Film 10 : Greed

Greed (1925) dir. Erich von Stroheim.  USA.

‘Indeed the film is realistic. Opening scenes were shot in the very gold mine that Norris wrote about; it was reopened for the movie. The San Francisco dentist’s office was not a set but a real second-floor office, which still exists. Von Stroheim could have shot his desert scenes outside Palm Springs, but insisted on shooting in the 120-degree heat of Death Valley itself; the camera had to be cooled with iced towels. Some of his crew mutinied and others complained. Von Stroheim slept with his pistol, and as his two actors engaged in their death struggle he screamed: “Fight! Fight! Try to hate each other as you hate me!”

[…]The original version of “Greed” is perhaps a masterpiece more lamented than missed; there is a point after which an audience will simply not sit still. Even von Stroheim’s friend Jones wondered if it could be shown “on the installment plan,” and muses about how “German professors sit for years before they develop sitzfleish,”loosely translated as iron rumps. My own feeling, having seen both versions, is that movie lovers will want to begin with the familiar 140-minute film (which after all is a great experience) and then, if their curiosity is aroused, look at Schmidlin’s version to get an idea of all they have missed.

The surviving “Greed” is an uncompromising exercise in naturalism, capturing the rough working-class lives of the new U.S. cities, where saloons doubled as living rooms…’

— Roger Ebert

Abigail:  This film is – thorough.  And I do mean that as a euphemism for long.  As basically everyone laments, it was originally nine and a half hours, and boy were they great.  I tend to agree with the studio.  This is not a story, despite the lofty title, that requires more than a few hours to tell.  And von Stroheim does an admirable job telling it, while also building a rich and realistic world.  For the first stretch, I thought perhaps this was worth the time it took – maybe von Stroheim is creating the model for mini-series.  As time progressed, however, it became very clear that he was just unwilling to kill his darlings, and trim the b-story plots that threaten to strangle the already thin main narrative.  This is a great step towards realism.  The people on the street are not just extras, but characters that add to fabric of the piece.  My personal opinion is that the book could have made a fine movie, if adapted properly, but as a nine hour epic all of its faults were given plenty of time to rear their ugly heads.

Forrest:  “Greed” is the sort of film that works better as an idea than a movie.  It’s the sort of film that people are compelled to put on great movies lists, but no one actually seems to like.  It’s the sort of film that was such a tremendous and horrendous undertaking that no one can quite bring themselves to say that it’s just OK.  And for a movie that originally ran over 9 hours, OK just isn’t really good enough.  That’s not to say it’s not without features of interest.  It almost pioneers the idea of a miniseries — the first half is a swirling panorama of life — but then von Stroheim seems to get bored with his secondary characters and focuses exclusively and detrimentally on his central duo.  There’s some exquisite camerawork, and there are moments of clarity and grace.  But at the end of the day the film can’t escape the fact that its characters and petty and its story shallow.  The version we watched was four hours long, although nearly half that time consisted of Ken-Burns-style pans over production stills and title cards with quotes from the original novel to fill us in on the story.  The studio cut ran a bit over two hours.  The lost seven hours of film are (so says a portentous title at the beginning of the DVD)  “the Holy Grail” of film history.  Well, maybe.  But recall that when Indiana Jones found the Grail he decided it was better for it to stay lost.

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