Thursday, 13 July 2017

Can’t buy you love… Greed (1924), BFI with Stephen Horne

Back in 2011 I’d watched the ARTE four-hour “restored” version of Erich von Stroheim's Greed but seeing a mere 132-minute version projected with live music really brought the core of the story emphatically to life.I'm not saying I agree with MGM's decision to strip down vonStroheim's vision but what's left is still so good it's better than most films.

Stephen Horne accompanied in style matching the film tonally and synchronising mood but also style as he played along on accordion as Mac squeezed out hymns to Trina on the unglamourous Oakland beach. Stephen’s played to Greed before but not that frequently which made these perfectly sequenced multi-instrumental moments all the more impressive.

Decades of practice makes for perfect and had the film been nearer its original length of 9-10 hours; I’m sure he would have kept pace (possibly with a break or four...). As it was, the accordion, flute, piano – whether played straight, deliberately-distorted with paper placed on the strings, or with those same strings plucked – and other effects matched and enhanced one of the most distinctive and brutally believable of all silent films.

Zasu Pitts
I deliberately wait to watch the “cannon” projected and with live music (and maybe one day someone will screen Sunrise without a pre-recorded score and I’ll see that too!) and the connection and experience of the work is always better. An informed and sympathetic audience helps too and those of us sheltering from 30-degree London knew full well that we were swapping rare metropolitan summertime for even rarer classic film.

Von Stroheim wanted to film the whole of Frank Norris' 1899 novel McTeague but everyone, except him, knew it was impossible. But what remains is unsettlingly life-like... rich in the details of everday desparation and human failure.

Gibson Gowland
The cast were chosen for their looks and not in a John Gilbert or Norma Talmadge way… Gibson Gowland is rough-around-the-edges McTeague a man who cares for small birds but with suitable provocation might throw you down a ravine if you crossed him. His best buddy Marcus is played by a Jean Hersholt realistically out of condition and in ill-fitting clothes and slicked down hair whilst the woman who comes between them, Trina, is played by Zasu Pitts like a cross between a drugged-up Lillian Gish and Stan Laurel. Pitts is the standout performer here and her transition from scared little mouse to deranged miser is played out through her manic saucer eyes and protean contortions the equal of Lon Chaney’s.

Her Trina is terrified of McTeague, none more so than on their wedding night but sublimates all in the pursuit of more money; a psychosis derived from either winning $5000 on the lottery, marrying her brutal dentist or both.

Jean Hersholt and Gibson Gowland
If there’s one sequence that gives away the film’s tone and the director’s signalling it’s this marriage which takes place in McTeague’s dental practice. As the vows are being read the camera looks down on the priest and couple then, with stunning deep-focus, reveals a crowd outside watching a funeral procession: in the midst of life (and this film) we can expect death. Stephen made light work of this unexpected duality and the moment had me in mind of Mahler’s First Symphony when the composer interweaved a funeral march with a folk dance; a mix he remembered having experienced as a child.

The funeral procession passes by outside during the vows...
If Trina’s character is mercurial McTeague’s an open book: a “slow-witted “man with anger issues. It’s interesting that von Stroheim dedicated the film to his mother as of the two mothers featured in Greed, one, McTeague’s, spends her life worrying about what might become of her son whilst the other, Trina’s, is a good old German mutter - about which Erich would know plenty - prone to cartoonish exploits with her husband and their three smaller children.

Mother McTeague pleads with her wastrel husband in a restored sequence (still only)
I re-watched the reconstruction and the story is a much fuller one – there’s an opening sub-plot dealing with McTeague’s father, a drunkard who spends all his time and money on booze and other vices, ignoring his poor wife’s entreaties to give her money… as well as much more details on those living in the block where McTeague’s dental practice is located, especially Maria the Mexican who sells the unwanted junk she is given to a man called Zerkow. Zerkow becomes obsessed himself with the idea of hidden treasure denied to him by Maria but this sub plot is missing entirely from the studio cut. 

Zerkow dreams of golden avarice are restored in still form for the ARTE restoration.
The reduced version still works though as it focuses on the main three characters… it’s less novelistic but still compelling in detail and the patient way von Stroheim dismantles good humour, civilised behaviour and all hope.

It does remind me of Zola and other late nineteenth century "realists" and the characters are largely doomed mostly by their own decisions. Their world is horrible and not unlike our own: how would we act in Greed?

The closing section is remarkable, prefiguring dozens of desert pursuits in later westerns, it shows the options fatally running out for men, horses and even birds. The story is wound up by a classic device which rams home the central point that the consequences of selfishness are terminal and damning in this world not just the next.

Death Valley '24
Greed was shot by von Stroheim entirely on location including weeks in Death Valley for this sequence. That’s a measure of his insane commitment to make something “real” and possibly lasting. Despite his torment at the studio’s butchery, posterity holds his film up not only as one of the greats but also as a missed opportunity for Hollywood to advance the art of movie making. Of course, they were never going to take the chance…  We mourn what was lost and savour what remains of this unique production.

The tinted birds in the restoration may indicate the connection between gold and freedom?
Bizarrely only a Spanish DVD is available of the film – industry indifference having passed down through generations of marketing and product development staff... When there are so many inferior films on Blu-ray you wonder how a such things come to pass. This is a major film, surely the film studies market alone is enough to justify a release of the ARTE restoration? That’s me as a publishing professional speaking and not as a silent movie fan… if you don’t monetise the great legacy of silent film you have to fight harder to preserve it and this is a golden (yes, on purpose) opportunity to do just that.

But. All this aside, huge props to the BFI for screening the film twice and for getting not only Stephen but the excellent John Sweeney to play along the previous week. I cannot complain at all about the quality and content!!

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