There is nobody now alive who has seen anything like the complete version of Erich von Stroheim’s Greed. Yet many good judges still regard the bleeding remains of the film as one of the greatest ever made. They are almost certainly right. But then Stroheim, better known to film-goers for his acting as Gloria Swanson’s butler in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, was one of the most extraordinary film-makers of all time.
Greed was to have been the culmination of his career – an adaptation of Frank Norris’s tragic tale of McTeague who, after losing his livelihood because of a rival’s machinations, becomes a drunk and murders his wife. He kills his nemesis Marcus but is bound to the corpse by handcuffs.
Stroheim’s first cut ran to 47 reels; the one presented to the Goldwyn Company was 42, which he reduced on their request to 24, and then, helped by his friend Rex Ingram, to 18. The eventual released version – edited by June Mathis, Goldwyn’s story editor who, Stroheim complained, hadn’t read either the book or the original screenplay – was a mere 10.
Years later, Henri Langlois, the head of the Paris Cinémathèque, showed Stroheim the mutilated version. He wept as he watched it and afterwards said: “This was like an exhumation for me. In a tiny coffin I found a lot of dust, a terrible smell, a little backbone and a shoulder bone.” It was still, Langlois assured him, a masterpiece. But what might it have been!
Orson Welles, an admirer, described his art as Jewish baroque and that tells some of the story. But Greed was more than that. It was a morality tale about the dehumanising influence of money, the realism, detail and complex characterisation of which made it unforgettable.
That he was an eccentric egotist is beyond question. But some of the rumours put about by his detractors were exaggerations. It was said, for instance, that Stroheim once insisted on the extras playing royal troops wearing the correct underwear. Perhaps he encouraged such legends. He certainly wanted authenticity above everything.
André Bazin, the French critic, once wrote: “He has one simple rule for direction. Take a close look at the world, keep on doing so, and in the end it will lay bare for you all its cruelty and its ugliness.”
That is precisely what Greed does, with the aid of amazing performances from ZaSu Pitts and Gibson Gowland. Sequence after sequence is stunning, like the one in which Pitts, having won the lottery, caresses her naked body with gold coins. That was typical Stroheim. Billy Wilder once told him he was 10 years ahead of his time. “No, 20,” he replied. I’d say 30.