US 1924 Dir Erich von Stroheim 131 min, 35mm presentation
The Barbican Colour of Money season runs until 20 September.
The Barbican’s Colour of Money season explores the power and history of money in our lives, from the gold rush to the credit crunch. Recently playing as part of that was director Erich von Stroheim’s Greed, an epic (though had it not been cut by a ruthless studio, it would been even more epic at 9 hours long) meditation on the corrosive effects of sudden wealth in a newlywed couple. Because the studio feared exhibitors would never accept a 9 hour long film given the loss of cinema booking slots that would entail (a cost/revenue pressure that exists today) the film exists today in a mere sliver of its intended running time after going through several editors, thus putting it in the pantheon of forever-lost classics along with Orson Welles’s The Magnificent Amberson’s and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Still, filmmakers like Christopher Nolan praise it as one of the very finest films to come out of the silent era.
The Barbican dug up a gorgeous 35mm print of the film for the season, which, even in a truncated form, required several projector changes over the two hour running time. In keeping with the tradition of the silent era, there was a superb live music accompaniment by Stephen Horne, who managed to handle about four instruments in addition to his piano.
The plot follows a rough, not-too-bright working-class San Francisco dentist, John “Mac” McTeague, whose meek fiancée Trina wins the lottery. Trina, a spendthrift, locks the money away, certain Mac’ s shady dental practice – he is unlicensed- will keep them afloat. But over time, the win unleashes a series of repressed resentments and dark, uncontrollable drives. The money sits there like a toxic cloud, poisoning both the couple (who over time start to look more haggard and paranoid via make up and costume changes) but also Mac’s friend Marcus who was once set to marry Trina himself. When Mac’s practice shuts down, everything starts to unravel even faster. It all ends up leading to betrayal, murder, and a brutal but appropriate ending shot on location in Death Valley, in a 120 degree heat which required the cameras be wrapped in iced towels.
Despite the grim conclusion, the film has a nice line of black humour running through it, such as the intertitles which try to bring over the strong German accents of Trina’s parents. There are some memorable sequences and images: a recurring motif is a set of pet caged birds that presumably represent the couple, trapped together in a gilded cage. More disturbing is the scene where the happy lottery winner literally gets into bed with her money, caressing her naked body with coins. An unmissable study of the power of coin.