Sunday, July 8, 2012



If there is a patron saint for the Cinema of the Damned, it is Erich Von Stroheim.  Despite a directing career that barely spanned a decade and resulted in a mere nine films, Von Stroheim remains one of the most legendary filmmakers of the American silent era.

Also one of the most controversial.  In the course of his career, Von Stroheim would get fired from virtually every studio in Hollywood.  Heck, he even got punched out by Louis B. Mayer after making a crude comment about one of MGM's female stars.  He relished his image as the "terrible Hun" and created a mythic personality as an extremely decadent offshoot of the old Hapsburg Empire.

Of course, it was all bunk.  In truth, Von Stroheim was born without the Von to a lower-middle-class Jewish family in Vienna.  But when he started his acting career in New York during World War One, he found steady employment by posing as an American nightmare of German/Austrian behavior.  He was also really good at it.  So good in fact that his "Von" persona became his own and it took years for biographers to successfully peel away the layers of fabrication that surrounded the man.

Ironically, Von Stroheim is today best known to many viewers for his two most famous acting roles in Jean Renoir's 1937 masterpiece Grand Illusion:

and Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard.

But Von Stroheim was first and foremost a director.  He was even a visionary and combined an imposing sense of brilliance and self-destructiveness, all packaged in his own unique brand of Naturalism.  His demand for realism would extend to such details as making sure that the performers underwear would be historically correct.  In studio folklore, Von Stroheim's excessive approach resulted in the first million dollar production (Foolish Wives 1922).  In truth, it wasn't quite that costly but Universal decided that it made for good publicity.  Besides, it was close to the mark.  After all, he was basically building a complete reconstruction of Monte Carlo on the back lot.

Von Stroheim's masterpiece is Greed, his 1924 adaptation of the novel McTeague by Frank Norris.  He claimed that instead of a script, he simply filmed directly from the novel.  Actually, the movie is longer than the book as Von Stroheim added and extended scenes and chapters.

The result ran past 9 hours and MGM had a duck fit.  Von Stroheim was fired and Rex Ingram was brought in to drastically re-cut the film to a modest 2 hours running time.  Ever since, the effort to restore the movie toward its original cut has become a holy quest.

Which is why it is important to take advantage of the YouTube presentation of the 4 hour restoration of this movie.  At this point, it is the closest yet to Von Stroheim's original intentions.  Greed remains one of the major achievements of the American cinema.  An intense and harsh and brutal classic that brims with a strange primitive force.