The Greatest films of all time:11.Greed (1924)

Introduction:

Greed is a 1924 American silent film, written and directed by Erich von Stroheim, based on the 1899 Frank Norris novel McTeague. The film is not only unique in many aspects of its originality and technicality, but in the way it was censored and cut to less than ¼ of its original (10 reels down from 42) and the way its creator was berated by the Metro-Goldwyn Mayer (MGM) studio. The original version of Greed has been called the “holy grail” for film archivists, as no one yet has been able to locate its lengthy original version of 42 reels. 

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The film is about the story of McTeague, a miner who practically without proper education being trained to be a San Francisco dentist, who marries his best friend Schouler’s girlfriend, Trina. Shortly after their engagement, Trina wins a lottery prize of $5,000, at that time a substantial sum. Schouler jealously informs the authorities that McTeague had been practicing dentistry without a license, and McTeague and Trina become impoverished. While living in squalor, McTeague becomes a violent alcoholic and Trina becomes greedily obsessed with her winnings, refusing to spend any of them, despite how poor she and her husband have become. Eventually McTeague murders Trina for the money and flees to the Death Valley. Schouler catches up with him there for a final confrontation, that is still one of the rare memorable scene in the history of cinema.

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From an ordinary actor to a great filmmaker:

Erich von Stroheim (September 22, 1885 – May 12,1957) was born in Vienna, Austria in 1885, the son of a middle-class hat-maker, both parents observant Jews. Stroheim emigrated to America at the end of 1909, when 24 years old. By 1914 he was working in Hollywood, and began working in movies in small parts and as a consultant on German culture and fashion. His first film, in 1915, was “The Country Boy” in which he was un-credited. His first credited role came in “Old Heidelberg”. Then he began working with D.W. Griffith, taking un-credited roles in “Intolerance”, and acted as one of the many assistant directors in the film. Following the end of the World War I, von Stroheim turned to writing and then directed his own script for “Blind Husbands” in 1919, that he also starred in the film. von Stroheim, to the audience was more known and remembered as an actor for his roles in Jean Renoir’s La Grande Illusion (1937) and Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950. But by the critics, film experts, other filmmakers and film historians, he has been considered one of the greatest directors of the silent era. He has been one of the first filmmakers who distanced his work from the glamour, superficiality and commerciality of Hollywood films and strived to use the screen to portray the deep down inside of the human’s nature, specifically his dark side that no one had yet touched until then. After another directorial effort on “The Devil’s pass key” (1919), he commenced the huge project of “Foolish Wives” (1922), in which he also starred, but cost Goldwyn studio one million dollars, rare for the era. 

Despite most of his life to the end, von Stroheim acted first in American then French films, and making dozen of films, he is best known and remembered for “Greed”. von Stroheim worked hard and often 24 hours a day to make a more detailed filming of the novel McTeague, showing the imagery of greed, obsession with materialism and other dark sides of the human’s nature on the screen. Although most current available version of the film is only ¼ of its original footage, the viewer still could witness in surprise, how well the dark inner sides of human in contrast with hope, dreams, and the true surrounding nature (for example animals) have been depicted in this original film, more than 90 years ago. Perhaps von Stroheim was a perfectionist, striving to show every detail of our nature and refused to cut corners and fit his messages into two hours or less film just for entertainment, and profit making for the studios. Or perhaps he wanted the audience sit with his film and watch the whole 42 reels in two nights, absorb every detail and reflect on their nature. This of course did not please the studios who viewed and still often view the movies as sources of entertainment and fun, nothing else or deep. This struggle of true art film work with the studios or producers that we witness throughout the history of cinema, specifically in Hollywood, started mainly with Stronheim, though his predecessor such as D.W.Griffith and Chaplin had earlier gained their own control of their films.

