Cinematic masterpieces never see the light of a projector for three prominent reasons. Carelessness, as in the fire which consumed sword and sandal epic Cleopatra (1917). Untimely death, as in auteur Orson Welles unfinished The Other Side of the Wind. Studio intervention, as in the case of Greed. Stroheim’s quintessential masterpiece is praised by critics and film lovers alike, but it is a shadow of the primordial behemoth. Sliced and diced from nine hours to 140 minutes, Stroheim ostracised himself from the project broken hearted. In the late seventies, filmmaker Kim Eveleth discovered a cache of stills whilst researching for a documentary and paved the way for a four and a half hour restoration. No living soul has seen Greed in its entirety. Whether this is a relief or a shame is perhaps something best left to speculation, but the restoration stirs a shiny and enticing emblem from the ashes.
At 140 minutes, Greed is complete. The narrative of anti-hero McTeague’s tragic life from simple desires of an honest job and the woman he loves, to the vices of booze and money is an exemplary tragedy. Stroheim’s attention to subtlety of character action and reaction allows us to sympathise with beings slowly shedding morality. McTeague smelling the perfume of the anaesthetised Trina is both creepy and endearing, but only in the hands of a master filmmaker.
In the restoration, sub plots are incorporated which were excluded entirely from the initial cut. The obsessions of money crazed Maria and junkman Zerkow dreaming of gold plates, and the charming romance of Miss Baker and Mr Grannis are intriguing though superfluous additives. These characters should expand the exploration of the many insidious forms greed can assume, but instead hardly address anything unencountered by the protagonists. McTeague and Trina begin as a loving couple interested in simple happiness, but a sudden appearance of a large sum of money warps their lives. McTeague transforms from gentle giant to drunken brute and Trina slowly becomes consumed with polishing dazzling piles of money and even sleeping with her beloved cash. These degradations of morality are engaging for their transformations, rather than the supporting characters remaining consistently absolute.
And so the trouble begins.
Stroheim was a stickler for authenticity and exact detail and this is both a blessing and a curse for Greed. Though not as extravagant a budget as Foolish Wives, the director weaves a grand story with epic vision on real locations. The blackened mines churning shimmering gold from the Earth and the dentistry where McTeague practices his unlawful skills are real working locations. Whilst this may not seem an important choice, (films constantly achieve wondrous results from master set builders), this authenticity shines through in sequences. The searing climax in Death Valley is excellently written, but the desperation and pain of the heat is not faked and this emanates through the actors. If any director will endure weeks of a hundred degree heat for realism, it is Stroheim.
Unfortunately, the obsession with detail caused the majority of Greed’s infamy. Still running under half the initial cut, Greed seems as if every page of Norris’ book has appeared on screen. It begs the question whether any film ever need be so long to develop when such a strong narrative was found at a little over two hours. The philosophy of Antoine De Saint-Exupery rings true in this situation, ‘Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away’.
Though Stroheim appears to dissect Frank Norris’ original novel McTeague in its entirety, he does explore the bleak sentiments without fear. The director’s rendition is an inauspicious reflection of excess in the flappers and Fitzgerald 20s from the point of view of those in search of it. No one could have realised how timely the study of working class struggles on the peripheral of riches and the downfall of money would be with the Wall Street Crash lurking at the edge of the decade.
MGM’s first feature length movie endured as many tortures in production as the characters in the narrative. Stroheim’s infamous fight with Louis B Mayer, mass illness in the sweltering Death Valley heat, and the eventual struggle with nemesis Thalberg’s edits led to a film of what ifs. But like the gold, hand painted on to the film cells of Greed, the darkness of the possibilities is outshone by the genius of what remains.
McTeague slumps to floor. The ground as cracked and dry as his lips. No water, no transport and no hope remains in the heat and silence. In a last effort, the tragic hero releases his golden canary from the cage. The bird flutters briefly before falling dead on the empty canister, leaving McTeague to ruin with his riches.