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100 Years of Greed

Joshua Peinado  •  07.07.2024

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Greed (1924)

Erich Von Stroheim existed in the contradictions of capital, at once one of the preeminent filmmakers of his time and yet still a discarded worker—a defective cog in the studio machine whose artistry outstretched the conditions of his labor. As an immigrant to America, he found great fame in the uncompromising visions of the world portrayed by his films. However, just as quickly as he found success, he discovered such unabstracted portraits of the perils of wealth were not tolerated among the capitalist class. Time was a canvas as expansive as Stroheim’s budgets would allow. Ever the precisian, he faced a twofold dilemma—to realize his vision uncompromisingly risked butchery; contrarily, aligning his taste with the quotidian would leave him to the atomizing churn of history. Though only six of his films have seen a proper public release, almost all sanded down from their originally intended versions, Stroheim’s caliginous cinema cuts through the attempted obfuscation of its critical nature.


Born in 1885 to two middle class Jewish parents, Stroheim abandoned his roots in Austria and took to America under a new name—assuming the identity of nobility. He navigated years of uncertainty before finding himself under the tutelage of D.W. Griffith and John Emerson. Stroheim most famously worked with Griffith on Intolerance: Love’s Struggle Throughout the Ages (1916) and on Emerson’s His Picture in the Papers (1916) as an assistant director. Allan Dwan, another of Griffith’s ‘students’, saw promise in the young Stroheim and cast him in what would be a decidedly archetypal villainous role in Panthea (1917), eventually taking him on as an assistant. Stroheim found steady work in Hollywood, and his first directorial effort was only a few years later with Blind Husbands (1919). Audiences ‘loved to hate him’ on screen, but in the director’s chair he was a certified box office sensation. Blind Husbands outgrossed the average five-reeler of its time nearly six times over, and Stroheim became a studio darling. This sentiment wouldn’t last, however.  As voguish as his films were, Stroheim’s untimely exile from Hollywood speaks to the limitations inherent to the newly formed studio machine. 


In his films Stroheim was most concerned with realism, adopting an understated socialist edge that rarely announces itself in speeches, but makes itself known in the fated, operatic downfall of its richest personas. Stroheim was frank about matters of sex and class, and startlingly progressive in his depictions of women as agents of their own free will and desires. His cinema was not vain in its beauty, though it is glamorous; effusive in its spectacle, but not tied to it; a careful chiaroscuro, brief moments of sampled light that elucidate the nature of his creations, and of the world—something resembling a gilded cage. The rich are tawdry, abstruse, and ignorant, though not naive to these facts. More profoundly, the films are of those of simple movements with great effect: both its characters and its construction are played so that even the slightest change in their nature cuts through an audience like a knife. 


These pictures are colored with notions of fatalism—helpless people, in attempts to escape their fate, seal it. Often, this appears as a person of lower class trying to break out from their poverty, or otherwise thrust into riches. Whether it is Kitty Kelly in Queen Kelly, or Count Wladislaw Sergius Karamzin in Foolish Wives, the pursuit of wealth is illustrated starkly and unambiguously as a path towards self-destruction. His most legendary film, Greed (1924), is the obvious example of this. Adapted from the Frank Norris novel McTeague (1899), Stroheim’s film was originally to run 42 reels, tracing the lives of its protagonists along two other counterexamples to what they could become. The film was cut down by studio executives at MGM to just 10 reels, discarding to history the grand narrative and thematic threads Stroheim had weaved. To the current day, Stroheim’s original Greed has only been shown in an official capacity once and the original reels are said to have been burned. 


Greed opens its iris to Placer County, California circa 1908—home to the Big Dipper Gold Mine and John McTeague or “Mac”(Gibson Gowland). The initial three minutes of the film communicate an incredible amount of information to the audience without the use of intertitles, as Stroheim generally tended to shy away from such direct expository elements. A gradual fade between the pines and the smoke of a chimney leads the audience to a Californian style stamp mill. The stamp mill features ten ‘stamps’ or large steel rods which function as their name suggests—coming down to crush rocks and ore and revealing the gold hidden inside. In the film, the mill is initially framed in a wide shot, with the rhythm of the stamps acting as a visual percussive element that drives the scene forward to a close-up of the extraction, where Stroheim has hand-tinted slivers of gold using the Handschiegl color process. The worker sifts through the collected remains of the mill and uncovers these nuggets, as lucent and vivid peering through mud as they were in the pressing. 

Handschiegl’s effect is marvelous—every nugget of gold is rendered a brilliant yellow, magnifying their hypnotic draw not only to the characters but to the audience. The color process was first used in Cecil B DeMille’s Joan the Woman (1917) and Devil Stone (1917) and in DW Griffith’s Intolerance (1917) as well as post-1916 prints of Birth of a Nation (1915). Every color applied warranted a separate print, colored with an opaque paint. From Barbara Fluekiger’s Timeline of Historical Film Colors, “A tanning developer hardened the gelatin in the exposed areas while leaving the blocked-out areas soft. The softer parts absorbed the acid dyes which were then transferred onto the positive print during an imbibition process.

