#84 (tie) – Greed (1924), dir. Erich Von Stroheim

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“Open up and say, ‘Meh.'” Erich Von Stroheim’s Greed strives to tell the story of ordinary working class people corrupted by a winning lottery ticket. The film makes strong use of real life locations instead of the usual Hollywood sets.

Pretty much from the beginning, Hollywood has been a factory for producing glitz and glamour — attractive people engaged in impossibly amazing stories meant to entertain the masses (and turn a profit). Greed (1924) was an attempt by Austrian-born director Erich Von Stroheim to run against the grain of the system to produce a down-to-earth story that would tackle the unpleasant lives of some rather unpleasant people. Adapting the late 19th century realist novel McTeague, Von Stroheim steered clear of the artificial opulence of Hollywood to film on location at the actual places mentioned in the novel — including the scorching Death Valley, California. He also cast actors who are decidedly not among the beautiful people, wanting to have his characters portrayed by individuals who would suit the working class environments in which the story takes place. But that does not mean Von Stroheim was content to have the film look as everyday as its sets and actors; Greed utilizes numerous unusual techniques for the period, including selective bursts of color, chiaroscuro lighting schemes, montage editing, and deep focus cinematography (16 years before The Grapes of Wrath and Citizen Kane). But Greed is perhaps most famous for its epic length. The first cut was over 9 hours, but was eventually slashed down by the studio to just over 2 hours without Von Stroheim’s approval (he disowned the final cut). The excised 6-plus hours of the film still remain unaccounted for and are considered by many to be the holy grail of cinema. (140 min., 239 min. in TCM reconstruction)

S. – This is going to be a difficult review to write because I disliked this film. Not in a violent way way that would give me the option of amusing myself by spewing scorching invective, I just found it really tedious. But in an effort to contribute a bit more to the blog than “it stinks” I will try and delve a little deeper than my first reaction, particularly as we are dealing with a film inside the Top 100 of the list. Reading through the film blurb above I have to admit that all those creative technical aspects mentioned are quite impressive, the opening scene featuring glints of gold being extracted in a mine hints that you are in for a treat from an inspired film-maker. Many of the visual elements are very striking when considered in isolation. It is the dreadful telling of the story that casts a pall over the whole experience for me. This may not be entirely the fault of Von Stroheim given the post-production dramas, but after sitting through the 239 minute version of Greed I shudder at the thought of being exposed the original product.

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This shot, which makes innovative use of color, is an oft repeated motif in Greed, used through montage editing to highlight the rapaciousness or miserliness of the characters.

J. – I do think we made a massive mistake in watching the Turner Classic Movies restoration as our first experience with the film. TCM took the theatrical cut of Greed and used the script and a bevy of production stills to reconstruct the missing scenes from the film and restore all of its subplots. This is fantastic stuff from a film history perspective, but for an enjoyable viewing experience perspective it was awful. I’m positive we would have enjoyed it more if we’d watched the 140 min cut first, and we now probably can’t even appreciate that cut properly because we can’t unwatch the TCM restoration. Alas.

I think we should get back to the “dreadful telling of the story” you mentioned, but like you suggest, why not stick with a few positives to begin with? So yeah, the use of color whenever gold was involved was quite wonderful, particularly in that opening scene in the mine. (Fun fact, that mine was the actual real-life mine mentioned in the novel — Von Stroheim had it reopened to film those scenes.) In general, there were a number of visual elements that I really liked from the film. The on location shooting was often quite impressive, particularly the Death Valley scenes. And the use of deep blacks in some scenes was very compelling, particularly when an enraged (and probably drunk) McTeague confronts his wife at the school. That was a horrible, and horribly affecting, piece of screen violence. In general, I have a measure of respect for Von Stroheim’s willingness to be quite brutal (finger-biting, what!?) and unconventionally frank about all manner of unpleasantness (even if a lot of it was ultimately cut by the studio). But I think the thing I liked best was the use of deep focus. The most noticeable instance was during the wedding, when you see the family gathered around the priest in the upstairs apartment and a funeral procession down on the street can be clearly seen through a window. Deep focus enables the background content to have an impact on the foreground that can be wonderfully effective, and the doomed nature of the marriage couldn’t have been clearer.

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Von Stroheim makes excellent use of deep focus photography, enabling items in the foreground and background to be in focus at the same time. This enables more complex interplay between characters simply through their positions in the frame and would famously be used in Citizen Kane years later.

S. – The deep focus was very impressive when the character narrative and the background action were in synch, such as in the wedding scene you mentioned. It could also be a little distracting, given that when the protaganists weren’t being actively unpleasant they were quite boring, my eye was frequently drawn to people-watching around the rest of the screen. The on-location filming was a big positive, it was very cool to escape the restrictions of a film set and I imagine a huge technical challenge to capture the action out in the environment. The scenes in Death Valley are brutal, there was no mistaking the harshness of the landscape and the foolhardiness of the characters that willingly venture into it’s unforgiving grasp. The rejection of movie-star glamour in favour of a realistic cast was an interesting idea, in theory I like the concept but I’m not sure if it contributed to the overall blandness of the film. I like to believe that Hollywood good-looks are not necessary on an entertainment level, in this case a little more charisma would have been a welcome addition.

J. – I think the problem wasn’t so much the charisma of the actors as the presentation of story. For instance, I actually found the characters to not be particularly realistic at all, even if the settings absolutely were. I think Von Stroheim was so intent on distancing himself from the glamorous falsity of most movies that he went too far in the other direction and turned a lot of his working class types into caricatures or even grotesques. But the real problem with the presentation was the director’s apparent insistence of filming, as one critic who saw the 9 hour version said, “every comma” of the novel. By filming the whole story so that it would span 9 hours it inevitably meant a lot of scenes lacked the snap or urgency that would come from writing a two hour screenplay — you know, to actually make the story a movie. So when it was edited down, it almost doesn’t matter what the final length was, it was not going to work — if only because the pacing would be well off. I suppose it was a noble effort on Von Stroheim’s part to go big and attempt to create a whole new form of movie storytelling, but if Greed demonstrates anything it is that film is its own medium and needs to be treated that way. When Greed does act like a movie it can be really striking, but when it tries to act like a novel, it falls well short. (Still, whatever his failings as a director, I am looking forward to future list films featuring Von Stroheim as an actor — he’s very good)

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Von Stroheim’s insistence on location shooting led to weeks spent in the notoriously harsh desert of Death Valley for the film’s climax. A series of ironic blunders leads to a powerful finish to the film, although after 4 hours of the restored version we were not much in the mood to appreciate it.

S. – I found the protaganists to be very one-dimensional and quite repulsive. All three of the central characters start out as relatively normal, if somewhat mundane, working-class people until a windfall of $5,000 sends them all on a downward spiral into their worst selves. The premise is an interesting one, however, to be successful it required character development that was lacking. For this devolution to have any resonance the viewer has to become somehow invested in the personas portrayed. For instance had McTeague appeared more than a rather mindless oaf his descent into cold-hearted thief, then killer, may have been powerful. I wonder if Von Stroheim’s reluctance to deviate from the novel reflects a discomfort with the storytelling component of movie making, rather Greed was a vehicle for exploring the film techniques that were his true passion. Unfortunately the innovative camera-work was not enough to rescue it from tedium. Perhaps I would feel differently about the movie had I seen the studio-edited version.

Related yammers:
#183 – The Grapes of Wrath (1940), dir. John Ford
#127 – The Last Laugh (1924), dir. F.W. Murnau
#93 – Intolerance (1916), dir. D.W. Griffith
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