Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Great Movies: Greed

At the Movies with Michael5000

Erich von Stroheim, 1924

In my review of Vivre sa vie, I mentioned that it is one of two movies on Ebert's list that are not available from the collection of the Multnomah County Public Library, and that I had turned for my copy to our neighborhood obscure-movie rental store, Movie Madness. Greed was even more difficult to get my hands on. Movie Madness had a copy, of course -- Movie Madness has a copy of everything -- but Greed has apparently never been released to DVD. So not only did I have to rent a VHS tape in order to watch this last of Roger Ebert's 100 Great Movies, but I had to recruit among friends to find someone who still owned a VCR. Occasional L&TM5K commenter Vida stepped up and averted a crisis.

So, Greed. Let's start with the cinema lore. Erich von Stroheim -- who would later play Max the butler in Sunset Boulevard -- decides to film McTeague, a then-famous 1899 novel by Frank Norris. This peppy little volume, as it is described on the Wiki, "tells the story of a couple's... descent into poverty, violence and finally murder as the result of jealousy and avarice." Von Stroheim, apparently having not realized that in story-telling a word is worth a thousand pictures, attempted to make a direct adaptation -- including every scene from the book and even, depending on who you read, expanding on it a little bit for good measure. The result, as you would expect, was a movie more than nine hours long.

Studio executives were, reasonably enough, touchy about how von Stroheim had burned through the period equivalent of zillions of dollars to produce a movie of unwatchable length, and there was a long series of cuts to get it down to a manageable 140 minutes. Von Stroheim was not particularly cooperative in this process, which seems to have involved colorful fistfights and whatnot, and refused to even watch, let alone give his blessing to, the final commercial version. And yet, that 140 minute cut -- even missing seven hours of what was doubtless unrelenting dramatic excellence -- has come to be regularly listed as one of the greatest movies of all time.

The fuss, I guess, is over von Stroheim's naturalism. He filmed on location -- on the streets of San Francisco, in actual building interiors, and in the hostile landscapes of Death Valley -- and was apparently one of the first directors to do so. And the film is certainly competent. The acting is, although as stagey as any of the 1920s, quite good. The increasingly pessimistic mood of the film is well crafted, and the bleak final scenes are especially effective. The dialog cards are frequent enough to let us know what's going on, but don't get in the way of the action. But as to ~greatness~? I didn't actually notice any, myself. But then, it's hard to be a fair judge of silent movies.

It's interesting that the 1920s are far enough in the past that it is hard to read some of the cultural cues. A man announces that the attractive young woman on his arm is his cousin -- and his sweetheart! Are we supposed to recoil, or was that level of family intermarriage still kosher in the 1920s? A husband and wife keep separate stashes of their own money; it's common enough now, but might it have seemed peculiar back in the day? A dentist kisses his female patient while she is etherized, and later a man aggressively kisses a protesting woman while a train thunders by. Are these kisses just kisses, or are we supposed to understand them as a sort of, shall we say, synecdoche for sexual intercourse? Then too, with the second kiss it's kind of hard to tell whether the protest is genuine or just a formality. To tell the truth, I found the whole early relationship of the leading couple a little difficult to parse.

Plot: A man falls for his buddy's girlfriend, and the buddy decides he's cool with it. But just before the marriage, the woman wins the lottery. All three of the characters subsequently become obsessed with the money, and it makes them do weird and unproductive things.

Visuals: The location shots are worth watching. There is often cool stuff happening in the background -- trains going by, people going about their business. A funeral procession going by in the background during the wedding scene -- a bad omen, do you think? -- is certainly not played for subtlety, but it's pretty cool all the same.

Dialog: None.

Prognosis: If you for some reason enjoy watching silent movies, this is certainly a strong one. Otherwise, you can give this one a miss.


Jennifer said...

One of my students wrote her seminar paper on McTeague, and she referred to the often-quoted scene:

"What had become of her husband Trina did not know. She never saw any of the old Polk Street people. There was no way she could have news of him, even if she had cared to have it. She had her money, that was the main thing. Her passion for it excluded every other sentiment. There it was in the bottom of her trunk, in the canvas sack, the chamois-skin bag, and the little brass match-safe. Not a day passed that Trina did not have it out where she could see and touch it. One evening she had even spread all the gold pieces between the sheets, and had then gone to bed, stripping herself, and had slept all night upon the money, taking a strange and ecstatic pleasure in the touch of the smooth flat pieces the length of her entire body."

So, did they keep that scene?

(It came in for some interesting discussion during the Q&A period in my class when a colleague/friend of mine said something about strongly identifying with that impulse....)

Elizabeth said...

@Jennifer - I would watch THAT movie.

Jennifer said...

@Elizabeth -- Maybe it's in there! Seems like they could film "strange and ecstatic pleasure" without resorting to dialogue cards, which would be a plus -- although, come to think of it, I'd be highly entertained to see a card explaining that.

Michael5000 said...

She doesn't strip herself, but yes, there is a scene where she spreads her money on her bed and wallows in it like a minor-league Scrooge McDuck.

Do people still read McTeague, then?

sister jen said...

I haven't been able to see this film, for the reasons you describe (so hard to get hold of!) I wish Kino or someone would release it on DVD. I was thrown by your line "if you for some reason enjoy watching silent movies," but I guess that's because I do... and maybe no one here cares, but I must object to von Stroheim only being described as the guy "who would later play Max the butler in Sunset Boulevard"; he was an extremely important and influential director, and as for his acting, Sunset Blvd--pffft. Check him out in Grand Illusion, y'all.

As for the hours-long original film--remember that in the 20s, a buncha folks were still thinking of ways to make film something other than the commercial vehicle it had already been strait-jacketed into--I think von S was thinking of film in the novelistic sense at this point--

Elaine said...

Being forced to read _The Octopus_ as a jr in HS cured me of Frank Norris. I recall reading Dreiser on my own tick, but I think I was hoping for scenes that explained s-e-x. A simpler time....

Jennifer said...

Well, ~I~ haven't read McTeague. My student clearly picked it up somewhere, but she's the only one I remember mentioning it, so I think she picked it up on her own.