2017 Film Essays

Vague Visages Is FilmStruck: Jeremy Carr on Erich von Stroheim’s ‘Greed’

At the beginning of Erich von Stroheim’s Greed, a Frank Norris quote gets to the heart of the movie and the mutual intent of the novelist and the filmmaker: “I never truckled, I never took off the hat to fashion and held it out for pennies. By God, I told them the truth. They liked it or they didn’t like it. What had that to do with me? I told them the truth; I knew it for the truth then and I know it for the truth now.” Like it or not, this 1924 masterwork, a summit of silent cinema and one of the most remarkable films ever made, will relentlessly assume the stirring position of brutal, uncomfortable and painfully poignant sincerity. The emphasis on truth is also a way to presage the grand ambitions of both Norris and von Stroheim, along with their unwavering commitment to realism — a commitment that takes shape as an indictment of nothing less than humanity itself.

Based on Norris’ 1899 novel, McTeague, “personally directed” by von Stroheim (as his credit card proclaims) and dedicated to his mother, Greed opens in 1908 California at a Placer County gold mine. The most prominent early image, and a visual motif that will reappear throughout the picture, is of brightly tinted morsels of gold, yellow sprinklings that shimmer amongst the black and white bleakness (cinematography is credited to William H. Daniels, a soon-to-be Oscar-winning Hollywood legend, and Ben F. Reynolds, von Stroheim’s most frequent collaborator in this capacity). The sparkles of fortune flicker like seductive flames; they are enticing and potentially dangerous. There, beneath the ashen earth, is a wealth to be had. But at what cost? It’s a fundamental theme of Greed, and it’s a suitable metaphor for the film’s own existence. So much about this momentous motion picture is cloaked, or at the very least qualified, by its notoriously tumultuous backstory, that what remains is oftentimes secondary to what once was. “It is central to Stroheim’s reputation that he is valued today more for the unseen forty-two-reel version of Greed than the ten-reel version that we do have,” writes Jonathan Rosenbaum. “And if history and legend have conspired to install Stroheim as an exemplary figure in cinema — virtually the patron saint of all directors who have suffered at the hands of producers — it is precisely because of this discrepancy, the gap between the power and control that was sought and the amount that was visibly achieved.” In other words, as Richard Koszarski contends, “Greed is condemned to live forever in the shadow of its own rough-cut.” That is not to say this rocky record isn’t relevant, however — it’s certainly one of the more fascinating and frustrating chapters in American film history. But within the contentious perspective of von Stroheim’s controversial career, Greed, his finest achievement, is like the gold within the soil, a gem that must be mined from its sullied context. And though it’s a film that in many ways attains its worth on the basis of this tarnished cultivation, the end product is a treasure no matter the process, and no matter its current condition.

Some context is beneficial, though, for this is such a singular work that one often wonders how it came to be the fabled production that it is. After von Stroheim emigrated from Vienna to New York, around 1909 (jazzing up his birth name of Erich Oswald Stroheim, assuming the fictitious noble title of Count Erich Oswald Hans Carl Maria von Stroheim und Nordenwall), he made his way to San Francisco, establishing a location familiarity that proved crucial to Greed. He eventually arrived in Los Angeles and entered the movie industry as a bit player, working, most influentially, with the great D. W. Griffith. Regularly assuming the guise of a ruthless German officer, von Stroheim stoked the xenophobic fears of a World War I audience and established himself as the notorious “man you love to hate” (commonly assaulting women, throwing a baby out the window in 1918’s The Heart of Humanity, etc.). He welcomed the opportunity to direct, making Blind Husbands in 1919. It was his first feature for Universal, and as a sign of things to come, the movie was renamed against his wishes; he preferred the original title, “The Pinnacle.” Though Blind Husbands was a resounding success, especially for a first-time director, von Stroheim was already prone to going over budget and behind schedule, issues that would plague him for the rest of his career. Following his sophomore effort, The Devil’s Passkey (1920), a film now tragically lost, von Stroheim’s third feature, Foolish Wives (1921), was a scandalous affair, years ahead of its time in terms of its adult subject matter and the scope of its production (a massive Monte Carlo set on the Universal backlot). But when it came in at more than six hours in length, studio heads led by wunderkind Irving Thalberg began cutting away, even after the picture had already been released. Things went even worse with Merry-Go-Round (1923), from which von Stroheim was fired after just a few weeks (Rupert Julian stepped in).