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A struggle between the artwork and profit:

Greed, the movie itself though is a story of human’s greed and obsession about money or gold (that its possession has become the goal of life instead of means), and will be discussed in detail later, became a hallmark of struggle between the artworks and their creators with profits and entrepreneurs in the film studios specifically Hollywood. The original print of the film that ran for an astonishing 10 hours, ran into opposition by the Goldwyn studio far being too long. Only 12 people saw the full-length 42-reel version that is now lost and some of them called it the greatest film ever made. The uncut lost version has been called the “holy grail” for film archivists, amid repeated false claims of the discovery of the missing footage. In 1999 Turner Entertainment created a four-hour version of Greed that used existing stills of cut scenes to reconstruct the film. Greed that was not appreciated in its own time, like many other great art works in any medium, by the 1950s began to be regarded as one of the greatest films ever made by many filmmakers and scholars who have praised it for its influence on subsequent films.

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Although von Stroheim cut out almost half the footage per the studio’s demand, reducing it to a six-hour version to be shown over two nights, Goldwyn that had recently been bought by Marcus Loew and merged into Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, rejected von Stroheim’s attempts and demanded him to cut it to less than three hours. von Stroheim who could not totally slaughter his work and disagreed with the studio, was removed from the control of his own film and the film was given to the head scriptwriter June Mathis, who gave it to a routine cutter, who reduced it to 2.5 hours, and at the end the studio credited her alongside von Stroheim for editing. In what is considered one of the greatest losses in cinema history, a janitor destroyed the cut footage. The shortened release version was a box-office failure, and was angrily disowned by von Stroheim, whose unwillingness or inability to modify his artistic principles for the commercial cinema, his insistence on near-total artistic freedom led to his loss of the future directing opportunities by profit seeking studios.

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Other than the cut of two main sub-plots in the film, some individual scenes or sequences were also cut by the studio, including McTeague and Trina’s early, happy years of marriage, the sequence showing McTeague and Trina eventually moving into their shack, the family life of the Sieppe family before Trina’s marriage, the prologue depicting McTeague’s mother and father at the Big Dipper mine and McTeague’s apprenticeship, a few close-up shots of McTeague and Trina’s physical attraction to each other that was suspected to be too sexual for the time, the scenes after McTeague has murdered Trina and roams around San Francisco and Placer County, additional footage of Trina with her money, and a more gradual version of Trina’s descent into greed and miserly obsession, and finally an additional footage of Death Valley. 

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Soon von Stroheim returned to working principally as an actor, in both American and French films, and television series. But in France, he was appreciated more as a filmmaker and he was offered to direct the film “La dame blanch” from his own story and screenplay. Jean Renoir, the great French filmmaker wrote the dialogue, but the production was prevented by the outbreak of the World War II in 1939, and von Stroheim returned to the United States. Later on in 1950 he played as Max von Mayerling in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, that in fact had an autobiographical basis that reflected the humiliations, he suffered through his career. von Stroheim spent the last part of his life in France, where his silent film work was much admired by artists in the French film industry. In France he acted in films, wrote several novels that were published in French, and worked on various unrealized film projects. He was awarded the French Legion d’honneur shortly before his death in 1957 in Maurepas, France at the age of 71.

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A Great artistic undertaking:

Greed is a frontier in great undertaking in filmmaking against all odds in the history of cinema. von Stroheim shot more than 85 hours of footage with perfection, spent two months in the heat of August shooting with his crew in Death Valley for the film’s final sequence, where he and many of the cast and crew became ill. Greed is the first feature film to be shot entirely on location and out of the studio. von Stroheim who picked to transform the novel McTeague to a film, wrote a highly detailed 300-page script that contained camera movements, composition and tint cues. He who lived in poverty upon immigrating to America and before involvement in the film industry, set out to make a realistic film about everyday people and rejected the Hollywood tropes of glamor, happy endings and upper-class characters. 

In early January 1923 Stroheim arrived in San Francisco, where he scouted locations and finished writing the shooting script. While researching for Greed, he attended society functions in town and met many friends of Frank Norris, including his brother and his sister-in-law. To capture the authentic spirit of the story, Stroheim insisted on filming on location in San Francisco, the Sierra Nevada mountains, the Big Dipper Mine in Iowa Hill, and Death Valley. For authenticity, Stroheim had no sets built in San Francisco and only redecorated existing locations, such as saloons, butcher shops, and wooden shacks, thus saving on construction costs. Von Stroheim worked twenty-hour days for over two months of pre-production and collapsed on set after the first few days of filming. 

