Erich von Stroheim's 10-hour masterpiece-cum-folly, 1925's Greed, is the Holy Grail of Silent Film, a film which exists only in dusty script fragments, fading publicity stills, and the imaginations of dreamers.
Reviewed by Steve Uhler, Fri., April 11, 2003
D: Erich von Stroheim; with Zasu Pitts, Gibson Gowland, Jean Hersholt, Dale Fuller, Tempe Pigott.
Erich von Stroheim's 10-hour masterpiece-cum-folly, 1925's Greed, is the Holy Grail of silent film, a film which exists only in dusty script fragments, fading publicity stills, and the imaginations of dreamers. For more than 60 years, a butchered 120-minute facsimile was all that remained, but even that was powerful enough to make several lists of the 10 Greatest Films Ever Made. The detail-obsessed von Stroheim (who once ordered the Universal prop department to hand-sew hundreds of silk undergarments embroidered with the Prussian coat of arms -- even though they would never be seen onscreen) had read Frank Norris' fatalistic 1899 novel, McTeague, and was resolved to bring every sordid sentence to the screen. After the box office successes of his earlier films -- Blind Husbands and Foolish Wives -- the director was reluctantly given the go-ahead by studio bosses, resulting in what is arguably the most literal transference of a novel ever into film. The on-location filming in turn-of-the-century San Francisco is stunning, the squalid story unflinching, the downward spiral of a brutish dentist and his miserly wife after winning a $5,000 lottery as inevitable as the film's box-office failure with audiences. For Greed's climax, a fight to the death between two old friends filmed on location in the brutal 130-degree heat of Death Valley, von Stroheim shouted to his exhausted actors, "Fight! Fight! Try to hate each other as much as you both hate me!" The iconoclastic director's original 42-reel cut was seen once and once only, at a special preview screening. His nemesis, Irving Thalberg, ordered merciless cuts, until the final released version clocked in at a fragmentary two hours. In 1999, TCM sponsored a restoration utilizing over 600 stills, color tinting, and digital remastering of existing footage, approximating the director's original vision. It's as close as we'll ever get to von Stroheim's undiluted fever dream.