Sunday, 3 July 2011

Gloriously grotesque... Greed (1924)

I've just finished watching the near-four-hour restored version of Erich von Stroheim's "Greed". It took me a few sessions but it's definitely worth it to get a proper feel for how his vision for the fuller version of this once ten hours' long epic would have played out.

The film is renowned for its cost, its length and its director's ambition. Von Stroheim wanted to film the whole of Frank Norris' 1899 novel McTeague and he wanted to leave nothing out. His whole approach was uncompromising and stubbornly brave for a film of its period - any period really. The commercial pressure was no different in the early 20's from the era of "Heaven's Gate", Kubrick's never filmed "Napoleon" or any number of Francis Ford Coppola epics.

This tale of human frailty and the perverting, twisting power of greed pulls no punches either dramatically or visually. Von Stroheim cast an offbeat and strikingly un-attractive cast or at least one that didn't mind unforgiving lighting, unsympathetic make up and prolonged exposure via close ups. Gibson Gowland is McTeague, Jean Hersholt his buddy turned bitter nemesis Marcus and Zasu Pitts plays Trina who marries McTeague, wins the lottery and sets things off. All give honest and unflinching performances, but Pitts is particularly unsettling. She was more noted as a comedienne in her career bur maybe clowns make the transition to grotesquerie more easily than those more used to playing heroes?

There are few sympathetic characters in this film and almost all are made unpleasant by selfishness and a lack of human concern so prevalent in Hollywood then, now and forever. This is not a film to be taken for granted and it’s a hard, challenging experience.

It's paced like a book and reminds me of Zola and other late nineteenth century "realists". The characters are largely doomed and mostly by their own decisions. Their world is horrible and not unlike our own: how would we act in "Greed"?

The closing section is a work of genius, prefiguring dozens of desertpursuits 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.

Now...I think I need something light! Maybe Jean Harlow again in "Bombshell"!

But watch "Greed" if you haven't already seen it. Reconstructed youTube viewing here otherwise you'll have to track down a VHS copy; there's one left on Amazon!.

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