Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The Masterpiece Test: Greed

Year of Release  1924
Country  USA
Length  Studio-Edited Theatrical Cut:  140 min
TCM “Restored Version:”  239 min.
Lost Director’s Cut is rumored to have lasted at least 8 hrs
Director  Erich von Stroheim
Screenwriters  Erich von Stroheim and June Mathis (adapted from the novel McTeague by Frank Norris)
Cinematographers  William H. Daniels and Ben F. Reynolds
Editor  Joseph Farnham
Art Director  Cedric Gibbons
Cast  Gibson Gowland, ZaSu Pitts, Jean Hersholt

Greed is a tricky film to analyze, because MGM’s indifference to (or hatred of) director Erich von Stroheim’s original vision for the film lead them to burn the vast majority of the footage intended to be included.  Early preview screenings of Greed are said to have lasted anywhere from eight to nine hours, but the version that the studio released to theatres was less than two-and-a-half hours long, even though it included all of the footage that studio head Irving Thalberg deemed worthy of saving.  What survived is a powerful and impassioned statement about the corrosive damage that money lust can cause.  But because so many scenes have been lost forever, we can only speculate about what was lost with MGM’s mutilation.

Though MGM’s destruction of the majority of the footage that Stroheim shot makes a “director’s cut” of Greed impossible, there are still some clues that suggest what the shape and scope of his original cut might have been.  Various drafts of Stroheim and June Mathis’ adaptation of Frank Norris novel McTeague are still in circulation, as are a great deal of production stills depicting scenes not present in MGM’s edit.  In 1999, Turner Classic Movies broadcasted a “restored version” running approximately four hours long.  The extra 99 minutes don’t contain any rediscovered footage, since again, it has all been destroyed.  Instead, film restorer Rick Schmidlin took one of Stroheim’s early continuity screenplays and combined the original release version with hundreds of the aforementioned stills, which were rephotographed and occasionally treated with pans, zooms, and opening and closing irises.

The restored version is obviously of note to anyone interested in film history in general and Greed in particular, but while it clarifies some of Stroheim’s intentions, it obviously can’t be considered a full-blown restoration of his original vision for the film.  As film historian Stewart Klawans points out, “the film envisioned by Stroheim can’t be seen at all.  Greed therefore exists primarily as an idea about filmmaking, which has passed among directors and writers, critics and moviegoers, for three-quarters of a century.”

What exactly is this idea that Greed represents?  It has something to do with what Klawans describes as “exhaustive veracity,” which in this case means a passionate and obsessive dedication to accurately depicting the story’s settings down to their last detail, as well as an inclination to lovingly depict the minutiae of the main characters’ lives that more conventional narratives might ignore.  Stroheim was clearly driven by a desire to outdo the historical spectacles of his mentor, D.W. Griffith, whose Birth of a Nation (1915) and Intolerance (1916) are clear stylistic forbearers of Stroheim’s extravagantly detailed style.  This passion to get as much on the screen as humanly possible has led to such disparate works as Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman (1975), which observes the day-to-day rituals of its titular character in excruciating detail; Bela Tarr’s Satantango (1994), which takes nearly eight hours to give the viewer the feeling that they are a part of the impoverished village where the film takes place; and many of the films of Jacques Rivette, who seemed to keep the cameras rolling until he had exhausted literally every angle of his narratives. 

The story detailed in Greed is actually fairly simple in its rough outlines.  Two men, Mac McTeague (Gibson Gowland) and Marcus Schouler (Jean Hersholt), have their friendship tested when Marcus’ cousin, Trina Sieppe (ZaSu Pitts), who marries Mac, winds up winning $5,000 in the lottery.  The fallout from this unexpected event irrevocably corrodes Mac and Trina’s briefly happy relationship, with Trina gradually going insane from her miserly paranoia and Mac letting his anger over Trina’s behavior lead him to alcoholism and spousal abuse.  Meanwhile, Marcus’ jealousy over the couple’s good fortune destroys his relationship with both of them.  Mac eventually murders Trina in a blind rage, and winds up on the run from the law in the middle of Death Valley, while Marcus leads the authorities in a hunt for his former friend.  The two heat-exhausted men meet up in the middle of the desert, with no water in sight.  Mac beats Marcus to death, only to discover that he has already been handcuffed to his friend, and the film ends with an image of the two men chained together in the middle of a desert with no hope for survival.

