How Do You Address the Scope of Erich von Stroheim’s Greed?
Note: This is the hundred-and-twenty-sixth in a series of historical/critical essays examining the best in film from each year. Essentially, I am watching films from the beginning of cinematic history that interest me and/or hold some critical or cultural impact. My personal, living list of favorites is being created at Mubi, showcasing five films per year. All this being explained, what follows is an examination of my favorite 1924 film, GREED, directed by Erich von Stroheim.
I feel I often get a little too meta when writing about films wrapped up in decades of coverage and esteem. After writing 125 (about to be 126) of these things, some still give me pause; I can’t figure out an angle. But if there is to be one movie on my favorites list to address not purely its content but its very existence, it is Erich von Stroheim’s GREED.
A more apt title could not be assigned to a von Stroheim project. The Austrian-American actor and director already had a reputation, based on his previous four features, for an…attention to detail. He was a perfectionist and went over budget, is what I mean. By the end of the decade, this reputation would catch up to him, putting him out of work as a director for the rest of his career (although later acting roles, such as in LA GRANDE ILLUSION  and SUNSET BOULEVARD  cemented his place in cinematic history). But if GREED was the only picture he ever made, von Stroheim would still be counted as one of the mad geniuses of film’s early years. It’s quite incredible that a man who claimed Austrian aristocracy made one of the most seminal American works of art ever.
The legend of GREED looms large. The original print ran about ten hours. Some of the vaunted few that saw that film claimed it was the greatest ever made. But the newly formed MGM, a studio that would come to be known for not necessarily indulging crazy artists and instead funneling their talent into marketable releases, was not having it. Through a series of production hand-offs from on high (primarily from wunderkind producer Irving Thalberg), the film was edited down to 140 minutes. It’s a testament to GREED, then, that decades after its initial bomb in theaters, its lost material was still talked about in curious whispers and its existing form still praised. In fact, it still ended up in conversations about the best things put to screen.
Thankfully, more than the two-hour-twenty-minute version of GREED has been discovered since, and in 1999, a TCM restoration brought the run time to four hours, the most complete state of the film we’re likely to ever get (and the version I’ve watched). And while GREED is indeed spectacular for other reasons, there is something inherently audacious and impressive about its scope alone. For some, the extreme run time would be off-putting or boring; for me, it pulls a tremendous amount of artistic weight by itself.
Of course, a four-hour Adam Sandler movie or something would be a different story (although now I want to know what that would look like). GREED is clearly doing important things beyond the “shallowness” of how long it is. But in its very commitment to a long story, the pace it keeps and the story it tells and its visual acuity only stand out more. It literally has more time to leave an impression.
That impression is that GREED is unlike any Hollywood movie of its time, or for some time to come. It doesn’t even feel like an American movie, in spite of the fact that it tells a truly American story. Oh sure, the on-location shooting is convincing. San Francisco is realized through von Stroheim’s (potentially deluded) dedication to ~~realism~~. But in his adaptation of Frank Norris’ 1899 novel MCTEAGUE, von Stroheim illustrates a vivid picture of an ecosystem, the neighborhood where the titular character practices dentistry then falls into absolute poverty. The foibles of the characters around McTeague, and his and his wife’s own, are so perfectly archetypal that they boomerang through Hollywood’s own affinity for simple iconography and enter Greek tragedy status. They are simultaneously presented with an artistic distance (something much less American) and a corrupt, all-consuming sort of dark ambition (something very American).
Look, read the GREED Wikipedia page or something if you want a full rundown of its complicated history. But more importantly, watch the film however you can. It’s baffling, but the film has never been released (in a tolerable form) on North American DVD or Blu-ray. But somehow, the TCM version is rentable on YouTube. Let the depth of the film wash over.