Greed (1924) Director: Erich von Stroheim
Greed is often included on lists of the greatest films of the silent era, and was directed by the eccentric Austrian-American director, Erich von Stroheim. It is based on the 1899 novel called “McTeague” by Frank Norris. Stroheim, upon emigrating to America, claimed he was royalty – a count – and there is considerable discussion about his lack of German fluency, as well as his dubious claims about his past. He spoke feeble German, most memorably as a character in Renoir’s La Grande Illusion and later in Sunset Boulevard. Stroheim started his career working under D.W. Griffith, most notably as an uncredited role in Intolerance. He is celebrated as one of the three great early directors, along with Cecile B. DeMille and D.W. Griffith. He died in 1957 at his chateau near Paris, France.
The film tells the story of a miner posing as a San Francisco dentist named McTeague who marries his best friend, Schouler’s girlfriend. Her name Trina. Suddenly Trina wins the lottery, a handsome sum of $5,000 but they refuse to spend any of it. An angry Schouler reports to the authorities that McTeague does not have his license to practice dentistry and he and Trina soon fall into poverty. Eventually, McTeague murders Trina, by beating her to death, and he takes the money and runs away to Placer county and Death Valley with the remaining money that hasn’t been spent. Soon, Schouler confronts him and they fight as McTeague’s horse takes of running and Schouler shoots the horse blasting open the only water jug he had. McTeague beats Schouler to death but Schouler has handcuffed himself to McTeague and the film ends with McTeague handcuffed to a corpse, with no water, and out of reach of the last of the lottery money.
The film was originally much longer, it was 42 reels in total, but was severely edited by the studio and others, much to the chagrin of von Stroheim, so that the heavily truncated version we see today is only 10 reels long. The film was a box office flop, receiving mostly poor reviews, and it took at least 9 months to 2 years to film. Many of the original scenes were hand drawn over to be gold-tinted by von Stroheim, however the original has been lost forever. It received mostly negative reviews and even caused a riot upon its release in Berlin. The riot was believed to have been caused by the Nazi party.
Although it is popularly considered a masterpiece of early cinema, Greed is a painfully difficult film to stomach, both for its length as well as the poor quality of the surviving film. I recommend this film only to those devoted fans of classic film who have the patience and appreciation for early film.