As Americans end the century spending money like mad, it's a little unnerving to confront the brutal consequences of "Greed."
Nobody gets out of this 1924 American grotesque alive -- and the only thing at stake is a paltry $5,000, less than your SUV burns in gas in a year.
Actually, prosperity has granted us the luxury to restore this notorious film to a bare semblance of its intended self. Rick Schmidlin, who recut Orson Welles' "Touch of Evil" last year, restoring that film to the director's original concept, took on a much bigger task for Turner Classic Movies.
Schmidlin is a historian as well as a filmmaker. He used Welles' notes and an original negative and soundtrack to reconstruct the bizarre 1958 noir classic which Universal re-edited after firing the director.
Now, he's attempted to salvage Eric von Stroheim's master work, but without the raw material available for "Touch of Evil." Von Stroheim's first cut ran 91/2 hours; he trimmed it to 41/2, then the studio took over.
"Greed" was released at 135 minutes. The film on the cutting-room floor was reprocessed for its silver content, leaving only 650 still photos from the destroyed footage.
Using von Stroheim's shooting script, Schmidlin weaves the stills with the remaining film to come up with a four-hour reconstruction. An original score, additional title cards and color tinting in some scenes complete the restoration.
The result, which airs Sunday night, offers a taste of what might have been the most ambitious American film ever made. Sadly, despite Schmidlin's heroic efforts, it lacks the sweep and grandeur that a total "moving picture" can provide.
In its truncated form, "Greed" was still a remarkable film. Shot entirely on location in San Francisco and Death Valley, it looks like a documentary, yet is pure drama, complete with psychological symbolism and moments of emotional terror.
It's also a pungent social commentary on upward mobility and the crassness of America's lower classes, most of them immigrants. It's based on Frank Norris' naturalistic and mawkish 1899 novel, "McTeague," inspired by the work of Emile Zola.
The story's simple:
John McTeague, a rough-hewn miner, is apprenticed to an itinerant dentist, then sets up shop in turn-of-the-century San Francisco. Through his best friend, Marcus Schouler, he meets Trina Sieppe, daughter of German immigrants and Marcus' girl. He's smitten and the gracious Marcus drops out.
Just before McTeague and Trina marry, however, she wins $5,000 in a lottery. McTeague's good fortune inflames Marcus and he stews for a few years while the McTeagues lead a pleasant life living next to the office.
Then, after a barroom run-in with his ex-buddy, Marcus gets his revenge by reporting McTeague to the dental board, which requires him to earn a degree or stop practicing.
McTeague closes his shop and the couple decline quickly into poverty and madness. Trina becomes a miser, hoarding not only her lottery money, but every penny she can find, leaving her husband to walk the streets without even a nickel for carfare.
Finally, McTeague catches on, finds Trina's savings and leaves her broke. Desperate, she withdraws her five grand in gold coins, spreading them on her bed and rolling around naked on them.
Broke again, McTeague finds and kills Trina and makes off with the gold. He's tracked down by Marcus in Death Valley, who in his fatal struggle with the onetime dentist, handcuffs the pair together.
McTeague is left chained to his old friend as the sun beats down. Finis.
It's still a mystery why von Stroheim chose this unglamorous, depressing tale for his greatest film. In the days of lavish productions during the golden era of the silent film, he outspent everybody, dropping a cool $1 million in 1922 dollars on "Foolish Wives" for Universal.
The Viennese director, whose real name was just Stroheim, had made a series of racy films set in the gaudy royal courts of Europe. His budgets soared, paying for elaborate sets and costumes, including a life-size replica of Monte Carlo and specifying each detail, including the right underwear for extras playing Austrian soldiers.
Universal's Irving Thalberg fired him for his spending, so he went to what was then Metro Goldwyn where he poured all of his energy and the studio money into "Greed."
Von Stroheim broke all the rules, from casting comedy actress ZaSu Pitts as his tragic heroine, to using only locations, no studio sets, for every scene. Most revolutionary of all was his intent to film Norris' novel page-by-page.
Things were going his way until his Universal nemesis, Thalberg, took over Metro Goldwyn and rejected von Stroheim's efforts to save his vision.
The director's career never recovered from Thalberg's interference and he was considered washed up by the time talkies took over. He did have some marvelous moments later as an actor, though, playing the German officer in Renoir's "Grand Illusion," and Norma Desmond's butler in Wilder's "Sunset Boulevard."
But, it's as a revolutionary film director where von Stroheim might have made his most lasting mark and this reconstruction goes a long way in helping us to imagine what might have been.
The original "Greed" was as complex as silent films allowed, working with three stories, each commenting on the other. Thanks to the stills and new title cards, this aspect of the film becomes more fully realized.
Von Stroheim also showed a well-developed comic touch, particularly with the Sieppe family antics and the clumsy courting of Trina by McTeague. These scenes only make the McTeagues' descent into despair and violence seem even more horrible.
Trina's killing at the hands of her crazed husband is staged in front of a Christmas tree in a kindergarten room. It is a heartless, merciless death beneath the words "Merry Christmas."
Pitts, who most of us remember as Gayle Storm's sidekick on her 1950s TV sitcom, shines as a study in madness and pathos. However, Gibson Gowland as the curly headed McTeague overacts in that style of the silents.
Even he's outdone by Jean Hersholt as Marcus. Yes, it's the same Hersholt for whom the humanitarian award is named and it's fitting that the prize is not for acting.
The reconstructed "Greed" takes patience and perhaps a love of film history to sit through in one sitting. Von Stroheim initially suggested that it be shown in two installments and I think he was right.