For filming the last popular scene in Death Valley, while most Hollywood films at the time, settled for the studio shooting or the local Oxnard dunes north of Los Angeles, von Stroheim insisted on authenticity and took the crew with hardships of the summer weather to Death Valley, with no roads, hotels, gas stations, or even running wate. Of the 43 members of the cast and crew who worked on the Death Valley sequence, 14 became ill and were sent back to Los Angeles. While shooting, crew members would collapse of heat exhaustion every day, and a few had to be hospitalized. The filming in the Big Dipper mine of Placer County, California that went on for about a month, took place mostly at night between 9 pm and 6 am, descending 3,000 feet (900 m) underground for realism. 

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A technical Frontier:

von Stroheim used sophisticated filming techniques such as deep-focus cinematography and montage editing. He considered Greed to be a Greek tragedy, in which environment and heredity controlled the characters’ fates and reduced them to primitive human beasts. von Stroheim director’s visual style was similar to that of Griffith’s, but he shot from many sides and from different angles; deep-focus, meaningful foregrounds and effective camera movement. Greed’s lighting included high contrast, chiaroscuro techniques with pools or shafts of lights illuminating an otherwise dark space. The Greed’s cinematographic techniques have often been adapted in the other great future films such as 17 years later in Orson Wells’ “Citizen Kane”, and the 1948 “The treasure of Sierra Madre” of John Huston. von Stroheim was one of the first directors to insist on no make-up for men, on real paint on the walls which were shiny, real glass in the windows, pure white on sets and in costumes. 

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von Stroheim favored “Soviet-style” montage editing, with the use of dramatic close-ups and cuts instead of long takes, to lay bare the cruelty, ugliness and the rest of evil-natured human’s spirit. He also used symbolic cross-cutting for dramatic effect, such as his use of animals in the film and a shot of a train when McTeague and Trina first kiss. Despite von Stroheim’s reputation as a perfectionist, Greed has been criticized to contain anachronisms, for example, the main characters are clothed in 1890s fashions, but the extras wear 1920s clothing, and the streets and vehicles were all modern for the time of filming. But what these critics may miss is that von Stroheim perhaps aimed to portray the fact that the dark human natures exist across the ages, as his teacher D.W. Griffith had previously shown intolerance and justice have no time boundary. 

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One of the cinematic techniques used by von Stroheim in Greed were the use of contrast, for example between the wedding (of McTeague and Trina) as a happy moment of life with death (a funeral on the street in the background at the time of wedding), anticipating misery and death for the characters. This type of anticipation, prompting or hint have been later on used in many movies for years to come. Another application of contrast in the film is between naturalism and animal symbolism, McTeague keeping the canary that he gave his wife as a wedding gift, to the end of the film, when he let it free when there is no hope for himself and doom to die in the desert. Another contrast or in fact parallelism between the human’s nature of greed, ending in murder is the cross-cutting scene between a cat attempting to pounce on the canaries where Schouler bids goodbye to McTeague and Trina without telling them that he has informed on McTeague. The wedding-banquet scene, which includes a midget, a hunchback, a woman with buck teeth and a boy on crutches, and the wedding guests violently and crudely devour their meal like animals, all add to the portray of human’s animalism, the goal of the film. Von Stroheim also contrasted the love scenes between McTeague and Trina with their ugly, lower-class environment, such as the sewer with the dead rat and a garbage truck driving by as they kiss.

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The contrast between the exterior and interior of human’s appearance and his true inward nature, is farther seen in for example in Trina’s first signs of greed on Easter Sunday and being murdered by McTeague on Christmas Eve. Editing Greed that took Stroheim almost a year contain extraordinary and unusual for the time, coloring certain scenes by hands with gold tinting to show the contrast of glittering gold with black and white of reality in the minds of the greedy and obsessed with possession of gold or money, first by Trina, the wife and later on by McTeague. 

