Saturday, October 9, 2010

Greed (1924)

Greed is the most famous film directed by Erich Von Stroheim, a man known for his relentless, unbending approach to filmmaking. Originally ten hours long, it survives today in two versions: one a four-hour ‘restored’ print featuring stills in place of missing footage; the other about two hours. I’m glad I saw the shorter version. I couldn’t have taken much more.

It’s the people, you see. They’re so uniformly awful. Unpleasant to watch, ugly, impossible to empathize with or even analyze. You can’t get inside the heads of Greed’s main character, John ‘Mac’ McTeague (Gibson Gowland), or his ghoulish wife Trina (ZaSu Pitts) and god help you if you could. They’re both monsters; standouts among Von Stroheim’s parade of freaks and weirdos who take every role that might otherwise be filled by a comfortably appealing human being. Don’t ask me what these people would look like with sympathetic makeup, proper clothes, or good lighting—I only know how they made me feel in Greed.

McTeague is a backwoods gold-miner with lots of temper and little brain. His mother (Tempe Piggott) wishes a better life for him. When a charlatan dentist visits the mining camp and successfully treats the locals, she urges her son to apprentice with him. This establishes several themes. We see how easy it is to influence McTeague; we see his indifference to right and wrong (he’s learning to be a crook after all, and knows it). We see that money is a powerful lure. But we’re also introduced to Greed’s absurdist tone, and the unsettling effect it leaves us with. The idea of a charlatan dentist is kind of silly; that a supposed dullard could learn his skills (in dentistry or fraud) seems even sillier. But we’re asked to accept it, and so we see McTeague riding off in the dentist’s buggy, bound for San Francisco, while his mother waves goodbye, chewing her handkerchief with worry. Well, not chewing it so much as eating it, wide-eyed. There’s something wrong with that woman. She’s a doting mother, but she creeps us out.

We jump ahead to McTeague’s successful—and illegal—dental practice in San Fran. He’s unmarried, but has a few bar-buddies downtown and a sweating dandy of a best friend named Marcus (Jean Hersholt). Marcus brings in his new girlfriend, Trina, for dental work. McTeague is smitten. Marcus leaves, and McTeague puts the bland-faced Trina under, wrapping her head in towels so she looks like a nun. He kisses her. The scene is uncomfortable. Soon they’re dating.

On one of those dates, McTeague and Trina wander to the sea shore and sit on a sewer, where he serenades her with “Nearer My God to Thee” on a concertina. It starts to storm. They find shelter in the crevice of a public building and possibly, McTeague rapes Trina. She seems very shaken—she also wants him to come by tomorrow.

McTeague proposes and Trina seems none too thrilled about it. The night before the wedding, she wins $5000. They marry in front of her hideous relatives and the glowering Marcus, who realizes the cash windfall he could have had. A funeral procession passes the house. Later they banquet—the most disgusting thing I’ve ever seen in a silent film—with Trina’s family gorging on barely prepared animal parts. Her father sucks the brains out of a sheep skull. It’s worthy of Tobe Hooper, which is something I never thought I’d write on this blog.

The $5000 is a curse, or at least it seems that way. It embitters Marcus, who vows revenge on McTeague; it unhinges Trina, who becomes a pathological cheapskate willing to do without basic necessities to keep it unspent. The only one unphased by it is McTeague, who makes a good living as a fake dentist.

Actually, the money isn’t the issue at all. It’s controlling the money that matters. For Trina, the $5000 is a possession McTeague cannot take from her. It replaces her virginity, which she was horrified to lose. For puny Marcus, it represents power. And when the dentistry officials finally catch up with McTeague and put an end to his livelihood, that money represents freedom—his dreamed-of freedom from Trina, who descends quickly into mental illness. She refuses to let him touch the five grand, even as they sink into humiliating poverty. He becomes a shiftless drunk and starts beating her. Eventually, he leaves her altogether.

What a gruesome, awful couple they make. It’s impossible to feel for them; at best, you can pity them, and never both at the same time. I found pity for McTeague when Trina’s mania and denigrations reached their height, but lost it when he began assaulting her. I found pity for Trina when, as an abandoned wife, she found a lonely night-job as a scrubwoman in a schoolhouse, and McTeague returned, determined to get that $5000 at any cost.

