does and kind of "reconstruction" deal with this?

Well, for one, like all films, photo stills were taken during production. Many of these were not destroyed. So the reconstructionists have edited in these photos with pans, zooms, and iris wipes, along with an new original score, that attempts to fulfill the vision of Stroheim while also connecting the dots of the film's structure. Does is work? I'd say the the power of Stroheim's images are still there, and Norris' story goes from annoying to intriguingly complex about halfway through, but the photos really don't do it justice, and for a modern audience, it's just not feasible. But considering that film buffs are the only people who would seek this out, it's worth it.

I guess you can tell that I am not as enamored with this as I was with Foolish Wives, and I've been trying to think about why. In Greed, the same kind of ruin falls upon people who hold too high a stock in money. A happy couple, McTeague (Gibson Gowland) and Trina (ZaSu Pitts), begin to crumble after McTeague loses his a ability to practice dentistry because he never went to dental school. Despite winning a lottery worth $5,000, they become obsessed with money, Trina driving herself mad over maintaining enough and McTeague descending into alcoholism. Their heightened paranoia also has them suspect Trina's cousin Marcus (Jean Hersholt) of conspiring to mess up McTeague's dental practice because of his jealousy of their new found money and love (he had ceded his courtship of Trina to McTeague because they were "buddies," but that friendship starts to disappear pretty quickly.)

The story circles back on itself, starting in the gold mines of California, shifting to city living in San Fransisco, and then moving back to the mines and deserts after the urban bliss has shattered. Most of the photos that were added involve subplots in the book that were dropped. They involve characters that accentuate the good and evil qualities that are in McTeague and Trina, and pretty obviously at that. I think it makes the two main characters lack any subtlety they might have in which the audience has to figure them out, if there is anything to figure out. I have not seen the theatrical release of this, so I can't really tell you if it would work better without it, but at the reconstruction time of almost 4 hours, it can be pretty long.

What Greed does well is the Stroheim thing, showing you things in a cinematic way that no one else was showing, in this case unadulterated greed, domestic abuse and the perils of alcoholism. I can only say that maybe this just didn't quite hit the spot because it isn't as sleazy as Foolish Wives. If you're down for reading a whole lot more about this, then you can go here, where Jonathan Rosenbaum writes about Greed, Stroheim, and other "lost" films, much better than I did.

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