Greed

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Greed

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As Cameron Crowe's Almost Famous arrives in theaters, it does so amidst rumors of a longer, less commercially viable cut preferred by its director. If true, that would hardly be the first case of a film's running time being trimmed, and far from the most traumatic. Crowe, who has tirelessly promoted Almost Famous, clearly maintained control and seems pleased with it in its current form (he should). Other directors have lost blood over such issues. The gutting of Once Upon A Time In America and 1900 rank among the worst such conflicts, but at least they still exist in their original form. The same can't be said of Erich Von Stroheim's Greed. Made for Goldwyn Pictures in 1926 after Von Stroheim burned his bridges at Universal—over, among other issues, the running time of Foolish Wives—it became one of the most notorious objects of contention between a director and a studio and probably the greatest victim. Von Stroheim originally prepared and screened a cut running about nine and a half hours, which he then reduced to four at Goldwyn's behest. Following the merger that eventually formed MGM, however, Von Stroheim lost control of the picture. The studio prepared its own 140-minute cut and threw out the rest, in the process destroying a movie that one of the great masters of the silent era had fashioned as his masterpiece. Greed will never be restored, but this new-to-video reconstruction, which originally premiered on cable last winter, offers a compromise between what remains and what's been lost. Running four hours, it joins the existing footage to an abundant selection of stills and intertitles from the excised scenes. Though far from Greed's ideal incarnation, it's probably the best we'll see, and a remarkable experience in this form. Adapted from the Frank Norris novel McTeague, it follows the progress of a slow-witted, big-boned miner (Gibson Gowland) who becomes the apprentice of a traveling dentist and later sets up shop in San Francisco. There, he befriends an easygoing layabout (Jean Hersholt) who graciously steps aside when Gowland falls for his sweetheart (Zasu Pitts). With no greater ambition than someday owning an oversized gold-painted tooth, life for Gowland appears to be going well until everything changes, quickly and for the worse, after Pitts wins $5,000 in an illegal lottery. Fascinating for many reasons, Greed combines dubious notions of morality, class, and heredity with Von Stroheim's mastery of silent filmmaking's vocabulary. Though generously paced at four hours, much less nine and a half, and featuring a few subplots that probably should have been cut, the economy displayed within any given scene is remarkable. An obsessive perfectionist to rival Kubrick, Von Stroheim employs an almost gestalt approach to filmmaking in which every detail plays against each other: In deep focus, a funeral procession progresses across a window during Pitts and Gowland's wedding. As Pitts becomes increasingly obsessive with money, Von Stroheim reveals that the frame to the couple's wedding portrait has disappeared, presumably disposed of for a few cents. Though the reconstruction has its unavoidably awkward moments and makes clear the horrendous loss, it can only be called an improvement, fleshing out subplots and revealing characters' previously hidden depths while lending Greed new complexity. It's a study of greed, naturally, but also of a purely American manifestation of greed, a Horatio Alger story gone horribly wrong. Gowland, who plays his character with an odd mixture of sympathy and contempt, follows a path from innocence to madness toward an unforgettable Death Valley climax that conveys, as much as a movie can, what it feels like to be one of the damned. Maybe Von Stroheim came to feel that way, too: Two films later, his directorial career reached an end and he returned to acting (most memorably in Grand Illusion and Sunset Boulevard) and occasional screenwriting. It could be argued that it was courting disaster to place such a mammoth project in the hands of a notoriously difficult director. In terms of economic checks and balances, it probably was. But, even in this compromised form, Von Stroheim needs no further justification than Greed.

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