This past weekend I was fortunate enough to see Erich von Stroheim’s Greed (1924) projected in 35mm with live accompaniment at the Somerville Theatre, which is fast becoming one of the best repertory houses the greater Boston area. (It is, I believe, one of the only theaters in the United States to sport a permanently installed 70mm projection system.) I don’t think I had seen Greed since the four-hour reconstructed version aired to much fanfare on Turner Classic Movies in 1999. The film is so obviously a masterpiece that even in its manifold, always-already-imperfect forms (the version screened at the Somerville was the two-hour MGM cut) it is never less than riveting to watch: there were moments during Sunday’s screening when I was so gripped by the sublime weirdness of this movie that I found myself grinning like an idiot. It invokes the same giddy/crazed feeling that truly great horror movies like The Shining do, along with Paul Thomas Anderson’s better efforts, which I suppose is unsurprising when one considers that Greed is something of a horror movie in its own right, and that Anderson’s There Will Be Blood owes much to it.
Greed combines the cute regionalism and local color of D. W. Griffith with the perverse fatalism of Lars von Trier (like von Stroheim, another filmmaker who reinvented his own name as an act of self-mythologizing) and the blithe kinkiness of Luis Buñuel. This film is a vision of America as chock-a-block with grotesque, vicious, scheming, ugly people--outwardly “nice” folks who are all one moment of weakness away from violence and mendacity. McTeague and Trina (Gibson Gowland and Zasu Pitts) slowly degenerate from gormless young lovers to haggard lowlifes, doubled against the minor characters Maria and Zerkow, who live in what might best be described as Gothic abjection. (This subplot, which bears some resemblance to the Wegg/Venus/dust-heaps storyline in Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend, was regrettably cut from the two-hour version of the film.) McTeague’s friend and Trina’s cousin Marcus (Jean Hersholt) is a small-minded nose-picker who wears tacky clothes. At table, Trina's family members gorge themselves like animals (see below). It’s significant that one of the film’s sweeter moments occurs when McTeague courts Trina by playing his concertina for her while they sit on a sewer tank. (Von Stroheim’s Foolish Wives ends with the body of the villain being dumped in a cesspool.)
Having not read Frank Norris’ McTeague (the novel on which Greed is based), it’s hard to say how much of that cynicism is his and how much is von Stroheim’s. But it’s worth noting that von Stroheim’s other films are similarly despairing—not to mention similarly keyed in to routines of sadism, masochism, and all manner of kink. The foot fetishism in The Merry Widow caused censorship problems; Greed itself contains an erotically charged scene in which Trina leans up to kiss McTeague by standing on his boots. A cut scene from Foolish Wives depicts von Stroheim cross-dressed in stockings and a garter belt, biting Mae Busch’s fingers—a motif that recurs throughout Greed. His films betray the fetishist’s obsession with uniforms, leather boots, gloves. And let us not forget that Greed originally contained a scene in which a Trina rubs her hoard of gold coins all over her naked body. Was the original cut of this film—in addition to being too long—simply too fucked up for MGM to give it its seal of approval? Even in its butchered form, Greed remains one of the most delightfully nasty films ever to come out of the studio system.