Greed, like many of the silent film classics, is remarkable not only for its considerable cinematic qualities but also for everything it anticipates. As the definitive example of a deeply personal masterpiece butchered by the studios, Greed (like The Magnificent Ambersons and Touch of Evil and Once Upon a Time in America) cannot be viewed or discussed without committing the intentional fallacy. For a contemporary viewer, the experience of the movie cannot be separated from its troubled history; that the Greed which exists is only a fragment of Von Stroheim's original, destroyed vision forces us to consider what it isn't as much as what it is. In its 130-minute version (I hope to see the 1999 reconstruction soon), there are hints in nearly every scene of a bigger, stranger masterpiece; luckily, what remains is a stark, technically stunning morality play with a powerful emotional impact.
Erich von Stroheim's adaptation of the Frank Norris novel McTeague is an intimate epic, a simply plotted character study played out on a vast chronological and aesthetic scale. The story revolves dentist John McTeague (Gibson Gowland), his best friend Marcus (Jean Hersholt), and his wife Trina (Zasu Pitts), and the ways their lives are changed when Trina wins $5000 in a lottery. What begins as a romantic vision of human behavior - Marcus, who is courting Trina when Mac meets her, selflessly steps aside for his friend - quickly turns sour as Trina's money becomes a source of envy and distrust for all three parties. Even in 1924 it was hardly a new idea to trace the corrupting influence of money; what astonishes in Greed is von Stroheim's unsparing eye, which creates an emotional directness rare for the silent era. When an impoverished, bitter Mac responds to Trina's plea "Don't you love me?" by clocking her, the moment is so sharp that, even after eighty-plus years of far stronger and more graphic violence, one cannot help but wince. Von Stroheim observes his characters' spiritual decay with a clinical gaze, letting the story unfold with a methodical pace that gives every moment equal time and resonance; one can see in Greed the beginnings of a classical approach to cinema that anticipates the formal innovations of Welles, Hitchcock and Kubrick, among others.
Should it sound too much like a dry academic exercise, Greed is also filled with exuberant moments of cinematic play. Throughout the film, von Stroheim uses animals to underscore the cruelty of his characters, Mac's affection for birds culminating in an image of a cat pouncing at a canary that punctuates the news of his sudden misfortune. Von Stroheim is cynical but never dour, observing the psycholocial violence his characters inflict not with moralism but with a wry detachment. The film is also a visual marvel, Von Stroheim's preference for deep focus making each penetrating moment impossible to overlook. When the film arrives at its ending, set in Death Valley, Von Stroheim manages to reduce his drama to its most essential elements, with the external landscape mirroring the characters' internal emptiness. While I fear that comparing the final moments to those of a certain recent film involving drainage will make me seem like the archetypal 21st-century film student unable to decipher old movies without reference points to stuff I saw three months ago, I did make that connection and it only made me appreciate the remarkable ongoing influence of von Stroheim's nearly century-old film.
It's impossible to know what the ideal form of Greed might have been; certainly this one feels cruelly abbreviated in places, though nine hours honestly strikes me as an Empire-like exercise in tedium. Perhaps the ideal is somewhere in the middle, but the tragedy is that we'll never be able to make this decision for ourselves. And while the entire concept of a "director's cut" has been co-opted as a marketing tool - a way to screw the director and squeeze out more showtimes during a film's theatrical run while goosing DVD sales later - the disdain shown by MGM to von Stroheim is unimaginable today. Little did the studio execs know that, in cutting apart Greed, they were guranteeing endurance for a film that is as relevant as it has ever been.