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 The Aftermath:

Greed premiered on December 4, 1924, at the Cosmopolitan Theatre in Columbus Circle, New York City, which was owned by William Randolph Hearst, the media tycoon of the time, later on the subject of Orson Wells’ popular film “Citizen Kane”. Frank Norris had once worked for Hearst as a foreign correspondent during the Spanish-American War and Hearst praised Greed, calling it the greatest film he had ever seen. Hearst’s newspapers promoted the film, but MGM did very little advertising. In May 1926 Greed was released in Berlin, where its premiere famously caused a riot at the theater that may have been instigated by members of the then-fledgling Nazi party. Greed received mostly negative reviews after its initial release and later on at the time. The trade paper Harrison’s Report wrote”[i]f a contest were to be held to determine which has been the filthiest, vilest, most putrid picture in the history of the motion picture business, I am sure that Greed would win.” Variety Weekly called it “an out-and-out box office flop… nothing more morbid and senseless, from a commercial picture standpoint, has been seen on the screen for a long, long time” only six days after its premiere. 

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There had already been many criticisms of its brutality, its stark realism, its sordidness, despite von Stroheim never intended to make a pleasant picture. Exceptionally New York Times gave the film a mostly positive review in regards to the acting and directing while criticizing how it was edited, writing that MGM “clipped this production as much as they dared … and are to be congratulated on their efforts and the only pity is that they did not use the scissors more generously in the beginning.” The New York Herald Tribune called Greed “the most important picture yet produced in America … It is the one picture of the season that can hold its own as a work of dramatic art worthy of comparison with such stage plays as “What Price Glory?” and “Desire Under the Elms.” The Montreal Gazette, hailed the film that it “impresses as a powerful film” and “one of the few pictures which are as worthy of serious consideration…which offer a real and convincing study of life and character and that secure their ends by artistic and intellectual means rather than by writing down to the level of the groundlings.” The review went on to describe the direction as “masterly,” citing “its remarkable delineation of character development and the subtle touches which convey ideas through vision rather than the written word, an all too-rare employment of the possibilities of the cinema play as a distinct branch of art capable of truthful and convincing revelation and interpretation of life’s realities.” A review in Exceptional Photoplays stated that “Mr. von Stroheim has always been the realist as Rex Ingram is the romanticist and Griffith the sentimentalist of the screen, and in Greed he has given us an example of realism at its starkest. Like the novel from which the plot was taken, Greed is a terrible and wonderful thing.” 

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In his final years, von Stroheim said that “of all my films, only Greed was a fully realized work, only Greed had a total validity.” and “It was for me an exhumation. It was like opening a coffin in which there was just dust, giving off a terrible stench, a couple of vertebra and a piece of shoulder bone.” He went on to say that “It was as if a man’s beloved was run over by a truck, maimed beyond recognition. He goes to see her in the morgue. Of course, he still loves her but it’s only the memory of her that he can love, because he doesn’t recognize her anymore.”

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In the early 1950s Greed’s reputation began to grow and it appeared on several lists of the greatest films ever made. In 1952 at the Festival Mondial du Film et des Beaux Arts de Belgique, Greed was named the fifth greatest film ever made, with such directors as Luchino Visconti, Orson Wells, and Billy Wilder voting for it. Later in 1952 Sight and Sound magazine published its first list of the “ten greatest films ever made.” Greed was tied for 7th place on that list, and in 1962 it was tied for 4th on the same list, but since 1972 it has failed to reach a spot on the top ten. The Cinémathèque royale de Belgique released a list of “the most important and misappreciated American films of all time” in 1978. Greed was third on its list after Citizen Kane and Sunrise:A song of two humans. In 1991 Greed was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”

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Among those who have praised Greed over the years are Sergei Eisenstein, Joseph von Sternberg who said, “We were all influenced by Greed”; Jean Renoir who called it “the film of films”; and Ernst Lubitsch who called von Stroheim “the only true ‘novelist'” in films. More recently Guillermo del Toro called it “a perfect reflection of the anxiety permeating the passage into the 20th century and the absolute dehumanization that was to come.” And Norbert Pfaffenbichler has said that “the last shot of the movie is unforgettable.” Jonathan Rosenbaum has stated that Greed was a major influence on the style and content of many films. He has also asserted that Orson Welles’ use of satirical caricatures in all of his films is in “the spirit of von Stroheim.”