Under a new contact with the Goldwyn Company, where he had agreed to a number of contractual stipulations in order to make the film, von Stroheim chose Norris’ pioneering opus of realist literature as his next production. (The text had been adapted once before, as the 1916 film, Life’s Whirlpool, directed by Barry O’Neil.) However, as fate was wont to do in his work, so too did sardonic misfortune impede von Stroheim’s real life. In 1924, Goldwyn merged with Metro Pictures and formed the iconic Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, and when that happened, boss Louis B. Mayer positioned recently-acquired golden boy Thalberg as vice president in charge of production. Once again, von Stroheim found himself under the supervision of the man who essentially seized one of his films and had him fired from another. After working through more than 85 hours of footage, from a 300-plus page script (which was not, as some have suggested, scene for scene from the novel), Greed screened in early 1924, clocking it at around eight hours. Then the rumor-fueled editing began, shortening the picture down to about six hours (this was partly done by von Stroheim himself, who proposed the film be shown over the course of two night), then down, down, down, ultimately arriving at roughly a quarter of its original runtime — and the excised footage was destroyed. When Greed finally premiered in its truncated state, in December 1924, the response was sternly disappointing, and many were particularly dismayed by the film’s pessimism, cynicism and crudity. From a review in Harrison’s Reports: “If a contest were to be held to determine which has been the filthiest, vilest, most putrid picture in the history of the motion picture business, I am sure that Greed would walk away with the honors…”

Today, the most complete version of Greed is a 1999 composite produced by Turner Entertainment, managed by Rick Schmidlin and edited by Glenn Morgan. Utilizing the existing film, in addition to more than 650 still photographs from lost scenes, arranged in accordance with von Stroheim’s original continuity outline, this is likely to be as good as Greed gets. And all things considered, it’s quite good.

No matter which version of Greed one sees, though, the essential story remains the same. The product of a raucous saloon family — boozy, loose, and wholly removed from the final cut of the film — John McTeague (Gibson Gowland) is a burly, lumbering simpleton, an apparent gentle giant who delicately kisses wayward birds on their beak (he has an endearing soft spot for the feathered kind). But this benign assumption is no sooner made than it is abruptly upset, when McTeague flies into a rage and tosses a coworker over a steep embankment. Von Stroheim inserts the name title: “McTeague.” This, in a single-scene nutshell, is the protagonist of Greed, a man of sympathy and innocence, but a man who is rash and is capable of great violence. And like much else in the film, this is von Stroheim demonstrating his distinct brand of succinct character revelation, visceral portraits exposed directly, ingeniously and typically with contradictory duality. After the death of his father, McTeague becomes a dentist’s apprentice in San Francisco (scenes of which were also removed). He displays a natural, if unorthodox, aptitude: in another of those precise revelations, he extracts a tooth with his bare hands. He reconnects with an old friend, Marcus Schouler (Jean Hersholt), who in turn introduces McTeague to his cousin, Trina Sieppe (ZaSu Pitts). Initially bashful in the presence of a lady, McTeague is nonetheless smitten, much to the enduring chagrin of Marcus, who harbors his own intentions with the young woman.

As McTeague gets acquainted with the Sieppe family (their pronounced German ethnicity coming through in heavily-accented intertitles), everything proceeds rather rosily. “Popper” Sieppe leads the group in a railroad track parade, on their way to some amusement park revelry and a quaint picnic (McTeague’s first), and McTeague’s starry-eyed infatuation intensifies. He feels bad for falling in love with Trina, telling Marcus he simply couldn’t help it. Indeed, the adoration is a bit hasty, but McTeague’s admission also testifies to the generally potent fatalism of Greed, its despairing sense of the uncontrollably inevitable and the sadly irreversible. McTeague’s unbridled impulsiveness similarly portents the hazards to come: “I got her!” he exclaims, as von Stroheim cuts to a mousetrap springing close (such figurative montage, usually this obvious, was a common von Stroheim technique; later there is on-the-nose cross-cutting between a cat and two caged birds, an unambiguous suggestion of predatory tension). Though McTeague’s rainy-day proposal is initially rejected, Trina comes around. Yet on the inauspicious heels of her winning $5,000 in a lottery, as a title forewarns, “The dangers gather as the treasures rise.” Meanwhile, Marcus seethes with a lingering animosity, despite his oft-professed forgiveness. Losing his girl was enough to breed caustic bitterness and envy; the newly-won capital is like salt on the wound.