Greed’s final act puts McTeague on the run, stumbling his way into Death Valley with a posse—and Marcus—behind him. Von Stroheim shot these scenes in the Mojave Desert, and they make for a poetic conclusion. Stripped of everything: job, marriage, social standing, even food and water; lost in a wasteland synonymous with human annihilation, McTeague still drags his bag of gold, and still someone pursues him for it.

I hope I haven’t turned you off Greed. It looks great, even if none of the actors do. It’s a finely crafted film that says real things, sparing us platitudes despite its moralistic surface. But if you watch a lot of silent films, Greed will get to you. It will embody your expectations, then turn them rabid. Pitts, to me, is a degraded Lillian Gish; Gowland looks like Fatty Arbuckle if he skinned Harpo Marx and wore his hide. Von Stroheim’s long studies of their faces—the kind of shot that gives us such beautiful glimpses of people and places in other silent films—here gives us something contemptible and even sick. This makes for bad melodrama. But it makes great horror, and that’s my definition of Greed.

Where to find Greed:
Greed is available on DVD, but I saw it at Toronto’s Bell Lightbox, accompanied by the instrumental post-rock band, Do Make Say Think. Kudos to them for mixing Noise with more traditional arrangements to keep us off-balance. I especially liked the background ‘music’ used to accompany McTeague in his dentist’s office. It’s the sound of wind rushing through a grate. Ominous, empty. Just like him.


  1. hola! As always I want to congratulate you for the beautiful blog. In short, I love the movies but I have not seen most of you comment, know any website where you can view or download? thank you very much!

  2. I don't use torrent sites, mostly because I need my computer for work and live in mortal fear of viruses. Most of what I review is on DVD somewhere (which is how I see a lot of these films in the first place)--in a pinch, there's usually YouTube. The image quality will be poor, but it's a start.

    1. Dear Chris.
      I always recommend to read the book "McTeague" by Frank Norris before watching this film, in which is based.
      In fact, before you watch a film, specially silent films, I always recommend to do a little research in case the film was based in a book and read the book in question, previously.
      Since you already watched the film, let me say that this film is one of the deepest films ever done; regarding composition of the camera, mise en scene, cast, style, etc, "Greed" is a master piece. I studied films for more than 20 years and doctorate in Film Studies some years ago and if you don´t agree with me, please believe the words of great directors such as Jean Renoir which called this film "the film of films", J von Sternberg said "we are all influenced by Greed", Chaplin said it was "magnificent", and many more film directors of the past and present days consider "Greed" one of the best films ever made.
      So, if you are reading this and want to watch the film, please do so and if you have the opportunity to read the book first, even better.
      Enjoy this masterpiece!

  3. I'm a little wary of stills replacing missing video also. The TCM replacement stills for the missing "London After Midnight" did not make me sad that the actual version is gone.

  4. Kino used stills nicely for its last Metropolis restoration. Of course, it's all moot now.

  5. I'm going to have to move this nearer the top of my "to see" list since your still of Pitts has her looking so unexpectedly gaunt. I'm mostly familiar with her 1930s B comedies with Thelma Todd and haven't been fortunate enough to see much (if any?) of her silent work.

    I'm a new reader; love your blog and review choices. :-)

  6. I'm glad you enjoy my choices--I try to mix the big classics with interesting obscurities and of course, any modern silent I can find.

    Pitts, the comedienne, played the most frightening character in Greed. And she's not the first comic actor who seriously disturbed me with a dramatic performance: Rodney Dangerfield and Mo'Nique spring to mind, too.

  7. Great post, you sum up all that the movie embodies perfectly. It truly is a horrible, wonderful film. I don't know how Stroheim got away with it really (well technically he didn't otherwise we'd all be getting mentally scarred by the full 10 hour version but you know what I mean).

    You have to admire him, not only for his artistry but for the way he managed to make truly adult films that were unlike anything else being made at the time.

    Have you ever attempted to read Stroheim's full script of Greed? It's heavy going but you really get to see how badly it was stripped down by the editor. If anything it would have been even more horrible and depraved...

  8. I thought the full-length script was the novel? :)

    No, I haven't read it. How long is it? I've been told silent movie scripts were typically very short, for obvious reasons.

  9. It was published in the 60s and is about 200+ pages long. Basically I remember getting the page 64 before the novel had even started! It's incredibly dense and detailed and may have made a fantastic film but it's tough going as a read...I think I gave up before the end!

  10. 1924's Greed Should Get Released On DVD And Blu-Ray By The Criterion Collection.