Widely viewed today as one of the greatest films ever made, Erich von Stroheim’s bold and daring adaptation of Frank Norris’s 1899 novel McTeague has lost none of its startling power. Almost a century on, this infamously troubled box-office disaster – famously halved from its eight-hour running time, before being substantially cut again by MGM – remains a towering achievement, and a sobering comment on the American Dream.
As von Stroheim himself declared, Greed plays out like a Greek tragedy. The film’s anti-hero, John McTeague (Gibson Gowland), attempts to rise socially and professionally, by trading in his work as a miner to become a professional dentist. He soon becomes enamoured with Trina Sieppe (Zasu Pitts), who is initially betrothed to another, and who also wins the lottery. Yet when the increasingly tempestuous couple fall on hard times, she refuses to spend (or share) her winnings. A startling finale, shot in the searing heat in California’s Death Valley, remains one of the most arresting on screen.
Von Stroheim, although influenced by the work of DW Griffith, pushed the boundaries of technique and style to extraordinary lengths. He favoured close-ups and fast-cut editing over laboriously extended scenes. He delighted in the grotesque (and the macabre), which appalled many at the studio at the time. Sections of the film were even tinted with gold for visual effect.
Key sequences such as the wedding, where guests gorge on food in the most grotesque way imaginable, have lost none of their power to shock and awe. Von Stroheim favoured an extreme form of naturalism: actors were denied make-up, no artificial sets were used, and the finale was shot over two months in the most unbearable conditions in the Californian desert. Not surprisingly, many of the director’s regulars became ill during the epic shoot, which typically ballooned way over budget. A perfectionist to the extreme, von Stroheim understandably was left distraught at the fate of his epic fable of early 20th-century American life.
Dismissed by many at the time of its release, Von Stroheim’s sprawling masterpiece has, as with Orson Welles’s best work, been reappraised over time. Von Stroheim’s influence over Welles, Hitchcock and others cannot be overstated. The full, eight-hour cut of Greed – seen by just 12 people at its premiere screening in Los Angeles – remains the holy grail of cinephiles. Lost to the sands of time, stories persist of footage appearing in far-flung corners of the globe.
Restorative producer Rick Schmidlin’s work goes a long way in restoring the narrative journey of the original. Dozens of original stills, together with a gloriously melodic score, flesh out the brutally condensed story, set in post-earthquake San Francisco, quite masterfully. Schmidlin, who famously restored Welles’s Touch of Evil to its former glory – and completely re-cut the 1970 concert documentary Elvis: That’s the Way It Is to similar effect – reclaimed this milestone in cinema for generations to devour, long after MGM’s butcher’s knife had all but destroyed it. It remains a fascinating, exhilarating, immensely satisfying experience.