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Greed (1924)

The rest of the opening follows Mac among the other miners, as he presses his way through the throng to an adit that opens to a cliffside minetrack. On the road, he finds a discarded canary, and presses it to his lips. Stroheim shoots the gesture in three movements—first, a wide shot of Mac discovering the bird; second, a medium close up framed principally around Mac’s hands which contain the bird; and finally, an extreme close up of the kiss. The motion carries all the weight of the buildup of closeness, ending on a disembodied pair of lips that cradle the bird in a more intimate way than they ever could in the shots building to the climax of the action. Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote on Stroheim’s use of these shot compositions in the May-June 1974 issue of Film Comment, “Some favorite devices, recurring frequently throughout Stroheim’s work: a long shot dissolving into a medium shot of the same character, a camera movement that turns a medium shot into a close-up... Each represents a different way of taking a closer look at someone—the first usually introduces characters, the second permits an increasing concentration of dramatic focus and detail.” 


The scene ends with Mac showing the bird to another worker, who throws it out of his hands. In anger, Mac heaves the body of the man above his shoulders and throws him down the cliffside, into a river. Arthur Lenning wrote on this scene in Stroheim (2007) noting, “[The scene] depicts Mac’s guileless naïveté in Griffith-like terms as he picks up and kisses an injured bird. Mac compassionately shows it to a fellow worker, who cruelly knocks it out of his hands. In anger, Mac throws the man down a deep gully. Thus, with great efficiency, Stroheim establishes Mac’s sensitivity, his strength, and his instinctive way of responding to events.” In ending the scene with the intertitle: “Such was McTeague,” Stroheim reveals his true nature to the audience in such a way that his later outbursts seem more fated than reactive. 


Of course, this is all just a prologue to the real story at hand—for just moments later, a giant, gaudy golden tooth will come rolling into town, sitting atop a wagon driven by a traveling dentist. Mac’s mother, enchanted by the possibility of a better, richer life for her son, encourages him to step into dentistry. This event kicks off Mac’s new life in San Francisco, where he starts a practice. Mac becomes infatuated with one of his patients, Trina (Zasu Pitts). The two’s lives become more and more entangled, until their eventual marriage, which is immediately preceded by Trina winning 5,000 dollars in the lottery (a total just over $100,000 when compared to today). The couple end up in countless spats over the money as Trina, ever the miser, seeks to hide it away and Mac grows ever more weary of their antiquated lifestyle in spite of their apparent riches. Greed ultimately reveals itself as a terror upon their domestic life, at once an entirely convincing character study of McTeague and further, a cautionary tale of the perils that come with rapacity. In its final act, the film turns its gaze to the most confounding and incredible settings it puts to screen, Death Valley—transforming itself into an epic western. 


Birds come to play a central role in the plot, as Stroheim uses birds as metaphors for relationships and people. Early on, Mac buys himself a bird, and then another for Trina when they are married. On the first night of their marriage they are left alone, Trina’s despair at the notion of being linked to Mac for life (or even just a night) is apparent, and her vision turns to the two caged birds who sit by Mac—forever linked in their prison, which Mac supposes makes them ‘love birds.’ Trina’s tears looking at the cage blur the image, creating a remarkable effect for the audience which prioritizes the character’s psychology and physical reaction to her setting in the makeup of the shot. The birds mirror Mac and Trina, not only in their domestic cage, but also in any injury, whether physical and emotional, that comes to the couple. When they fight, the birds fight. 


The birds are also used to great effect in Stroheim’s cross-cutting, a trait he inherited from Griffith, comes later in the film as Mac and Trina talk with Marcus (Jean Hersholt), who was originally set up with Trina. Though Marcus had earlier blown up at Mac over his jealousy of Mac’s newfound fortune in marrying her, he plays polite when saying his goodbyes to the couple. Stroheim cuts between the trio and the caged birds—now being stalked by a cat. If it couldn’t be any more obvious what the point of this cross-cutting is, Stroheim goes as far as to fade from an extreme close-up of the Cat and Marcus, as he bids them adieu. This cat-and-bird returns just a moment later when Mac receives a letter informing him that he must shut down his dentistry clinic, as someone has reported him for practicing without a license. As Mac, and so the audience, ingest the words on the paper—the cat strikes, leaping to take violent swipes at the birds in the cage which it cannot reach. 


Another critical example of cross-cutting comes near the onset of Mac and Trina’s relationship, as they sit under a train shelter, hiding themselves from a sudden storm which appears all the more sinister thanks to the use of a blue tinting. Mac asks Trina if she will marry him, and Trina’s face conveys nothing but fear at the prospect—maybe she’s overwhelmed with emotion, or more simply just has a prescient feeling about Mac’s true nature yet to be revealed to her. Mac grabs her, and leans in for a rather forceful kiss. As the two embrace, Stroheim cuts to a barreling train. As it passes through the frame, the engine partitions the kiss and so their relationship, as the tide of history and forces beyond their understanding propel them forward, as if to a fated track. Stroheim in this section excels in his language: “First… chance had brought them face to face: now… mysterious instincts, as ungovernable as the winds of the heavens, were knitting their lives together.”


Here arises Stroheim’s fatalism again, now written plain as day. The prose might trick one into thinking it’s sweet—the words dripping with a venusian honey that could convince even the coldest heart that Mac and Trina just might have found true love. Of course, the couple is fated to something far more sinister than romance, for just as quickly as their lives have been intertwined they will be torn apart by unforeseen wealth and greed. 

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