Stanley Kauffmann on Films
The New Republic, December 4, 1999
On Sunday, December 5th at 8:00 p.m. (EST), Turner Classic Movies (TCM) will broadcast a new enlarged version of Erich von Stroheim's legendary Greed. The broadcast will be repeated that night at 12:30 a.m. (EST). This is a major event for anyone interested in film.
The history of Greed is cruel. Von Stroheim was an Austrian emigre who began his Hollywood career in 1914 as an actor and found a niche during World War I as "The Man You Love to Hate," playing German officers with shaved head, tight tunic, and monocle. (The publicity called him an ex-officer descended from Austrian nobility. He was, in carefully concealed fact, the son of a Jewish hat manufacturer and had briefly served in the Austrian army. The "von" in his name was self-bestowed.) He began his directing career in 1919 with Blind Husbands, in which he also played his suavely diabolical character. More importantly, he showed extraordinary directing talent--scathingly realistic, sexually suggestive, and as cynical as Hollywood could permit. He was quickly recognized as a filmmaker of unique ability with a polished "continental" style.
Von Stroheim moved on to direct three more comparable films with, in one of them, another performance by himself. The stories in his first four films might have been found in any women's magazine of the day, but they were executed with a sophistication that could not then have been found in any magazine or in any other Hollywood director. I once showed his third film, Foolish Wives (1922), to a group of about twenty poets and artists, asking them in advance not to be put off by the novelettish plot, just to keep their eyes open. Before the film was ten minutes along, they were murmuring, and
when it finished, they applauded.
For his fifth film, von Stroheim ascended in quality of material. He had long been keen on McTeague, by the pioneering American naturalistic novelist, Frank Norris, and von Stroheim was now empowered to film it. The title of the picture became Greed. By this time, in addition to his artistic standing, von
Stroheim had a well-earned reputation for extravagance, which he proceeded to push much further. We can sum it up by saying that he began shooting in March of 1923, and in January 1924 he showed, to a selected group of twelve people, a first cut of the film that ran seven or eight or nine hours. (Accounts
vary.) The film was never again shown at that length.
What happened to Greed thereafter--von Stroheim's arguments with the producers, the various versions--is too intricate to summarize. Result: the version that was released in December 1924, which has been the usual version until now, runs 135 minutes. The excised footage disappeared, though rumors
of its whereabouts persist. For the rest of his life, von Stroheim mourned over what he called "the skeleton of my dead child."
He would be somewhat happier now, though not content. Rick Schmidlin and colleagues have "restored" 115 minutes, to make a film of four hours and ten minutes. I put that key word in quotation marks because the restoration consists of many stills from the lost footage, here arranged and intertitled
according to von Stroheim's recently discovered continuity script. (Those intertitles occasionally bow to Milton and Shakespeare.) Schmidlin, who recently did the restored version of Welles's Touch of Evil, has made the masterly most of the available materials, and Robert Israel has written a score that, appropriately, savors of theater music of the silent era. The result is in some ways astonishing, in all ways invaluable, and ultimately, because of the loss it now underlines, saddening.
Norris's novel was clearly spawned by Balzac and Zola. Von Stroheim's adaptation, done with June Mathis, begins in a California gold camp in 1908 where the young McTeague, a tousle-headed giant, is a miner. Early on, we see his tenderness, as he rescues an injured bird, then his temper and his
strength as he throws a man over a cliff for harming the bird. To protect and further him, his mother apprentices him to an itinerant dentist, and after a few years McTeague opens his own office in San Francisco. He meets and eventually marries a German-American girl named Trina, thus bilking the hopes of another suitor named Marcus Schouler. (I'm not only condensing, I'm omitting the subplot.)
Trina becomes obsessive about money, heated by the very acquisition of money--a five-thousand-dollar bequest from her mother. She keeps that inheritance to herself and dreams about gold. Schouler revenges himself on McTeague by exposing him as an unlicensed practitioner. McTeague is ruined.
