Director: Erich von Stroheim
Cast: Gibson Gowland, Zasu Pitts, Jean Hersholt
Synopsis: The sudden fortune won from a lottery fans such destructive greed that it ruins the lives of the three people involved.
It’s something of a mystery why so many people consider the lost 5 hours of Stroheim’s Greed to be the cinematic equivalent of the Holy Grail, and somehow assume that because the film would be twice as long as the existing version it would therefore be twice as good. As it stands, the current version of Greed stands as an example of how sophisticated and intelligent silent films had become in such a short length of time, and Stroheim’s tendency towards wasteful and indulgent extravagance suggest a precocious talent in need of reining in for his own sake.
Either way, Greed is one of those films that should be seen by anyone who professes to have an interest in the history of cinema. Its theme is timeless, its characters lifted from the streets. For the heavy-set Gibson Gowland the role of the slow-witted slow-burning McTeague would prove to be a career highlight (he would end up playing uncredited bit parts in studio programmers) and he is nigh on perfect for the part. Zasu Pitts, who would enjoy a much more successful career than her co-star here, is not so good, tending to overact in the part of the miserly Trina, wife of the hapless McTeague, almost every time the camera is on her.
The film of course is rich with irony. As McTeague and Trina wed, a funeral cortege passes by the window of their apartment (in which the wedding is taken place), and the marriage they share is symbolised by the cage in which their birds are kept. By today’s standards all this symbolism seems a little heavy-handed, but it still enriches a story that seems tor revel in the ‘everyman’ qualities of its working class protagonists and its depiction of the way in which the human spirit can be corrupted – by desire for both that which it does not possess and that which it does not want to lose. Recommended.
(Reviewed 9th December 2008)