Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Currently Watching: "Greed" (1924)




Yikes.

That's about the only word that comes into my mind after finishing Eric von Stroheim's masterpiece.  The 1924 epic adaptation of Frank Norris's has become famous almost as much for its story than for its actual merit.  It's one of the many films - and one of the most famous - where the director and the studio clashed over final cut.  Von Stroheim spent unheard of sums to film the movie the way HE wanted to, ending in a 10-hour, extremely faithful adaptation.

It was seen once.

The studios asked him to re-cut.  He got it down to four hours.  The project was taken from him and cut by studio executives to 140 minutes, the version most readily available on video (the film has yet to be available on DVD).  The other footage was lost, destroyed in an incinerator by an MGM janitor.  In 1999, TCM used still photographs and a surviving shooting script to "fill in the blanks" and restore the film to 239 minutes, which is the version I watched.

There are few words that can possibly summarize "Greed."  It is such a personal, overwhelming statement on the frailties of the human condition, at once epic and intimate.  The simple change of fate with a woman winning 5,000 dollars has devastating effects for herself and the two men who love her.  The pace of the film starts a bit beyond slow, but Von Stroheim is faithful to his source while using the available film grammar of his time to its most proficient.

"Greed" is astounding to look at and beautifully performed.  It reminds us, especially now, of the foolishness of the economy, how cruel and unloving it can be.  "Greed" seems like a morality tale, with the titular "deadly sin" pervasively influencing each character into unspeakable acts of selfishness, but it is more of a sustained character study - what must have seemed a revelation in 1924.  The money influences the plot, but through the money the characters are continually forced to make choices - usually the wrong ones.

The last thirty or forty minutes of "Greed" are among the best I've ever seen.  The ending confrontation in the heart of Death Valley has become so quoted and so fondly remembered I'd rather not discuss it and encourage you to simply see it.  It all seems so simple, but it reaches so far into the core of our own potential corruption it's hard not to feel swayed and shaken.

Von Stroheim's career would forever be crushed by the remembrance of how MGM treated him.  Were "Greed" to survive in its 10 hour form it would be an entirely different experience.  As it stands, even at four hours, it feels like a funeral dirge in the best possible sense; the film marches slower and slower towards tragedy and towards a grave for each character.

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