In time, destitute, maddened by his wife's miserliness, McTeague murders the now crazed Trina. He flees back to the gold fields. Schouler joins a posse in search of the murderer. The last sequence, one of the most famous in world film history, shows the two men meeting and fighting in the middle of Death
Valley. The finish is an antecedent of the bitter endings of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and The Wild Bunch.
All the performances are presentative, without great depth or finesse. ZaSu Pitts, as Trina, has the only character to go through some sort of development. Gibson Gowland as McTeague, Jean Hersholt as Schouler, Chester Conklin as Trina's father, all present their characters almost as pageant figures, embodying this or that temperament, of which they produce more as needed. (Curiously, three of these actors had quite different careers, before and after--Pitts as a fluttery comedienne, Hersholt as a kindly soul, Conklin as a Keystone buffoon.)
But it could be argued that von Stroheim saw these characters not as individuated personae, but as factors in a huge ruthless machine, integers of fate grinding to and being ground by inevitability. This view is supported by the difference between the acting and, so far as it can be separated, the directing, which is generally much more comprehending and subtle. It's as if von Stroheim attempted to match Norris with what he did as director, and as if he viewed his cast not as artists in themselves, but as mobile components of his design. Some of his touches are too heavy to be called touches. McTeague and Trina are in a lonely railway station, and he kisses her passionately for the first time just as a locomotive, hissing steam, pulses by. A mouse trap in her mother's hands snaps shut as Trina's marriage is arranged. But such moments seem excesses of a fatalistic drive, a rampant naturalism.
Von Stroheim was one of the first directors to insist on location shooting as needed--the streets of San Francisco, the blazing platter of Death Valley for the last sequence. All the compositions articulate space with originality and daring. Instance: McTeague on the stairs, large in the foreground, with Trina in clear focus above him on the landing. (Did Orson Welles know of this shot when Kane shouts down the stairs after the departing Jim Gettys?) Or: McTeague and Schouler fighting over a card table in the narrow corner of a saloon. (Did Fritz Lang know of this shot when a fight erupts in a corner of a beer hall in M? The answer to this and to the Welles question, is probably, no; Greed simply anteceded them.) Von Stroheim dabs in contemporary markers, like the tiny American flags in the hats of Trina's immigrant family on Washington's birthday; makes sure that the setting of the story is in the story, like the streetcars running past windows during intimate scenes; ventures into Zolaesque sex. After Trina withdraws her $5,000 from the bank in gold coins, she spreads them on her bed, then undresses and rolls on them. (Throughout this black-and-white film, Schmidlin has had the gold tinted, as von Stroheim wished.)
The supporting and incidental actors were selected with an eye for something like what Eisenstein called typage, the face that instantly characterizes the person sufficiently for the story's purposes. With the cinematographers Ben Reynolds and William H. Daniels, both of whom had illustrious subsequent
careers, von Stroheim mixed carefully the harsh light of revelation and the clerestory light that softens so much of nineteenth-century photography. The contrast seems to imply a difference between life as it is and life as we wish it.
It would be exaggerating to call Greed a deeply moving experience in character and story: the very success of von Stroheim's schema seems to preclude that. The film's consistent fascination is in its marvelous texture--and in its almost anachronistic seriousness of intent. Yet is it is no mere historical specimen. It is a vital achievement in a new art that helped to open possibilities in that new art. Von Stroheim went on to direct three more pictures--including Queen Kelly, with Gloria Swanson, which he was not allowed to finish. (Another aborting of an exceptional work.) And he continued as an actor. Today he is best-known generally for his Rauffenstein in Renoir's Grand Illusion, where his caricature Hun of First War films is transmuted into a full-bodied summary of an age. But the directing career he
might have had, the work he might have given us, is only one more sharp poignancy in the "what if" history of the arts.
The Schmidlin version of Greed will be issued on videotape by Warner Brothers early in 2000.
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