Starring: Zasu Pitts, Gibson Gowland, Jean Hersholt, Dale Fuller, Tempe Pigott, Sylvia Ashton, Sylvia Ashton, Chester Conklin, Joan Standing.
San Francisco during the turn of the century: A simple-minded, but kind hearted dentist (Gowland) marries the love of his life, the prissy Trina (Pitts), who also happens to be the apple of his best friend’s (Hersholt) eye. They settle down to a normal life until she wins a small fortune on a local lottery. As Trina’s initial prudence grows into selfish miserliness, the two descend into poverty and tragedy soon follows.
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Von Stroheim was the ultimate autocratic Hollywood director. A master of self-promotion and publicity (earning himself the nickname ‘The Man You Love to Hate’ thanks to a spate of films during the First World War where he played vicious Germanic types), he directed a handful of epic, debauched romances overtly detailing the sexual perversity and hedonism of European monarchs and aristocrats. In between these movies, he also found time to helm this extraordinary, mammoth adaptation of Frank Norris’ highly-regarded American realism novel ‘McTeague’, the production of which has passed into Hollywood legend and sealed its director’s immortality.
Von’s finished film lumbered in at a mighty 9 hours, meaning that producing studio MGM had to drastically cut the film. Von himself cut it down to just over 5 hours but, on the studios orders, the film was again edited by director Rex Ingram to a more manageable 3. Against Von’s wishes, MGM further cut the film to the edit most viewers today would have seen, just over 2 hours of footage.
As the silver nitrate in film stock at this time was extremely precious, it was standard practice for studios to simply melt down film from the cutting room floor and recycle it. MGM chiefs ordered this and the remaining Greed footage was lost forever, though not before a small group of journalists had chance to see the original, 5 hour long director’s cut.
Their reviews are recorded as being “excellent” and “wonderful” and from the remaining stump of a film, it is easy to agree.
Von Stroheim insisted on filming in real-life locations in San Francisco, filming inside actual buildings (tearing down walls to make way for camera equipment). He even had a character run outside into a packed street for one scene, screaming “Murder!” and recorded the reactions of passers-by. The settings echo the disintegration of the lead characters as their petit bourgoise apartment sinks to a fetid hovel.
He also conjures up some remarkable ironic imagery that echoes the novels brutal, almost cruel, lack of sentiment: the kiss between Gowland and Pitts on a sewer during a day-trip, the cat and canary representing their relationship, a murder framed by Christmas tinsel and the final showdown of the two former friends in Death Valley, in which Von uses a series of diminishing shots to reduce them to mere specks of dust in the barren landscape.
Even more incredible (and only seen in fragments for Rick Schmidlin’s 1999 reconstruction) are those of Pitt’s mental disintegration as her obsession with her wealth becomes even more perverse; in one scene she lays gold coins on her bed, strips her clothes off and jumps in with them, running them over her body, literally fucking the one thing she really loves.
Daniels and Reynolds are to be commendated for their crisp and startling photography – they had to use iced towels to keep the cameras cool during the Death Valley scenes.
The cast are well chosen, with Gowland managing to be both repellent and sympathetic as the clod undone by avarice. Hersholt supports capably as his brash and vulgar friend but Pitts is the star attraction. She employs a full arsenal of physical acting to convey a downward spiral of madness and obsession, rubbing her hands together gleefully, eyes narrowed in fiscal evaluation of the monetary value of everything she surveys. It was the performance of her career.
For this film’s 1986 re-issue (along with several other famous MGM silents), Davis wrote a creepily, almost hysterically unnerving score that makes this film tingle nearly 100 years after its premiere.