Dir. Erich von Stroheim. Starring Gibson Gowland, ZaSu Pitts, Jean Hersholt
Watching a movie like Greed—a movie I frankly lucked into catching on TCM before it left the channel—is enough to give someone an existential crisis about today’s movies. (Everything I am about to say has been said before. Forgive me, and lament with me.) Watch a good movie from the 1920s and the sense of adventure and odyssey, the whiff of natality, stands out. Greed predates Battleship Potemkin and Man with a Movie Camera, and it deserves to be mentioned alongside those masterpieces, for not only does it match their quality, but it speaks their language. This is a grammatical picture like Man with a Movie Camera is a grammatical picture, one which uses true montage to create impressions and further our understanding. Indulgent as I am to any cat content, I can’t help but be taken by von Stroheim’s use of a tom chasing after birds. From the first two minutes of the picture, when McTeague (Gowland) picks up a little wounded bird from the ground and holds it close to him, the songbird has represented him. The songbird’s mate has represented Trina (Pitts), for the second bird only comes to the birdcage once they are together. (There’s a pointed line of dialogue early on where McTeague tells the shop owner that he’s not ready to buy the companion bird just yet.) And now, the cat, looking just like any fluffy ginger kitty who can has on the Internet, eyes the birdcage. He leaps. He wants the little chittering birds inside; something in his nature has made them irresistible to him. He revolves on the cage like a squirrel spinning on one of those specialty birdfeeders, and only McTeague’s intercession can get the cat off the cage. The cat is Marcus (Hersholt), of course. We would be able to make this connection without a cut, but there is such a cut, one that matches the cat’s face with Marcus’ cunning grin, layering Marcus’ face on top of the cat’s in a grotesque reminiscence of the already grotesque Cheshire cat. While a plot about a dentist on the verge of personal collapse proceeds, an allegory unfolds underneath. This is built over the course of minutes; this is no simple, half-baked glance at a rat scurrying around at the end of The Departed. Von Stroheim packs his picture with associations, and it is in associations, callbacks, colorized film, and repeated gestures that Greed maintains its strength.
The key repeated gesture of Greed is the way McTeague interacts with his birds. In the very, very beginning of the movie, McTeague sees a little bird on the tracks outside the mine. He stops his cart and goes to pick up the bird. It is entirely helpless; it appears to be hurt, and McTeague is exceedingly gentle with it. Gowland, according to IMDb, was only six feet tall; in von Stroheim’s lenses he looks like he must be six inches taller, and greater still because of his bulk. It is almost reassuring to watch someone so big cradle so small and needy a creature, and his eyes glow with sympathy for the little fellow. His supervisor comes by, sees him holding the bird, and smacks him out of his hand. The point is made. McTeague is a kindly man, and that kindliness bubbles up to the surface, but it is not immune to external factors. What is outside him, whether in the fists of his boss or the poverty of his upbringing, is as powerful as whatever goodness lives inside him, and he does not possess the armor to shake it off. By the end of the picture, that has been true fifty times over, and he has been the man doing some cruelty often as not. He has beaten and browbeaten, murdered and thieved. And at the very end, with his own end in front of him, he pulls his beloved bird, his tiny alter ego, out of its cage. He holds it close. The man from the mine all those years ago is still in him. He is chained to the man that he has killed, the rival for the love of a woman he killed as well; all three of them slavered over the same money that she won, so unfortunately, in a lottery years ago. Despite all of these sins, the man who could hold a bird like a child holds a puppy is still within him, burned to the fore by the sun of Death Valley. Without threats or temptations, and without hope of survival, his essential sweetness has come back. And at what cost! Like Marcus and the cat, this would be clear enough without the repeated visual cues, but of course that’s what’s so lovely about Greed. Its focus is on images, the little parables of a language we do not speak often enough.
Von Stroheim’s movie is a carnival of technique. There’s the advanced stuff, the deep focus shots during McTeague and Trina’s wedding: while they are being married upstairs, we can see downstairs a funeral procession passing by, the future revealing itself to the present. There’s great patience in lengthy takes and blocking that does half the work for his actors. In one scene, Marcus is as threatening as he ever is. Long ago he gave up Trina so that McTeague could court her, a decision that led to him losing out on the girl and the money she won. It broke him. He decides, sitting next to McTeague but also just in front of him him, just far enough in front that he can be a devilish, frightening voice, one that McTeague can’t frighten off by looking in the eye, that he is going to get what he’s owed. It comes to a small sum, the price of a couple tickets to an amusement park and a little more, and the whole time the bewildered, decent McTeague—for he still only sees the lottery as a happy windfall and not the tornado it will become—pays up in little coins. It is a scene centered on two pathetic men, one made pathetic by his friend’s betrayal and the other pathetic in his lust for any whiff of the windfall. Most of Marcus’ leers are lost on McTeague; most of McTeague’s cow-eyed hurt is lost on Marcus; none of it is lost on us. Alternately, the murder of Trina is one which occurs beyond the visibility of the camera, behind curtains, and yet there can be no doubt what McTeague has done in his wicked quest for the money that Trina, wickedly, kept pent up in their bedroom. ZaSu Pitts’ performance gets better the more pathetic and more unwell Trina becomes. As insane as Maria Macapa was in her life, Trina outstrips her foil. She cannot stand to lose any of the money; ultimately she chooses to lose actual body parts in lieu of her precious coins. In her final scene, she is positively operatic as her estranged husband, as massive and frightening as he has ever been, comes to demand his share of the loot.
McTeague the novel has been rightly criticized for its general xenophobia. What remains in the stills from von Stroheim’s movie softens the worst in the portrayals of the anti-Semitic character Zerkow (Cesare Gravina) and Mexican junk collector, Maria Macapa (Dale Fuller). (What presumably awful stuff probably made the original forty-two reels is lost to history, and one is not necessarily inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt given their time and place and source material. On the other hand, one looks at Zerkow and sees that he is less of a stereotyped Jewish character, at least in appearance, than a man who runs a pawnshop in Safety Last!.) The picture uses them, as well as its German immigrants (Trina’s immediate family), as background for people like those whose naturalization has undergone a more standardized course; there’s a sense in the movie, carried over from the novel, that there are some people who are more obviously American than others. The German immigrants in particular, who survive in more extant film than Zerkow and Maria Macapa, are genial but coarse. The kids are a little wild, and the parents are more so, gobbling up the wedding feast and spanking the kids into oblivion. McTeague is some level of white trash, which we know from early on. He comes from a mining town, with a sad, downbeat mother and a drunk father. He comes into money when he apprentices with a quack showman dentist, and only a bit of Marcus’ treachery brings him down; otherwise, the firmly white if not precisely Anglo-Saxon McTeague would presumably be able to live and prosper as a good American, a little fond of steam beer and plainly uneducated in his speech, but he can at least fit in. Fitting in, interestingly enough, seems to limit the imaginations of those Americans who can pass. Certainly the non-Americans of the story are prone to their own obsessions, as Zerkow is, but those obsessions come with some of the most inventive sequences in an incredibly, literally inventive movie. When he imagines the treasure trove that Maria Macapa describes to him, a vision of golden objects appears. Arms and hands likewise golden, almost snakelike and scaly, writhe and move through the gold. It is a strange sight, dreamlike and hypnotic where so much of the picture is shockingly real.