Greed (1924)

Welcome to this week’s Vintage Movie Review on Blind Skeleton! Today, we delve into the depths of human nature with Erich von Stroheim’s 1924 silent film, “Greed.” Based on Frank Norris’s novel “McTeague,” “Greed” is a powerful exploration of the destructive power of avarice. The film tells the story of a dentist, his wife, and their descent into obsession and moral decay, encapsulating the harsh realities of human ambition and desire. This movie is not just a tale of personal downfall but a broader commentary on the societal implications of greed, making it a timeless and compelling watch.

The production of “Greed” is as legendary as the film itself. Erich von Stroheim’s original cut was an astonishing nine hours long, meticulously detailing every aspect of Norris’s novel. However, the studio, MGM, drastically reduced it to around two and a half hours, much to Stroheim’s dismay. Despite these cuts, “Greed” stands as a monumental achievement in early cinema, showcasing Stroheim’s uncompromising vision and dedication to realism. Its raw portrayal of human emotion and the meticulous attention to detail make it a landmark film, often studied and revered by cinephiles and historians alike. Join us as we explore the intricate details and enduring legacy of this classic masterpiece.

“Greed” centers around John McTeague, a brutish yet good-natured miner who becomes a dentist in San Francisco. His life takes a dramatic turn when he marries Trina Sieppe, a former patient who wins a $5,000 lottery shortly after their wedding. The windfall initially brings joy to the couple, but Trina’s growing obsession with hoarding the money soon sows the seeds of discord. McTeague’s dental practice is shut down due to a rival’s jealousy, and the couple’s fortunes begin to dwindle. Trina’s avarice leads her to scrimp and save every penny, even as their living conditions deteriorate.

As their financial struggles intensify, so does the strain on their marriage. McTeague, driven to desperation by poverty and Trina’s stinginess, succumbs to his baser instincts. The relationship unravels in a harrowing downward spiral, culminating in violence and tragedy. The climax of the film is set in Death Valley, where the desolate landscape mirrors the desolation of the characters’ souls. In the end, “Greed” paints a grim picture of how the lust for wealth can corrupt and destroy lives, leaving nothing but ruin in its wake.

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Themes and Analysis

The Corrosive Power of Greed: At its core, “Greed” is an unflinching examination of how the lust for wealth can corrode human relationships and morality. Trina’s obsession with her lottery winnings transforms her from a loving wife into a miserly figure, alienating her husband and leading to their mutual destruction. The film portrays greed not just as a personal vice but as a social ill that infects all it touches, leaving devastation in its wake.

Realism and Human Nature: Erich von Stroheim’s dedication to realism is evident in every frame of “Greed.” His meticulous attention to detail and unvarnished portrayal of his characters’ lives offer a raw and authentic depiction of early 20th-century American society. The film’s stark realism forces viewers to confront uncomfortable truths about human nature, particularly the darker impulses that lie beneath the surface of civility.

Societal Commentary: “Greed” also serves as a broader commentary on the American Dream and the moral compromises it can entail. The pursuit of wealth and success, often seen as virtuous, is depicted here as a path to ruin. The film critiques the capitalist ethos that equates monetary success with personal worth, highlighting the human cost of such a worldview.

Analysis

“Greed” is remarkable not only for its storytelling but also for its technical achievements. Stroheim’s use of natural light, on-location shooting, and detailed set designs contributes to the film’s immersive quality. His direction captures the stark contrasts between wealth and poverty, love and hatred, and hope and despair. These visual elements reinforce the film’s themes, making “Greed” a profoundly impactful cinematic experience.

The film’s legacy is also shaped by its troubled production history. The drastic cuts imposed by MGM sparked controversy and debate among film historians and critics, with many lamenting the loss of Stroheim’s complete vision. Despite this, the surviving version of “Greed” remains a powerful testament to Stroheim’s genius and a poignant exploration of human frailty. It challenges audiences to reflect on their values and the consequences of their desires, securing its place as a timeless classic in the annals of cinema.

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Production History

The production history of “Greed” is as legendary and tumultuous as the film itself. Erich von Stroheim, known for his meticulous and exacting nature, embarked on the project with an ambitious vision. Stroheim’s dedication to realism saw him filming on location in San Francisco and Death Valley, striving for authenticity in every detail. He insisted on shooting sequences in actual environments, from the gritty streets of the city to the scorching, desolate expanses of the desert. This commitment to realism extended to his actors, who endured harsh conditions to bring Stroheim’s vision to life.

Originally, Stroheim’s cut of “Greed” was an epic nine hours long, intended to be released in two parts. However, this vision was at odds with the commercial realities of the studio system. MGM, under the management of Irving Thalberg, demanded a more commercially viable length. The film was ultimately slashed to just over two hours by editor June Mathis, who excised entire subplots and characters. This drastic reduction not only altered the film’s narrative complexity but also eliminated much of Stroheim’s painstakingly crafted detail. The original footage, often referred to as the “lost reels,” was destroyed, making the complete version of Stroheim’s vision a topic of cinephile speculation and lamentation.

Despite these cuts, the surviving version of “Greed” is widely regarded as a masterpiece. The film’s raw power and stark portrayal of human avarice resonate deeply, showcasing Stroheim’s ability to evoke intense emotional responses through his direction. The production challenges and the subsequent studio interference highlight the tension between artistic integrity and commercial pressures in Hollywood, a theme that is still relevant today. “Greed” stands as a testament to Stroheim’s uncompromising vision and a poignant reminder of the fragile nature of cinematic art.

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Upon its release in 1924, “Greed” received mixed reviews from critics and audiences. While some praised the film’s raw power, realistic portrayal, and Stroheim’s directorial prowess, others found the heavily edited version disjointed and difficult to follow. The drastic cuts mandated by MGM were a point of contention, with many lamenting the loss of Stroheim’s original vision. Despite this, the film’s stark depiction of human greed and its innovative use of naturalistic cinematography earned it a dedicated following among film enthusiasts. Over time, “Greed” has been reassessed and is now considered one of the most important films of the silent era, celebrated for its bold storytelling and technical achievements.

The legacy of “Greed” is profound and multifaceted. It is hailed as a pioneering work in cinematic realism, influencing generations of filmmakers with its unflinching portrayal of human nature and its meticulous attention to detail. The film’s troubled production and subsequent mutilation have become a cautionary tale about the conflicts between artistic vision and studio control, resonating with filmmakers and scholars alike. “Greed” is often studied in film schools for its innovative techniques and as a case study in the complexities of film production. Its endurance in popular and critical consciousness underscores its status as a timeless classic, a testament to Erich von Stroheim’s genius, and a poignant exploration of the darker facets of the human soul.

“Greed” remains a landmark in the history of cinema, a film that captures the raw and unrelenting power of human avarice. Despite the challenges and controversies surrounding its production, Erich von Stroheim’s masterpiece continues to captivate and inspire. Its detailed realism, complex characters, and the harrowing narrative provide a compelling exploration of the destructive nature of greed. While the original vision of the film may be lost to time, the existing version stands as a testament to Stroheim’s brilliance and the enduring impact of his work.

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