Friday, May 26, 2017

Greed (1924)

USA, 129 / 239 minutes
Director: Erich von Stroheim
Writers: June Mathis, Erich von Stroheim, Frank Norris, Joseph Farnham
Photography: William H. Daniels, Ben F. Reynolds
Music: Robert Israel
Editors: Joseph Farnham, June Mathis, Glenn Morgan, Frank E. Hull, Rex Ingram, Erich von Stroheim, Grant Whytock
Cast: Gibson Gowland, Zasu Pitts, Jean Hersholt, Tempe Pigott, Dale Fuller, Chester Conklin, Sylvia Ashton

Life is short and the story of Greed is long—the original cut delivered by director, cowriter, and coeditor Erich von Stroheim was pretty long itself, on the order of seven to 10 hours. Accounts differ, but many agree it's one of the great lost masterpieces of cinema. Fifty years ago it was on the short list of the greatest films ever made, according to the Sight & Sound poll of 1962, after only Citizen Kane, L'Avventura (?!), and The Rules of the Game. In 1924, the studio figuratively thanked Stroheim for his work and assigned the recut to June Mathis, who got it down to a little more than two hours. I might have something close to that version—mine, from a Turner Classic Movies broadcast, is 129 minutes. On YouTube there is access to versions (usually on dubious pay sites) running 104 minutes, 90 minutes, 83 minutes, and 60 minutes—probably others too if you dig enough. I didn't bother with them. At Amazon, the best I could find available for purchase was a single used Region 2 DVD of a 129-minute version for $30.

Greed is thus truly a lost movie at this time, and more so than others in the category such as The Magnificent Ambersons or Metropolis. Indeed, by happy circumstance, Metropolis has been nearly entirely restored since just 2010. People keep hoping a complete version of Greed will turn up too but so far it hasn't. As it happens, I also have the reconstructed version put together by producer Rick Schmidlin in 1999 for TCM, using Stroheim's original shooting script, extant footage, and production stills. That version comes in just under four hours, which puts us closer to Stroheim's original but still well short. Greed has only the most modest commercial value now. It flopped even its time, not least because its story is a total bummer. Certainly it's one of the harder movies even to see from the top 100 films on the big list at They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?

Is it worth seeing? Oh geez, I knew you'd ask.

I'll give that a cautious yes but you should know the caveats and lots of qualifiers. I'm not very familiar with Stroheim's work and I also don't know the source novel, Frank Norris's McTeague, an example of early-20th-century American naturalism. And Greed is not just a silent film, which bears its own problems, but also a severely hacked-up one. With my two versions, I tried it both ways. I thought it worked best when I looked at the 129-minute version first. Many of its stranger points are fleshed out and explained in satisfying ways, whereas watching the long version first made me lose track of the story's dimensions, distracted by the flat-tire rhythms of a sprawling silent film alternating with long patches of often off-point photographs.

I think there are also core problems with Stroheim's conception of the story. It's not necessarily because Stroheim was German and Norris American, but that's part of it. Take the chosen titles. Stroheim focuses on an abstraction (compare Intolerance, another landmark silent behemoth, from eight years earlier), whereas Norris's title suggests he approached it more as a character study, in interaction with societal forces. Because Norris is the author his conception trumps Stroheim's. The movie often strains for effect on its biblical deadly sin theme but the characters are always interesting. The three main characters are arguably possessed of greed, but so are we all, and other deadly sins and human psychology predominate as well. Trina is the only one you might call malformed by greed, but even that is more narrowly a hoarding instinct, clutching for security and certainty in an ambiguous universe. Marcus has more of a bad case of envy, not to say poor judgment, and McTeague, called Mac, might have issues with gluttony and rages but he is not particularly consumed by them. He's easily domesticated.

Other problems I didn't really expect crop up as inconsistencies between my two versions. One of the conceits of silent films with reasonably big budgets involved tinting parts of frames or all of some of them. Greed is famous for its ending filmed on location in Death Valley—a truly great sequence. Most of those scenes are washed over in a golden yellow. Earlier, the color is applied to specific objects: gold, mainly, but also Mac's pet canaries and some other things. Once I started to get the syntax of the tinting I thought it worked well. A dark purplish cyan wash, for example, indicates the characters on screen are in darkness, which explains why they are creeping and bumping around. But these colorations were not consistent between my two versions, notably those canaries. I'm not really sure how or why that happens.

Music represented another point of discrepancy between them. Music is often a problem with silent films as they are usually more enjoyable with it, but it wasn't always originally part of the movies. The score by Robert Israel for the reconstruction was commissioned for the project in the '90s. The music accompanying the TCM broadcast of my shorter version is uncredited (could it be Israel?), but it's obviously keyed to the action, which is not always the case in public domain versions of silent pictures. At the wedding scene in Greed a funeral bizarrely intrudes in the street outside the living room window where the ceremony occurs. This confluence is strongly emphasized and played to in my shorter version by the way the wedding and funeral musical themes interlock and play off one another. There is nothing of the kind in the reconstruction, which raises the question: did Stroheim intend to emphasize the contrast or was it a more subtle point? People at the wedding are visibly bothered by something as the funeral passes, and of course it's a strange harbinger easy to read as bad. But I'm not sure musical decisions like that were even on the radar of the makers of silent films. Topics for further investigation.

In the end, I guess I suspect that putting Greed in the top 100 at TSPDT, let alone the top 10 of the Sight & Sound poll, strikes me more as some romantic indulgence over the loss. The fragments can be really good, I'll even say great, but at the moment they're a chore to see and there are multiple versions growing like kudzu. That's unfortunate because Greed does have many points of interest. Stroheim's scenes are cunningly constructed to carry a very long movie. They feel way too compressed by the production stills and title cards. What might have been is evident in the surviving footage, which is often great, set up and executed remarkably well on many different levels. But that appreciation is inevitably accompanied by a sense of loss too, so it's all very sad and unfortunate, much like the story itself, which likely was quite powerful in the version no one may ever see again. Maybe there's a lesson here about not asking for too much.

1 comment:

  1. Didn't like the novel. Saw a stage play of it once ... to be honest, can't remember much about it. I did like Greed ... it's impossible to say I loved it, no matter how much I liked it. The Death Valley sequence is tremendous. I loved Zasu Pitts. It's the kind of movie I give my highest rating, without putting it on Best Of lists, if that makes sense.