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von Stroheim’s shots filming the sun predated Akira Kurosawa’s better-known uses of the technique in Rashomon (1950). The other shots of the film have been adapted in King Vidor’s The Crowd, Jean Renoir’s Le Crime de Monsieur Lange, Orson Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons, Howard Hawk’s to Have and Have not and Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura. In addition, certain plot elements or characters in Greed have been adapted by John Huston’s The Treasure of Sierral Madre (1948), Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954), Clause Chabrol’s Les Bonnes Femmes (1960) and Elaine May’s Mikey and Nicky (1975). Greed has also influenced the methods in which novels are adapted into films and filmmakers such as Welles and Huston have followed von Stroheim’s example by re-arranging the plot and adding new scenes to their films while still remaining faithful to the intentions of the original novels. The 1994 Joanathan Lynn film Greedy pays tribute to the film by giving the main characters the last name McTeague. 

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Conclusion:

In closing remarks “Greed” by von Stroheim is a story of not only greed about money and gold that later on portrayed in many future films and stories, but about “possession”. McTeague first possesses Trina from her boyfriend, then Trina possesses the winning money in the form of gold coins obsessively. The greed and possession completes “intolerance” of D.W.Griffith’s ideology of the cause of crime, murder, injustice and wars, that he showed well in his movies “The birth of a Nation” and “Intolerance” and a few years later, his student, von Stroheim put well on screen in “Greed”. von Stroheim like Griffith became a subject of intolerance and injustice by Hollywood and after this great film, was stripped off his directorial power, so he had to emigrate to France where he was more respected and recognized. The story of Griffith, Chaplin (who only for the popularity and power of the viewers all over the world who throw money at the greedy Hollywood, could own the control of his films and not being run by the Hollywood studios, though later on he was also thrown out of America with the label of communism) and von Stroheim is the story of true artists fighting for the true art against profit and commercial seekers of Hollywood. Therefore these great artists are not only great for their works of art, but for their ideas and concepts that they fought for, that is very rare at least in the history of cinema, specially in America. Like many other instances in history and in other fields, though Hollywood killed and destroyed the “Greed” and kicked von Stroheim out of the United States, they could not kill and destroy his ideas as they could not do so earlier to his predecessors, D.W.Griffith and Charlie Chaplin. Now 92 years later, this great work one more time, will be redefined based on the following criteria:   

  1. Originality: “Greed” is original in the subject of story content, its multiple innovative cinematographic and editing techniques, in its ever rare length and detail, and above all in the originality and rarity of its creator, who as an original actor, evolves to a great filmmaker of all time. von Stroheim in fact becomes a hero and role model for many actors to follow his foot step to dare to make films in the future such as Warren Beatty, Robert Redford, Mel Gibson, Kevin Costner and Clint Eastwood to name a few. 
  2. Technicality: The technicality of “Greed”, as somewhat mentioned above, is in its shot in the location for the first time in Hollywood, its creative cinematography, deep focus close ups, different angels shots, specially top-down and bottom-up, hand-tinting the film prints of the gold coins, and the whole final scene in Dead Valley that will become an archetype to teach in the film schools and to adapt in many future films even by the great filmmakers, such as Kurosawa and John Huston who did not mind to adapt or perhaps revive the memory of this great original film and his creator, von Stroheim.
  3. Impact Factor: “Greed” has been adapted in the subject story in many money or gold seeking films of different genres, from “Gold Rush” of Chaplin to “The Treasure of Sierra Madre” of John Huston to many war movies that the subject of the story if not clearly money or gold, but is “possession”! Greed has also had great influence on the future films, not only in the subject story but its technicality and concept, from “Citizen Kane” of Orson Wells, in regard with the subject content and its deep-focus, and bottom-up close ups to any future films of any fight in the desert that revives the memory of this original film, like a flashback.    
  4. Survival: “Greed” and his creator von Stroheim if not survived or appreciated at the time, like many great works and creators of many fields, have been both recognized greatly though not sufficiently in later years, as “Greed” has been and is on some list of great film of all time. As it has been discussed above, “Greed” has also survived in the content subject and technicality and for the resistance of his maker against commerciality and profit making. The film also and still could be enjoyed by many after 92 years.
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