One of the legendary silent film classics, Greed, by Erich von Stroheim, has a complicated history. Currently, it is not on DVD (it was released on VHS), so my friend Bob and I took advantage of its screening at Film Forum, part of a von Stroheim retrospective. The version was the truncated two-hour one, accompanied by a live pianist. It was a wonderful experience.
Greed, based on the American classic novel McTeague by Frank Norris, was originally close to nine hours long. This was von Stroheim’s rough cut, and it is lost to history. He intended a four-hour version, and there is a restoration, with stills filling in for missing scenes. But after seeing the short version, it’s hard to imagine how a longer film could be any better.
McTeague (Gibson Gowland) works in a gold mine. He is a bear of man, his head covered in a tangle of blond curls. We first see him rescuing a bird, and when a colleague tosses it aside, McTeague picks up the man and throws him into a ditch. “Such was McTeague,” reads the title card.
McTeague’s mother has higher aspirations for him, and apprentices him to a dentist. Without any sort of degree, he starts his own dental practice. One day his good friend Marcus (Jean Hersholt, he of the humanitarian award), brings by his girl for treatment. She is Trina (ZaSu Pitts), and McTeague is smitten. While she’s under anesthesia, he struggles with himself, finally giving in and kissing her. Later, he will admit his feelings for her to Marcus. His friend willingly gives her up, and McTeague courts her. Apparently Trina has no say in the matter.
Finally they marry. The wedding ceremony, held in McTeague’s office, has a bad omen when a funeral procession passes by on the street below. The wedding night is like something out of a horror movie. We definitely get a sense of beauty and the beast, as the rough-hewn, massive McTeague seems like he might break the delicate, pale girl in half.
The couple become happy, though, when Trina, after purchasing a lottery ticket, wins $5,000. As the title suggests, this will spell the couple’s doom. She becomes obsessive in her stinginess, not willing to touch the winnings. Marcus feels cheated, realizing if he had stuck with Trina, he’d be rich, not McTeague. Someone (probably Marcus) turns in McTeague for practicing dentistry without a license, and the couple struggle to make ends meet, but Trina will not spend the lottery winnings. Finally McTeague leaves her, and she ends up scrubbing floors in a kindergarten.
Eventually McTeague commits a murder and takes off across the desert with the money. Marcus tracks him down, and the two men are in the middle of Death Valley, without water. The gold, of course, is meaningless at this point, and the film ends with an image that must have inspired Rod Serling.
Though the film has some dated elements, particularly in the overacting typical of silent films, it is a powerful film. Von Stroheim uses the camera well, showing a fondness for irising and closeup, but also has some ahead-of-his time use of composition, such as one where McTeague heads down a staircase, Trina above him, out of her mind. He also makes a point of focusing in tight on hands. There’s a moment, right before the wedding, that McTeague’s gloved hands are shown in closeup, behind his back, nervously rubbing together. Later, Trina will put lotion on her hands, but look like Lady MacBeth trying to wash the blood off them. At a few other instances, von Stroheim uses expressionistic inserts of skeletal, grasping hands, rinsing themselves with gold coins.
Birds are also a metaphor. McTeague has a pair of songbirds he keeps in a cage, and they stand in for the couple. A cat, representing fate, eyes them hungrily. And, as at the beginning of the film, McTeague will gently hold a bird in his hand, and then let it free.
The film is also surprisingly funny, and intentionally so (there are a few unintentional laughs for modern audiences; the first comes in the credits, which read, “Personally directed by Erich von Stroheim.” The funeral procession during the wedding is a bit of macabre humor, as is Trina’s reaction when McTeague proposes to her–it’s as if he asked to her have a root canal with no anesthesia. The wedding feast is an orgy of gluttony, with characters munching on the skulls of animals and generally eating like barnyard animals. Funny, but also certainly a commentary on the over indulgences of American culture.
As a serious follower of cinema, I’m glad I got a chance to see this film in the manner that I did. I urge everyone else, should they have the opportunity, not to miss it.