That story sounds like it could be told rather quickly, and the theatrical edit of the film does manage to depict it powerfully.  Though I would never want to defend MGM’s decision to defy Stroheim’s wishes, it should be noted that their streamlined cut of Greed is coherent and logically put together, with the story’s meaning and morality left more or less intact.  Where RKO cut out the brutally sad planned ending for Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) and replaced it with an abrupt and unconvincing happy conclusion that seems utterly out of place with that film’s style and outlook, MGM retained Stroheim’s memorably bleak scorched-earth conclusion.  And where Universal’s “Love Conquers All” TV edit of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985) turns that film into a wildly incoherent mess, MGM can at least be said to have retained the basic direction of Stroheim’s narrative, if not necessarily its radically digressive shape.

It isn’t possible to know for certain whether the lost cut of Greed would have ultimately been “better” than the final theatrical edit.  But while the theatrical cut feels more or less like a fully formed and relatively uncompromised film (considering that less than a third of it survived), it is important to note that the many digressions that Stroheim had planned for the narrative were clearly intended to give a holistic and specific weight to the main characters’ lives that would probably have made their gradual descent into outright barbarism all the more tragically powerful.  It is true that many of the departures that Stroheim had intended for the story – ranging from depictions of what the protagonists and their relatives enjoy doing on a Sunday afternoon, to entire rhyming storylines featuring happy and spiteful romances – are not strictly essential for the narrative to work, and they are the type of scenes that would be excised in a conventional adaptation of a novel.  But the bits and pieces of this digressive material that do survive in the MGM edit (and are much more evident in the TCM version) definitely add layers of weight and moral force to the depictions of the main characters.  One of the most memorable scenes in the film involves a down and out Mac attempting to beg the estranged Trina for some food which she refuses to give him.  This scene works in the theatrical cut, but has more emotional and ethical nuance in the TCM version, where there is more context for Trina’s cruelty, both because the extent of Mac’s recent physical abuse toward her is more evident and because more of their early happiness has been shown.  Who can say how much more nuanced and powerful this and other of the film’s most iconic scenes might have been in Stroheim’s original cut?

No matter what complexities may have been removed from Stroheim’s vision for the theatrical cut, the surviving footage is still undeniably powerful and gripping.  It could be argued that certain plot developments and character beats feel a bit abrupt or poorly motivated in MGM’s edit, but the movement of the narrative is mostly logical and consistent with the heightened realism of Stroheim’s aesthetic.  There is something iconic and definitive about well-performed pantomime, where the force of physical action makes the need for dialogue or method acting “naturalism” moot.  Gibson Gowland makes Mac the very embodiment of dumb, hulking sweetness, as well as its ugly flip side, blind brute force; he’s like a cartoon bulldog.  ZaSu Pitts does a great job of gradually stripping away Trina’s shy kindness and revealing the paranoia and spite underneath her demeanor; it is only in retrospect, or on repeat viewings, that it becomes obvious that those traits were there all along, and only exacerbated by her circumstances.  It’s difficult to think of dramatic silent performances that are more effective than those of Gowland and Pitts, aside from Falconetti’s justly revered portrayal in The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928).  It isn’t hard to imagine Mac and Trina existing in between their onscreen appearances.

Stroheim rarely moves his camera, but here he has mastered the art of the static shot invented by the Lumiere brothers and developed by D.W. Griffith.  There are countless moments of highly ornate physical beauty in Greed, from the glimpses of Mac’s cluttered and highly stylized dentist office to the final sun-scorched shots of the actual Death Valley.  Whether Greed is a great work of art is not really in question.  What we will always wonder is how much greater it might have been in Stroheim’s original conception.

Greed passes the Masterpiece Test

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