Vindictiveness also begins to poison the marriage of Trina and McTeague (their wedding takes place as a funeral procession passes in the background, as if the tone wasn’t dour and ominous enough). Trina is never quite satisfied, and their relationship is awkward at best, malicious at worst. Though consistently undercut by angst and uncertainty, the couple will at times appear on the cusp of the high life, but even five-grand can only go so far. And as it turns out, it’s not going anywhere. Trina refuses to spend the money and instead hordes the wealth, cleaning it and caressing it. The money is a cancerous obsession, a fixation that solidifies and exemplifies the deadly sinful focus of the film (one recurrent image is of spectral hands groping the coins in a lascivious, twisted, horrid frenzy). Given its narrative consequence and its gilded visual embellishment, the currency is also the most conspicuous example of von Stroheim’s consummate knack for tactile detail. From the enamored-yet-derided depiction of military regalia, seen mostly in his prior and subsequent work, to the absurdly oversized gold tooth that McTeague desires, von Stroheim exhibits an uncanny ability to equate drama with an object, using props and graphic elements as a way to submit and exploit inherent thematic or psychological significance. In one noteworthy sequence, absent from Greed’s ultimate assembly, McTeague spends the evening in Trina’s bedroom, moving from item to item, touching her possessions as a sensory and sensual substitute for romantic longing, prompting profound emotional inference and projection. Von Stroheim floods his interiors with such an extensive, unobtrusive, and utterly convincing degree of decorative detail, that these fictive settings become living, breathing spaces, as if patently existing prior to the moment cameras happen to roll (it helps that the film was shot entirely on location). Regardless of how impractical Greed’s preliminary duration was, this amount of time, coupled with von Stroheim’s meticulously constructed mise-en-scene, creates a degree of scenic absorption rarely equaled, and one sees its impact in a variety of situations, in times of gluttonous feast or severe famine, in scenes of abject poverty and disarray, or those of prosperity and affluent adornment.

“Fate steals along with silent tread…” Though Trina and McTeague occasionally reach an unsteady alliance, joined if nothing else by their disdain for Marcus, who drops the dime and informs authorities that McTeague has been practicing dentistry without a proper license, the two succumb to their concentrated hostilities. With no income (despite the untouched $5,000), the miserly Trina and the destructive McTeague resort to manic despondency and fierce paranoia. Von Stroheim had the superior ability to generate naturalistic presentations from his actors, something he attributed to frequently casting those with comedic backgrounds, facilitating less histrionic exchanges, and while he would later direct such luminaries as Gloria Swanson, John Gilbert and Fay Wray, all of whom are excellent in their respective films, Pitts and Gowland — and to a lesser extent Hersholt; he’s mostly one-note sneering — give two of the most affecting and unaffected performances from any von Stroheim picture. (Tellingly, many of those featured in Greed had worked, and would work again, with this instrumental director.) Like the unprocessed settings in which they interact, these characters are fully-formed, genuine, and frighteningly credible. From Rosenbaum: “Look at any frame enlargement from Greed showing ZaSu Pitts, Gibson Gowland or Jean Hersholt and you’ll see not a familiar actor ‘playing a part,’ but a fully rounded character existing — existing, as it were, between shots and sequences as well as within them (or such is the illusion).” Delving into stingy delusion, Pitts is better the more sinister Trina becomes — she is wild-eyed, contorted, physically withdrawn — while Gowland, having already shown some indication of his latent ferocity, devolves McTeague into an untamed sadist, viciously biting Trina’s fingers in animalistic retribution. Their savagery coalesces in one shockingly emblematic scene: Knowing full well why he wouldn’t (or shouldn’t), Trina asks her anguished husband if he still loves her. “Sure, I do,” he responds, before slamming his hand to her face and shoving her down to the bed. Then, a title: “– And yet this brutality in some strange inexplicable way aroused in Trina a morbid, unwholesome love of submission — ” Again, von Stroheim demonstrates his provocative maturity, his topical daring and his penchant for generating disquieting, multidimensional characters, warts and all. And again, this is why the perceived excess of his form is actually so invaluable: it allows him and his probing camera time for studied meditation, looking at a person, examining them, zeroing in on eye twitches, scheming smirks, clenched fists and other physical expressions of psychological stimulus.

