This revelatory four-hour version of Erich von Stroheim’s “Greed” represents a triumph of film restoration. An enormously successful attempt to rehabilitate one of the two or three most celebrated and mourned mutilated masterpieces in cinema history, Rick Schmidlin’s loving work of scholarly craftsmanship can’t perform the impossible feat of bringing the 1924 adaptation of Frank Norris’ “McTeague” fully back to life. But it does the next best thing by vividly clarifying the film’s true dimensions and the staggering depth of its detail. World preemed in Telluride in advance of further fest showings in Venice and Pordenone, this video-produced epic will air domestically on Turner Classic Movies in December, prior to vid release.
Von Stroheim’s original “Greed” ran at a length generally reported as 9-1/2 hours, a version that was shown only once, on Jan. 12, 1924. The extravagant filmmaker personally cut the picture down by about half, proposing that MGM, the new company that had inherited the film from its original producer, Goldwyn Studios, release it in two parts. When Louis B. Mayer rejected this idea, von Stroheim privately asked his director friend, Rex Ingram, to edit it down to three hours, whereupon Metro executive Irving Thalberg, who had been von Stroheim’s nemesis previously at Universal, took the film away from him and assigned editor Joe Farnham to cut it to conventional length; the 140-minute version was a flop upon its release at Christmas 1924, and Thalberg had the silver nitrate film on which it was made burned, thereby preventing the picture from ever being reassembled.
Even in its severely truncated form, “Greed” was sufficiently impressive to take its place among the great cinema classics; in the Sight & Sound poll of the best film of all time, it ranked No. 4, higher than any other silent film. The quixotic dream of one day somehow finding or conjuring up the picture’s original version has always represented a Holy Grail for buffs, a dream that Schmidlin was able to pursue in the wake of the recent success of his “director’s cut” of Orson Welles’ “Touch of Evil.”
Schmidlin and editor Glenn Morgan have managed their task through the use of hundreds of scene stills from the picture, obtained from a number of collections. Following the original script by von Stroheim and June Mathis and injecting the original intertitles to provide dialogue and describe action, the restoration team has fleshed out scenes familiar from the 140-minute version and provided visual and narrative samplings of other sequences unseen since 1924. Beyond this invaluable carpentry, TCM version offers color tinting per the director’s instructions, a hitherto unknown full-color sequence and a new score by Robert Israel that is superior in every respect.
A story that illustrates in the most extraordinary detail how the everyday strivings of ordinary people can be inexorably undermined by their basest instincts, “Greed” charts the life of McTeague (Gibson Gowland) an ill-educated mining-town man — part hulking ruffian, part sentimental fool — who struggles to become a dentist in early-20th-century San Francisco and marries his best friend’s girl, Trina (ZaSu Pitts), only to watch his fortunes decline. His wife becomes an obsessive miser after winning a lottery, and he loses his livelihood upon being betrayed by his jealous former friend, Marcus (Jean Hersholt). Famously, it all ends under the scalding sun of Death Valley, McTeague handcuffed to the man he has just killed, doomed to perish because of the pervasive poison of greed.
In addition to seeing actual gold colors strewn through the ore during the early mining sequences, new version offers plenty of additional exposition: McTeague’s dissolute father’s boozing, whoring and death; McTeague’s apprenticeship with an itinerant dentist, and his being informed of his mother’s death.
Once the action moves to San Francisco (von Stroheim shot as much as possible on location, including Polk Street and environs, the ferry, the undeveloped East Bay waterfront), stills reveal extensive scenes at the dog hospital where McTeague’s close friend Marcus works, much greater delineation of the denizens of the boarding house where McTeague lives, the nearly Renoiresque evocation of Sunday outings and picnics with the largely German supporting characters, McTeague’s courtship of Trina, the romance that slowly develops between two neighboring old-timers that culminates in the color scenes representing true happiness, Trina’s giving McTeague an enormous (tinted) gold tooth and much greater detailing of the couple’s wedding and dinner celebration. Part one of the restoration runs 110 minutes.
Part two, which lasts 129 minutes, picks up five years later and elaborates a subplot involving the demented marriage between boarding house manager Maria and junkman Zerlov, an auction of the impoverished McTeague and Trina’s belongings and, most significantly, the life of McTeague as a penniless hobo living on the streets. An element of the film that comes across far more strongly now is von Stroheim’s portrait of the lower classes, society’s bottom strata consisting of saloon dwellers, riffraff, the dispossessed and the forgotten. Also more visible is the scale of some of the city scenes, in which hundreds of extras were employed to give teeming life to the streets of San Francisco. As good as the first half is, the additions the restoration makes to the second half are even more crucial and enlightening.
Coverage of the many photographs is done in diverse ways, sometimes using them as stationary stills and at other times panning within them to create a certain dynamic. In general, this is so well done that any carping about individual choices would amount to ludicrous nit-picking. Visual quality, even on the projected video used in Telluride, is outstanding. Topping it all off is Israel’s melodious score that is churning and brooding by turns, and has flavors of Chopin, Wagner and Bernard Herrmann, just for starters.
Like most of the films von Stroheim made during his directorial career, which scarcely lasted a decade, “Greed” is a triumph of ultra-realism. Philosophically, it is witheringly wise in its view of humanity’s capacity for folly; thematically, it represents a still-relevant cautionary tale about the fragility of the American dream.