Screened as part of NZIFF 2001
In January of 1924 Erich von Stroheim began screening a rough cut of his first Goldwyn production, Greed, for selected groups of trade paper reporters and other friends in the industry. Over the next few months the reports of these screenings appeared in a variety of newspapers and trade magazines, in all cases bemoaning the fact that a work of such genius – and length – was certain to be cut to ribbons on eventual release by the studio. Thus was born the legend of ‘the complete Greed’, an unseen masterwork that soon came to be thought of as the ‘holy grail’ of the silent cinema.
The search for the grail continues, but in the meantime this reconstruction offers the best opportunity to date to experience something of von Stroheim’s original intentions. Using the final shooting script of 31 March 1923 as a blueprint, surviving von Stroheim footage has been carefully integrated with hundreds of stills documenting the lost episodes. In addition, von Stroheim’s controversial color scheme, which made substantial use of Handshiegl Process ‘natural color’ effects, has been reconstituted with the aid of recently discovered test frames.
Before he was removed from the project in the spring of 1924, von Stroheim had been able to reduce the film to approximately three hours and 40 minutes. But while MGM was happy to release Gone with the Wind at this length 15 years later, Greed went out at about two hours and 15 minutes. Although no new film footage has been added, the incorporation of still images from these previously cut scenes has now restored the running time to something very close to that of von Stroheim’s final cut. — Richard Koszarski, Pordenone Film Festival 1999
This version of Greed is primarily a reconstruction of the lost narrative structure, and should not be regarded as an attempt to recreate a ‘director’s cut’. My aim has to be to keep the work academically correct and at the same time to ensure that the original narrative is completely coherent and as accessible as Erich von Stroheim intended. In intercutting still production photographs with the surviving elements of the film, we have added original colour effects that were specified in a continuity screenplay dated 31 March 1923, and followed instructions in the same screenplay for irises, barn-doors, fade-ins and fade-outs. We have sought to give a rhythm, and to convey a proper understanding of von Stroheim’s structure and story development.
This version runs a little over four hours, so that we can guess the story content falls somewhere between that of the nine-and-a-half hour version and the final director’s cut of approximately four-and-a-half hours. A projection speed of 18 frames per second has seemed to be the optimum, allowing those scenes that were originally over or under cranked for special effect to flow naturally. The music is an original score by Robert Israel, except for the composition used in the wedding sequence, which was specifically called for by the screenplay…
The intention of this reconstruction was to reach the widest audience possible – principally through television, since that was the source of our funding. But at the same time we remained conscious of its future use for academic study, discussion and analytical dissection. Both types of user, academics as well as general audiences, had, we felt, the same need for the story to be told as faithfully as possible, in order to enhance understanding of a work whose loss, I believe, is the greatest in cinema history. — Rick Schmidlin, Pordenone Film Festival 1999
‘He can’t make small of me!’, proclaims the burly dentist McTeague at the San Francisco saloon-goers who witness his best friend throw a knife at him. Of course, McTeague’s buddy Marcus can make small of him, and does. In Greed, Erich von Stroheim, deploying streaks of mordant poetry, manages to make his characters small and big simultaneously. He reveals their petty lusts with a hyper-realistic intensity that builds to a naturalistic horror.
Von Stroheim is a master at uncovering creatures of the id, monsters buried inside not only a hulk like McTeague, but also his proper, increasingly miserly wife, Trina. Near the beginning, the glib, seemingly happy-go-lucky Marcus introduces Trina, then his girl, to McTeague. In a show of friendship, he even bows out so the dentist can move in on her. But Marcus can’t abide the thought of losing the $5,000 Trina wins in a lottery right after she and McTeague clinch their engagement. And Trina’s stash becomes her golden calf; she worships it and won’t let go of it. (Near the end, she sleeps with it.)
When Marcus sees that he won’t be able to guilt-trip McTeague into giving him some of the money (McTeague can’t get hold of it himself), he resorts to simple revenge, reporting McTeague for practicing dentistry without accreditation. Thus begins a three-coiled death spiral that culminates in the most appropriate setting imaginable: Death Valley…
Integrating lost subplots and supporting characters and crucial stretches of character development, the partly restored Greed conjures a forgotten universe of cinematic possibilities.
Von Stroheim’s combination of actual locations (it’s a valuable document of the San Francisco Bay Area in the early twentieth century), veracious action and novelistic details signals the road not taken to epic film adaptation – at least for five decades. Greed looks ahead to masterpieces like Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard (1963) and Francesco Rosi’s Christ Stopped at Eboli (1979): movies that encompass entire cross-sections of society yet also render character with startling intimacy…
The intelligence of von Stroheim’s and June Mathis’ adaptation and the vibrant details of his direction make it easy to accept the segues between moving pictures and illustrations. What’s wonderful about this version’s structure is that it allows even moments familiar from the cut version to expand in your mind. Seventy-five years of film history pulsate in this movie’s frames… — Michael Sragow, salon.com, 2/12/99