In viewing Greed in its extant version, two aspects most noticeably absent from the moving picture material are some early character exposition (mostly dealing with McTeague’s upbringing and his arrival in San Francisco), and the inclusion of two parallel couples, demonstrably integrated by von Stroheim to illustrate — in the extreme on either side — the dual (and dueling) nature of Trina and McTeague’s relationship. On one hand, there is the scraggly junkman, Zerkow (Cesare Gravina), who has a peculiarly warped bond with Maria Miranda Macapa (Dale Fuller), a tousled, Hispanic gypsy. She is the one who sold Trina the ill-fated lottery ticket, and she likewise has a feverish preoccupation with wealth (in her case, a lavish, nonexistent dining set). That mania contagiously consumes Zerkow, driving him to murder, insanity and suicide. On the other hand, there are McTeague’s elderly neighbors, Charles W. Grannis (Frank Hayes) and Miss Anastasia Baker (Fanny Midgley). These two senior models had never met, but they secretly cherished a private, good-natured love for one another, and when the time comes, their passions proceed with little regard for money — for them, it’s love above all. When Trina and McTeague are forced to sell their belongings, the benevolent Grannis purchases their wedding portrait, only to then give it back to the couple as a gift. Aside from representing what Trina and McTeague could be or will become (nearly every von Stroheim film would utilize contrasting characters for this purpose), these individuals are further examples of why von Stroheim’s brand of cinema demands an exceptional allotment of time and space, enabling a film like Greed to build its comprehensive filmic world from a compilation of subplots and side characters, however inconsequential they may be to the superficial story.

So much of what occurs in a von Stroheim film is the result of predestination. Characters are driven to what they do by inescapable forces of heredity, social conditioning, royal lineage or the dictates of morality. More often than not, these forces consequently expose the boundless cruelty of mankind: heedless barbarism, lusty surges and senseless spite. The hopeless downward spiral of Trina and McTeague therefore appears ordained and pathological. It is a course of vulgar abjection, and it reveals von Stroheim’s highly original perversity. Greed bristles with startling imagery, like Trina’s grotesque gangrenous fingers — infected, tinted blue, later amputated — and the astounding exhibition of her writhing in bed, fully nude and awash with her coveted fortune. (Though less so with Greed, von Stroheim also showed an odd recurrence of physical deformities and maladies: dwarfs, hunchbacks, invalids, and so on.) The cumulative antagonism of the picture climaxes in a portentous Christmastime confrontation between McTeague and Trina, beautifully shot in shafts of some of the film’s sharpest chiaroscuro lighting. In the wake of the pitiless, bloody murder of Trina, wanted man McTeague retreats to the Placer mine, then, finally and fatally, to the hellish desert of Death Valley, where the cast and crew labored for two months, shooting in temperatures that at times reached 123 °F. In Greed’s justly celebrated denouement, tracked down and challenged by Marcus, McTeague and his one-time comrade are left to endure the weight of their wrath and blister under the scorching sun, which bathes the earth in excruciating golden heat (how ironic that the yellowish shade so desired in its monetary state is now the color of pervasive death).

Though their content didn’t reach this degree of debased devastation, the later films of Erich von Stroheim would similarly depreciate from studio interference — none of the succeeding five films bearing his director credit were released as he intended or, in some case, even completed. His career found a resurgence in front of the camera, most famously with stellar turns in Jean Renoir’s La Grande Illusion (1937) and Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950), but Greed is the zenith of what von Stroheim achieved as a director, and it is the quintessential paradigm of all that has been lost to the neglectful annals of history. It is everything von Stroheim imagined — the vivid vision of reality, the inspired attention to detail, the sensitive portrait of man’s bestial nature — and yet it is nothing like he intended. Forgoing the old-world elegance and charms seen elsewhere in his work (and by association the lighter tones, the playfully suggestive innuendo and even the occasional optimism), Greed is the exemplar of André Bazin’s von Stroheim assessment: “In his films reality lays itself bare like a suspect confessing under the relentless examination of the commissioner of police. He has one simple rule for direction. Take a close look at the world, keep on doing so, and in the end it will lay bare for you all its cruelty and its ugliness.” But that was life, and that was von Stroheim. He never had any illusions about what he hoped to accomplish with his work, nor did he fail to see the value this approach had for the viewer… if only he, and they, were given the chance. “The audience must know that what von Stroheim produces is done with the utmost honesty and is just as reliable as the National Geographic Magazine or the Encyclopedia Britannica,” von Stroheim said when shooting wrapped on Greed. “Audiences know this, I believe. They think von Stroheim will stand up and fight for correctness of detail; that he is willing to suffer the consequences; that he is willing to go to damnation for his convictions. And he is. Because everything he puts before the eyes of an audience must be that thing itself — the real thing.”

Watch ‘Greed’ at FilmStruck.

Jeremy Carr (@jeremyrcarr) teaches film studies at Arizona State University and writes for the publications Vague Visages, Film International, Cineaste, Senses of Cinema, MUBI’s Notebook, Cinema Retro, Movie Mezzanine, Cut Print Film and Fandor’s Keyframe.