What I don’t like is the persistent denial by blubbering sentimentalists of man’s basic nature. Away with those who would sterilize life, or, as they call it, ‘spiritualize’ life.
– Erich von Stroheim1
In Greed (1924), Erich von Stroheim certainly succeeds at rejecting a sanitized vision of human nature. What little sympathy we feel for his characters is largely grounded and overwritten by a combination of pity and revulsion. But the director does not simply forsake his subjects. He brings us to their level, offers us entry into their lives and, somehow, finds a recognisable humanity amid the horrors of their actions. It is no surprise that such directors as Luchino Visconti, Orson Welles, and Billy Wilder named Greed among their ten favourite films of all time2, or that many others would go on to borrow much from Stroheim’s authorial style.
Greed was the second adaptation of Frank Norris’ novel McTeague, though the first, Life’s Whirlpool (Barry O’Neil, 1917), is now lost. In Stroheim’s version, McTeague (Gibson Gowland) – or ‘Mac’ – leaves his mining job to become a dentist in San Francisco where he befriends Marcus Schouler (Jean Hersholt) and falls for his new friend’s cousin and fiancée, Trina (ZaSu Pitts). Marcus steps aside to allow the two to wed, and the arrangement seems to work for all involved until Trina wins the lottery. Scornfully jealous, Marcus reveals to the authorities that Mac has been practicing dentistry without a license. Unable to work, Mac turns to drink and becomes abusive, eventually murdering Trina, who had been hoarding her winnings, withholding them from her husband. On the run with Trina’s cash, Mac is pursued by Marcus, who eventually catches up with him in Death Valley: the sweat dripping from the actors is a testament to Stroheim’s intense dedication to the scene’s realism, shot on location in the sweltering desert heat. Mac finally overpowers and shoots Marcus, but not before his old friend handcuffs the two men together, condemning Mac to a slow death under the sun.
Stroheim’s target is never entirely stable, though the titular greed has often been ascribed to Trina. Variety Weekly’s review, for example, focused on the moral of the film imploring wives not to be “miserly, greedy, or money-crazed, and with it consequently intolerant of a husband’s welfare.”3 In fairness to Trina, the film hardly supports a reading so focused on one character’s motives. How can we ignore Marcus, who does not hesitate to sell out his friend over money? Similarly, Mac’s behaviour is quite probably the most revolting of anyone on screen. After nearly forcing himself on an unconscious Trina in his dentist’s chair, he spends much of their marriage abusing her – in one particularly disturbing scene, he bites her fingers as punishment for keeping her winnings from him.
This peculiarly gruesome assault continues on a theme of abjection introduced during Mac and Trina’s wedding party. Before the film’s conflicts begin to emerge, the basic human nature that so fascinates Stroheim appears through the gluttony of the guests, grotesquely stuffing their mouths and making a mess. Bodily needs and limitations become the only laws that truly govern, echoed in Mac’s cruelty.
Some of the film’s other metaphors are less effective. Throughout, a pair of canaries stands in rather bluntly for Mac and Trina, although there is something fundamentally profound in Mac releasing one as he resigns himself to death in the desert, the other having already died along with Trina. The bird now serves to demonstrate that in death our antihero will be free of his own cruelty and selfishness. This also serves to bookend the film by mirroring the opening scene in which Mac gently rescued the injured bird, reminding us of his ever-present humanity. Stroheim seems to reject some degree of cynicism in this moment, pulling away from a nihilistic conclusion, where death could otherwise function as merely the last in a string of meaningless tragedies.
The final showdown is also notable for its sudden generic shift – marked by a new setting, aesthetic, and themes – foreseeing the bleak violence of many westerns that would follow, from Treasure of the Sierra Madre (John Huston, 1948) and The Wild Bunch (Sam Pekinpah, 1969), to the more recent There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007) and Meek’s Cutoff (Kelly Reichardt, 2010). Frontier myths of expansion and the march of civilization are replaced here by a sense that America is futilely propagating itself, expanding into new territory with little to gain or offer.
To discuss Greed as a single text would ignore so much of the rich history behind its production and the conflicts between Stroheim and MGM. Stroheim describes the ‘original’ version as consisting of 42 reels, with viewers of his rough cut timing it from seven to nine hours.4 He refers to an early, 14-reel edit by MGM as “only the skeleton of my dead child,”5 while the final released version was reduced further to ten.6 In 1999, Turner Classic Movies worked with Rick Schmidlin to create a version as close as possible to the much longer rough cut using Stroheim’s continuity script and production stills to fill in narrative gaps, but it is difficult to hold Schmidlin’s version as in any way definitive. As Jonathan Rosenbaum suggests, recutting Greed required a great deal of “guesswork and intuition,” since we cannot know which elements of the script were shot or included in which cuts, and all previous versions were destroyed.7
Regardless, the MGM release of Greed stands alone as an important piece of cinema, both in Stroheim’s career and in the history of the silent period. Gaining appreciation and an almost mythical status over time, Stroheim’s brilliant work, with its complex, haunting themes and bold form, continues to challenge audiences while offering great rewards.
Greed (1924 USA 140 mins)
Prod. Co: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Prod, Dir: Erich von Stroheim Scr: June Mathis, Erich von Stroheim Phot: Ben F. Reynolds, William H. Daniels Mus: William Axt Art Dir: Cedric Gibbons, Richard Day
Cast: ZaSu Pitts, Gibson Gowland, Jean Hersholt, Dale Fuller, Tempe Pigott, Sylvia Ashton, Chester Conklin, Joan Standing
- qtd. in Thomas Quinn Curtiss, Von Stroheim (London: Angus & Robertson, 1971) p.175. ↩
- Jonathan Rosenbaum, Greed (London: BFI Publishing, 1993) p.50. ↩
- qtd. in Ibid. p.49. ↩
- Ibid. pp.24-25. ↩
- qtd. in Richard Koszarski, “Reconstructing Greed: How Long and What Color?” Film Comment 35.6 (Nov/Dec 1999), p.10 ↩
- Ibid. p. 13 ↩
- Jonathan Rosenbaum, Greed (London: BFI Publishing, 1993) p.44. ↩