Film: Greed

It's called Death Valley for a reason.

A 1924 silent film directed by Erich von Stroheim, based on the novel McTeague by Frank Norris. John McTeague (Gibson Gowland) is a miner in the California gold country. A visiting dentist inspires McTeague to try something new, and the dentist takes him on as an apprentice. McTeague eventually settles down as a dentist in San Francisco. McTeague's friend Marcus (Jean Hersholt) brings his girlfriend Trina (Zasu Pitts) to McTeague as a patient. Marcus nobly steps aside when McTeague falls in love with Trina. McTeague and Trina are married.

In the meantime, Trina has bought a lottery ticket. Said ticket hits for five thousand dollars. Marcus becomes bitter at missing out on the money and has a falling out with McTeague. Trina for her part zealously guards the $5000, refusing to spend a dime. She still won't spend any of it after Marcus rats out McTeague for practicing dentistry without a license, leaving the couple destitute. The McTeagues' formerly intimate marriage dissolves in hatred. Eventually McTeague murders Trina and takes off with the $5000, fleeing to Death Valley, but Marcus is determined to track him down.

Greed is remembered as much for what it isn't as for what it is. Von Stroheim's original cut was forty-two reels, or nearly eight hours. Von Stroheim tried to talk the producers into showing the film in multiple parts, but eventually turned in a four-hour cut. MGM eventually took the film out of von Stroheim's hands and released it with a running time of about two and a half hours. The shortened film was a flop, panned by critics and disowned by its director. It has, however, been Vindicated by History, and is commonly considered one of the masterpieces of silent cinema. The four-hour Director's Cut of Greed is sometimes called the "Holy Grail" of film archivists. No copy of the deleted footage has ever been found.

This film provides examples of:

  • Amusement Park: Trina and Marcus go to one on a date.
  • The Blade Always Lands Pointy End In: Marcus flings a knife at McTeague which sticks neatly in the wall. (This being an obviously reversed shot in which a knife was yanked out of a wall.)
  • Color Motif: Yellow for greed, and specifically gold—see Splash of Color below.
  • Contrived Coincidence: After McTeague leaves for good, Trina leaves their sad little shack and takes up residence at a kindergarten where she works as custodian and sleeps in a side room. McTeague for his part is just randomly walking down a street one day, which happens to be the street in front of the school, and just happens to see his and Trina's wedding picture, torn in half and thrown in the garbage. This is how he finds her again.
  • Downer Ending: McTeague beats Trina to death, and the film ends with him stuck in Death Valley, chained to a corpse.
  • Dude, She's Like, in a Coma!: McTeague feels up Trina while she's out cold in his dentist's chair.
  • Epic Movie: Certainly in its original form. Even the surviving cut has an epic feel, with location shooting in San Francisco and Death Valley that was very unusual for The Twenties.
  • Establishing Character Moment: McTeague pauses while hauling a load of gold ore to tend to a wounded bird. Then, when another miner hassles him over it, McTeague flies into a rage and throws the miner into a ravine. His tender side and his violent temper are both established. The following title card even says "Such was McTeague."
  • The Film of the Book
  • Foreshadowing: Not hard to figure out that McTeague and Trina are headed for a bad end. First comes their rather ominous first kiss, which McTeague delivers forcefully, followed by Trina fleeing in terror during a pouring rain. Then there's the wedding, in which a funeral procession passes by while they are exchanging vows.
  • Gold Fever: As usual, not a good thing.
  • Greed: In the title! It's a driving force of most of the character actions and ultimately McTeague's Fatal Flaw.
  • Kissing Cousins: Marcus introduces Trina as both his girlfriend and his cousin.
  • Lost Forever: Large portions of this originally 8 hour film were cut and thrown away by the producers.
  • Love Triangle: Gone horribly wrong, as Marcus seeks revenge.
  • Money Fetish: Trina dumps the gold coins on her bed and rolls around in them.
  • Pooled Funds: See Money Fetish above.
  • Re Cut: A "restored" version was released that combined the existing footage with still pictures from the production. It runs nearly four hours.
  • Splash of Color: Everything made of gold in the film is hand-tinted yellow—gold nuggets, Trina's gold bridgework, her wedding ring, the gold watch that Marcus gives her, the gold coins that make up her $5000. The canaries that McTeague keeps in a cage are also tinted yellow.
  • Staggered Zoom: The chilling last shot, where the film zooms out to show McTeague handcuffed to a corpse in the middle of a desert.
  • Tempting Fate: Marcus agrees to let McTeague have Trina, saying that they are "Friends for life—or...death."
  • Thanatos Gambit: As McTeague beats him to death in the desert, Marcus handcuffs them together.
  • Thirsty Desert: Really, Death Valley is a poor choice for refuge when fleeing from the police.
  • Wanted Poster: This is pretty much all the segue there is from Trina's murder to the last sequence of McTeague fleeing into the desert. This is one of the biggest cuts in von Stroheim's film—a long section where McTeague goes back home to see his parents again was taken out of the movie.
  • Wedding Day: A pretty ominous one—see Foreshadowing above.
  • Worthless Yellow Rocks: You got the gold. Mazel tov. Too bad you're in the middle of a desert with no water and handcuffed to a dead guy.