With some cinematic endeavors there is simply an aura that surrounds them which informs how we look at them. Erich von Stroheim’s ambitious silent film Greed is such a picture. To this day, a full cut of the film has never been found and perhaps never will be, but it has survived in two versions. A four hour cut which attempted to maintain the original continuity through stills and then a 2 and a half hour cut which I saw. So you could question whether I got the full experience of Greed or not, but that is almost beside the point, because the essence of this film is summed up in the title. True, it could just as easily be called sin, avarice, grudge, humanity, or all of the above. But allow me to explain more fully what I mean.
The narrative follows a slow-witted man named McTeague (Gibson Gowland), who picks up the dentistry trade from a traveling doctor. He moves to San Francisco and soon becomes smitten with the cousin of his boisterous pal Marcus (Jean Hersholt). Trina (Zasu Pitts) is quiet and a bit timid around a man as intimidating as McTeague, but they make it work. Soon enough they’re engaged and a lottery ticket Trina picked up on a whim pays off handsomely. $5,000 to be exact, and this is the 1920s! They’re getting on alright, because McTeague is still working and his wife is very, very frugal. But Marucs feels entitled and a grudge over the money ensues. He wants part of the cut, because he thinks he deserves some good fortune too. Things between him and John finally reach the boiling point and there’s no turning back. Rather than try and patch things up, Marcus decides to get into ranching and says goodbye to his formerly close friend, but not before serving up a little revenge. He sets the dentistry board on McTeague and since he doesn’t have a true credential, his right to practice is terminated.
The loss of John’s job is aggravated by the fact that Trina is increasingly stingy, never wanting to dip into her big payoff, even when they really need it. Gold in many ways has become her master, and it leads to marital turmoil. McTeague was always a big man, but usually quite gentle. But his inner fury is finally uncorked and in one angry outburst he goes so far as to bite his wife.
Mac leaves only to come back again and the results are not pretty. Soon he has a price on his head and he makes his way as a fugitive into the desert. And thus, the finale is shot on location in Death Valley, the perfect place for a climatic showdown between McTeague and his old pal Marcus. Of course, money doesn’t help much when you’re trapped in the desert, or when you’re dead for that matter.
Obviously, greed doesn’t bode well, but this story is an interesting inversion of the typical plot line, because in this case it is the woman who has the money, and she’s the one that the greed eats away at. She becomes obsessive and even bitter about every last piece of change. But her money also has a ripple effect that reveals the pettiness, avarice, and begrudging nature that plagues both her husband and cousin.
So in order to enjoy this film you need to have an appreciation for the spectacle that von Stroheim has developed and the commentary he has weaved through his narrative about greed. That in itself makes this film one to truly ruminate over, because it suggests so much about the ugly side of human nature, and that has hardly changed in the past century.