"Cash Rules Everything Around Me
C.R.E.A.M. get the money
dolla dolla bill y'all"
(Sir Method Man)
Nearly all reviews tend to begin talking about Erich von Stroheim
's film Greed
in reviewing its length, and its controversy at the studio and how now we either can see a version that is 4 hours long and uses some intermittent production stills and title cards, or a 2 hour version that is the most complete version available that contains moving footage. It's inevitable, in fact, because what von Stroheim did was create a great film at any length; it's important to not overestimate the value of what remains, since, frankly, this is what people still rave about 85 years after it was produced. It could be 5 minutes and I'd want to see it again, and again, and maybe again. Hell, just give me that final Death Valley sequence and I'm a happy cinema camper forever.
What remains of that great-white-whale of cinematic folklore, the "8-hour-cut", is a 132 minute sliver on the corruption of the human spirit. Greed is never less than compelling: it's about a failed gold-miner named John McTeague (unforgettable screen presence Gibson Gowland
) who gets a job by the prodding of his mother as a dentist in San Francisco. Enter in dog-doctor Marcus (Jean Hersholt) and his girl Trina (equally unforgettable, for better or worse, Zasu Pitts
) who comes in to get her teeth fixed. She does, and during the operation McTeague gives her a kiss. When Marcus finds out he's not happy, but he relents- he can have her, and very soon after, thought somewhat reluctantly, McTeague and Trina get married.
But there's a certain catch: Trina has by true stroke of luck won $5,000 from a lottery ticket (and this is five grand in 1906 money which is... a lot, I take it from this film), and decides to hold on to the money... and then never spend a dime of it. She has all this gold and doesn't know what to do with it, except being stingy. As this may puzzle some 21st century people who wonder why a woman would hold on to her huge lot of money, equatable today to hundreds of thousands? The answer is only given as that it's in her nature to save - which then turns into an obsession, her eyes growing wider and wicker every day, with von Stroheim inserting in vicious and incredible images of skeletal arms reaching in and bony hands and fingers grasping gold coins. All of this, of course, doesn't bode well on Mr. McTeague, especially when faced with it being found out he has no license as a dentist, and loses his job.
To say it gets worse from their for the unhappily married couple is putting it lightly. What von Stroheim does with his dramatic crux in Greed, based on the novel by Frank Norris, is to make everything authentic in the exterior sense - everything was shot on location in San Francisco and, yes, Death Valley - and then to make the characterizations of McTeague, Trina and Marcus into such sad, grotesque but very human figures that it goes beyond the usual boundaries of melodrama. Some of their facial expressions and their acting may be so very over-the-top and even for a frightening but somehow cute Pitts kind of hokey, but they always work for whatever scene is required, be it a drunken McTeague badgering the ever-greedy and obsessive Trina for the gold coins, or Marcus's never-ending grudge against McTeague for taking away "his" woman who, ironically, won't give his man a penny of the earnings.
Like future essential chronicles on the nature of the title subject like Treasure of the Sierra Madre and There Will be Blood, wealth becomes a state of mind for its characters, but since these are not bourgeois people used to having loads of money it blows head gaskets. Would the characters know what to even do with it all if they could hold on to it long enough? Von Stroheim may be a somewhat crueler and definitely more pessimistic person on this matter than even Huston or Anderson (the ending also makes the desert scene in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly look like Care Bears in comparison), and it's because the drama is at such a pitch of the maddening and bizarre and sad that it stays so pungent to this day.
And all this, I should say again, in only a quarter of its original running time. To be more controversial than anyone else might be, as a compromise it may have served von Stroheim well to at least have something of a full-length film by the end of it all. This is not to say Mayer was the hero in this story, and any given movie-lover will feel a sense of sympathy for the film not unlike The Magnificent Ambersons or Metropolis. But the legacy of Greed remains not on its cult status as a deformed thing but a work of artistic wonder, a monumental shriek to that all encompassing bastard of the title. Anyone who loves a good silent film would do well to seek out any version, save maybe for that on an Ipod.