(originally published in The Outreach Connection in June 2008)
When I first started seriously watching movies, the bulk of my education came from the Hollywood classics. It’s not that I’m so old – this was in Britain in the late 70’s and early 80’s. It was still a different time and place though. Video was in its expensive, patchy, formative phase, and there were only four TV channels. Contemporary adult movies, if they made it there at all, were often cut (for example Chinatown was broadcast without the nose-slashing scene), and although you could usually track down one or two foreign films a week, they were most likely to be anonymous dubbed thrillers starring Romy Schneider or Maurice Ronet. For a few years, there was no bigger preoccupation in my life than the hope of one day getting to see, say, Belle de Jour or Persona or the many others I read about, my imagination straining to drain the nuances of every sentence or still photo about or from them, in the film books that monopolized my shelves in those days.
Turner Classic Movies
The chances were excellent though of gaining access to Some Like It Hot or His Girl Friday or Fort Apache, the likes of which filled up Saturday and Sunday evenings and every other gap on the BBC’s schedule (my memory tells me the likes of The Great Escape and The Magnificent Seven were broadcast at least annually, although maybe I’m compressing things in my memory). It’s primarily because of those years that I can proudly proclaim to have seen just about every major Hitchcock film, every Hawks, every Minnelli, and so forth. So I made the most of my opportunities. After I left Britain, which more or less coincided with a new age of technology and access, I focused more on foreign films and on keeping up with the new stuff. Which of course is a project that can never be completed.
Hawks for example is still one of my favourite directors, but I’ve probably only managed to watch about one Hawks movie a year for the last decade; for others it’s not even that good a pace. If I had the time, I could almost go back to the beginning and start again, rediscovering all those films that thrilled me as a teenager. I wish I did have the time. And this brings me to the recent launch in Canada of Turner Classic Movies, the absence of which I’m sure must have eaten away at many Canadian movie buffs for years. I look at the schedule regularly, and if I had the time I could happily tape a couple of things a day from there, no problem. So far though, I’ve been rationing myself severely. I already regret in particular not having pounced on the early Barbara Stanwyck pictures that played in succession a few months ago. Oh well, I guess they’ll come round again.
There is one event I didn’t miss – the expanded version of Erich von Stroheim’s 1924 silent film Greed. This was first broadcast on TCM in 1999, and I read about it at the time with huge interest, but didn’t get to see it neither then nor subsequently. In fact, Greed is one of the big fish to have completely slipped through my net. If I (or you) had seen it at all, it would have been a version of some two and a quarter hours, and in that version it’s often been regarded as one of the greatest films of all time (although it usually slips down the rankings a little further now).
The TCM version lasts around four hours. This is, what word to use, an evocation perhaps (they view it as a “reconstruction,” but that doesn’t seem quite right), of the original nine-or-so hour version, reportedly only shown once to a small group before the studio descended on it. The exorcised seven hours were simply destroyed, so in this version the lost footage is represented by still photographs, which is all that’s known to survive, with some applied camera movements (pans, close-ups and so on). This might sound to some like a rather academic viewing experience, but the film’s power is so immense that after a while the portions represented by photographs becomes almost as vivid as von Stroheim’s extant footage. Still, it’s always clear that this is, if not a skeleton, still lacking the majority of its true flesh.
Based on the novel McTeague by Frank Norris, the film’s centre is the relationship between McTeague, a self-taught dentist of essentially simple needs and reactions, and Trina, the delicate beauty he manages to entice into marriage when her existing suitor, Marcus, steps aside. Trina wins $5,000 in the lottery, an event that eventually, as their fortunes otherwise decline, pushes her into crazed miserliness, McTeague into confused and random anger, and Marcus into sheer hatred at the loss of money he regards as his. Set against the contrasting (for better and for worse) experience of their neighbours, the story spans years, ending in a sequence in Death Valley that’s still as raw and passionate as the best elemental cinema.
Von Stroheim is best remembered, fairly or not, for autocratic over-reaching, and Greed is a film of immense flourishing confidence, but I was most taken by its profound focus on its characters. The performances have a heightened expressionist aspect to them, but with remarkable attention to the psychological and social detail of the characters’ trajectories. Of course, this is partly implicit in the length, but it’s remarkable what sense of conviction persists over those four hours. The TCM version frequently uses yellow highlights, applied to coins or a pet canary or (overwhelmingly) to the sun in the final desert sequence (presumably these follow the director’s original conception) and it’s amazing how successful this device is in underlining the story’s many points of hope and threat. In one of the most amazing effects, an elderly neighbouring couple who've found love late in life are momentarily pictured in full colour, which sounds like a corny form of contrast, but is actually completely eloquent and moving.
The best detailed account of the Greed reconstruction that I’ve seen is by Jonathan Rosenbaum and available on the Chicago Reader website. Rosenbaum contrasts von Stroheim with Orson Welles, perhaps the cinema’s all time leading fount of lost or butchered films, and there’s obviously a poignant or tragic aspect to both these careers. There’s still a viable hope of reclaiming some of the unseen Welles material, but it seems that this is as good as it gets for Greed. It broke von Stroheim’s heart, and our sprawling, staggering cinema heritage would surely have been further enhanced if the full version had survived.
Still, Greed’s place in that heritage is prominent, and I’m sure I am not the only newly empowered TCM viewer who lunged at the chance to see it. The next time it’s on, if you aspire, even vaguely, to own a sense of cinema, then it’ll be the necessary thing to watch that week.