Friday, November 11, 2016

Before I Die #587: Greed (1924)

This is the 587th film I've now seen from the 1,187 movies on the "Before You Die" list that I'm gradually working my way through.

Director: Erich von Stroheim

A semi-lost, silent era masterpiece with an interesting story and curious place in the history of cinema.

Greed was based on the 1899 novel "McTeague" by Frank Norris, which told the story of the title character, whose first name is never revealed. McTeague is a massive and massively strong but somewhat simple miner in the San Fransisco area. He eventually leaves his subsistence lifestyle to take to the road with a travelling dentist, from whom he learns enough of the trade to open his own practise several years later. In the city, he meets and marries Trina - the cousin of his friend and neighbor Marcus. However, Marcus had had designs on marrying Trina, and bad blood begins to form between he and McTeague. The animosity intensifies dramatically when Trina wins a large amount of money in a lottery. These three main players, and a few others, become obsessed with money, and their obsessions lead them to perform increasingly petty and vile acts against one another, ultimately culminating in multiple deaths.

The story of the film's release is of historical note. Von Stroheim's original cut of the movie reportedly clocked in at around nine-and-a-half hours, and this incredibly long version of the film was only ever seen by about a dozen people. Several of them claimed it to be the greatest film ever made. However, the studio, not seeing such a lengthy movie viable, chopped it down to just over two hours. A furious von Stroheim had to sit back and watch this unsanctioned, abbreviated version of his epic movie become a critical and financial bomb. Over succeeding decades, though, the film's original version became something of a Holy Grail in film circles, where critics became aware of the film's merits and its place in the history of film evolution. In 1999, Turner Entertainment released something approximating the original version. This version of the movie (which is the one I watched) runs just short of four hours, and it uses still photos and intertitles to recreate a movie that gives the best possible sense of von Stroheim's original cut. I would say that this version does as good a job as could be done with a film missing over half of its reels.

McTeague walks away from his wife, growing
more dazed and desperate as their hopes and
dreams fall apart. The creative use of camera
angles like this low one show Von Stroheim's
skill for visual imagery.
So watching and commenting upon Greed is notably different from your typical movie viewing. All that said, when one keeps in mind the context of the film's release in 1924, it is easy to see why it was considered such a masterwork. Not unlike the 1923 French film The Wheel, Greed tells a tale about a few individuals who fall prey to common human weakness. For it's time, it was an extremely humanist tragedy, as opposed to the more sweeping, panoramic epics which made up the longer films released in the late 1910s and through the 1920s. In Greed, we see the typical classic American tragedy of a poor person who finds a measure of success, only to have it ruined by base lust for money, both within himself and within those closest to him. Making a nine-plus hour movie on such a thing was a gamble, to say the least, and it clearly failed, given how the movie was ultimately butchered and did poorly, commercially. It was, however, a very bold move and one of artistic merit. Von Stroheim chose a worthy topic and didn't shy away from the darkest aspects of human nature in this movie. For that, it is still highly commendable.

But still, I can't say that it was an enjoyable movie to watch, for the same reasons that so few silent films are enjoyable for me. Although the tale is an engaging one, the characters and dialogue lack authenticity or organic qualities. As always, I understand that these are evolutions that films really had not made yet, but this doesn't change the fact that certain aspects ring shallow. Because characters are simplified, the movie can often seem like a didactic morality play, which simply isn't terribly compelling. This is more tolerable with a movie that doesn't demand so much of one's time, but it's a different story when dealing with a four hour film.

I will say that another clear merit of the movie was how von Stroheim was continuing to utilize new and emerging film techniques to produce some visual effects which were starting to truly set film apart from other storytelling media. With some clever overlap dissolves and other tricks, the movie offers some interesting superimposition here and there. He also cuts in some horrific images of emaciated, clawed hands sifting gold coins and objects though its grotesque fingers. It's certainly not subtle, but it creates a lasting impression.

Swap out that gun in McTeague's hand with a bowling pin, and
you have a scene strikingly close to Daniel Day Lewis
bludgeoning Paul Dano to death.
One interesting notion occurred to me while watching Greed, particularly towards the end. As the film nears its end, McTeague is in Death Valley, a fugitive from justice after having murdered his wife. When he is caught, a struggle ensues with his lone captor dead but handcuffed to him in the middle of the desert, with no hope for rescue or survival. Something about it reminded me of There Will Be Blood, when the avaricious Daniel Plainview has bludgeoned the young revered to death on his bowling alley. I realized that both of those movies were about the ills bred by greed, and how they both took place at similar times. The theme is the same, but There Will Be Blood exhibits nearly all of the advances made in film sophistication over the many decades between 1924 and 2007.

Again, I can see why Greed was hailed as such a masterpiece by the few who saw its earliest cuts. But I'll never feel the need to watch it again, even should they unearth the missing five hours of footage and reconstruct the entire film again.

That's 587 movies down. Only 600 to go before I can die.