Director: Erich von Stroheim
Starring: Gibson Gowland, Zasu Pitts, Jean Hersholt
Y’know, before I ever saw Greed, I was really looking forward to watching it. Greed has an enormous reputation; it’s on many Best Of lists, and it’s highly regarded by critics. It had a tremendous build up for me. And then I watched it. And then it was four hours of caricatures flailing about. And I was like “what… the… fuck…”
I should really stop looking forward to things.
McTeague (Gowland) is a miner in California whose mother dreams of a better life for him, and gets him a position as an apprentice to a dentist. When he opens up his own dentistry office, he befriends Marcus Schouler (Hersholt), who lives in the same building, and through Marcus, meets Marcus’ cousin Trina (Pitts). McTeague falls for Trina and sets about courting her. Things are going well, the wedding is planned, Marcus gives his consent, and then Trina wins five thousand dollars in the lottery. And over the course of the next three hours of your life, everything goes massively downhill for every single character in the film.
Greed, based on Frank Norris’ book McTeague, reminds me of when I had to read Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie for a history course. My reaction to that book is virtually identical to my reaction to Greed: tiresome. Utterly and completely tiresome. Both literary works were published within a year of one another, both follow many years in their characters lives, both have long and rather cumbersome plots, both speak to the social norms and mores of Victorian America, and both are bleak and depressing. And you know what? I didn’t really care for Sister Carrie. Its sensationalism did little to intrigue me. Ditto for Greed. You can make the movie as wide and expansive as you want, Mr. von Stroheim, it still won’t change the fact that I am so utterly uninterested in these characters and what happens to them. And when von Stroheim makes the decision to have this thing be a lumbering eight hour long monstrosity, you’ve almost certainly lost me from the word “go.” (Thank the lord the eight hour version no longer exists; half its length is more than enough of a struggle, thankyouverymuch.)
A large reason for this is because nearly every single character is just a cartoon. Marcus is our first major entry to the contest of “Who’s the Most Ridiculous?” Even before the MONEY CORRUPTS message starts to get thrown at you from every angle, Marcus is already entering rooms by throwing his heels up and gadding around like a lunatic. Things only get worse when he starts to be tortured by the feeling that he somehow deserves Trina’s lottery winnings, because Marcus is incapable of doing anything with a modicum of self-reserve. Watching him is like watching a meth addict go through the violent phase of detox. In every. single. scene.
Up next in “Who’s the Most Ridiculous?” is Trina. Trina’s fairly standard-issue silent film heroine fare for the first hour when she’s courted by McTeague and before she wins the lottery. Of course, this involves an awful lot of mugging and sighing and clutching and gasping, but still, that’s pretty standard for silent films. Unfortunately, just as her character starts to get a bit interesting and nonstandard as Trina becomes utterly obsessed with her cash, the performance goes so ridiculously over the top that it becomes difficult to appreciate what’s going on. Apparently, Pitts thought that the only way to possibly convey Trina’s poisoned mind was by continually squinting as though she was having eye spasms and holding up a finger to her mouth. For the entire second half of the film. And don’t even get me started on her hat made of hair. Of all the…
Our final entry is, sadly, McTeague himself. What starts out as a promising character, one who will manage to somehow not turn into exactly the type of demonic brute Gowland is made up to look like, holds out for most of the film. Uncharacteristically displaying a degree of sensitivity and, dare I say, subtlety, everything goes to hell with about an hour and a half left in the movie. What had been a surprisingly sympathetic character turns into exactly the type of monster you would expect, what with rage issues, violence issues, and a rather complete abandonment of reason, and Gowland doesn’t try to present it in any other way than glowering meanly at the camera and flailing his limbs about.
So all three major characters manage to be completely bonkers and the actors playing them, not much better. Quite frankly, it’s not really worth my time or effort going into the ridiculousness that is the supporting parts. There’s Trina’s father, the Kaiser whose over the top German accent managed to make the intertitles a joke; Maria and Zwerkow, the junk obsessed equivalents of Dickens’ scroungers in A Christmas Carol only less appealing; and the eye-roll inducing parents of McTeague, who thankfully both die before the we get too far into the movie. Oh, was that insensitive? I just sat through four hours of this garbage, I’m past the point of caring.
And yet for all of the “mother of all that is holy when will this self-induced torture end,” there is some interesting, quality stuff in Greed. First of all, it is kind of intriguing watching the different characters be affected by money in different ways. Trina’s odd obsession with her winnings, which becomes fully sexualized when she lets her hair hat down and rolls around in bed naked with her money, is memorable, to say the least. Marcus is immediately poisoned into distrusting his friend. Maria dies based on the mere suggestion of money. And honestly, it’s a bit sad (for, like, a second) to see McTeague finally be corrupted. The ending of the film, which finds McTeague and Marcus in the middle of Death Valley with no water and no transport and no prospects for survival, managed to retain some power (despite the fact that I was desperate for it to be over). And I’ll give von Stroheim credit: Greed is unexpectedly gory. When characters are killed, we see it. We see blood streaming down faces, bits of body parts falling off, all of it surprisingly graphic for 1924. There isn’t really any shying away from violence in Greed.
Are you thinking about watching Greed? Here, let me spare you four hours of your time: Money corrupts people. Got it? Good, go do something else with your life.
Arbitrary Rating: 5/10.