Erich von Stroheim’s GREED

Yesterday morning, Turner Classic Movies showed Erich von Stroheim’s self-proclaimed masterpiece Greed. When it was first released in 1924, studio editors hacked the film down to two hours over von Stroheim’s objections, draining it of all meaning and artistic significance, according to von Stroheim and his supporters and admirers. Film preservationist Rick Schmidlin put it back to the four hours von Stroheim wanted, panning and zooming studio stills and using the Maestro’s notes. Now it can be seen in full. Well, maybe not in full. The original was nine hours long.

It’s based on Frank Norris’s novel, McTeague, published in 1899 and widely admired as a brilliant work of progressive literature.  In it Norris peddles his usual message, startling to readers in 1899, that poverty is degrading, and that the character of poor people is not improved by lack of money.

The actors in von Stroheim’s film are superb.  Zasu Pitts plays the female lead the way Lillian Gish might have, as a delicate flower. The shots are flawless, naturally; von Stroheim directed the picture, after all. The pacing of the action is riveting and compelling, even at four hours long, thanks to the editing work of restorer Rick Schmidlin. Even the hand-coloring of the gold doesn’t seem tacky. But the intertitles are jarring in a strange way.

Or, more accurately, in two strange ways. First comes the dialog. It was taken straight out of Norris’s book, and so is rendered in 1899 slang and queer spellings, and sometimes in a simulated German accent that’s mildly offensive to the politically correct modern eye. In talking pictures, dialog taken from books is spoken by actors. A good actor can put over almost anything. But up in front of your nose written out in black and white, it’s, well, jarring to have the heroine call her mother “Mommer,” or to have Mommer say things like,”What efer will you do mit all dose money, eh, Trina?” Still, that’s what it says in the book, so…

The other jarring thing is that von Stroheim was frequently unable to resist the impulse to put Norris’s flights of literary eloquence up on the screen as intertitles. For example, here’s how Norris describes the dawn coming up over Death Valley:

“The whole east, clean of clouds, flamed opalescent from horizon to zenith, crimson at the base, where the earth blackened against it; at the top fading from pink to pale yellow, to green, to light blue, to the turquoise iridescence of the desert sky. The long, thin shadows of the early hours drew backward like receding serpents, then suddenly the sun looked over the shoulder of the world, and it was day.”

It’s a visual image, right? A visual image. Here’s what the intertitle said:

Then suddenly the sun looked over the shoulder of the world, and it was day.

This was followed by a nice shot of a shoulder-shaped hill rising out of the desert at dawn, and the sun coming up from behind it, gleaming into the lens of the camera. A nice image. But with a nice image, you don’t need the intertitle. The fancy intertitle says, “Look how literary I’m being. This is Art, folks, not mere entertainment.”

A piddling criticism of, yes, a great movie, which I’m not sorry I watched, even for four precious hours. It made me think, though, about books and movies. With the passing years the movie industry has taken a number of approaches to making movies out of books, ranging from buying the title and writing a completely unrelated script (for instance, Sex and the Single Girl) to hewing as closely as possible to the plot of the book in order to placate the book’s faithful fans (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone).

What are your views on this? Should von Stroheim have spent nine hours (and millions of studio dollars) putting a faithful copy of McTeague up on the screen, or should he have tried instead to render the spirit of the novel in the language of cinema?

At the end of June I’m giving a show of early crime-fiction movies at the Deadly Ink Conference in Parsippany. We’re going to look at three silent films:

  • The Great Train Robbery, which was the first narrative film and also the first Western
  • The Musketeers of Pig Alley, the first gangster movie, and
  • The Cheat, which was not like anything else I can think of.

The Great Train Robbery, directed by Edwin S. Porter in 1903, captured the attention of the moviegoing audience because for the first time it told a story, the tale of how robbers came and tied up the station agent, robbed the train, murdered two railroad employees and a passenger, and were captured or shot by a posse of Westerners, who left a jolly square dance to track them down. It was filmed in the woods of New Jersey. No actors were listed in the credits, but film scholars have discovered that Broncho Billy Anderson (later a famous Western movie cowboy)  played three separate parts: one of the robbers, the murdered passenger, and a tenderfoot who wanders into the hoedown and is forced to dance by cowboys who shoot at his feet. As there were no close-up shots of actors’ faces, an actor could play many parts without being recognized. To show an actor’s face without showing his hands and feet was felt to be cheating the audience, who after all had paid good money to see the whole actor.

D. W. Griffith brought a greater sophistication to the process. He and his colleagues were inventing the vocabulary of moving picture images in the same way that the Elizabethans invented English as we know it. In The Musketeers of Pig Alley, filmed in New York City in 1912, the shots are elegant, the crowd scenes varied and focused, the acting restrained yet convincing, the gang war tense and thrilling. Lillian Gish stars; Elmer Booth is charming as the boss of the gangsters; young Lionel Barrymore has a bit part. No credits are listed for the actors, once again, for the longer the movie industry could put off crediting the actors the less they would have to be paid.

The Cheat, directed by Cecil B. DeMille in Hollywood in 1915, makes a big fuss over crediting the actors, giving each of the three stars a little vignette at the beginning. Jack Dean, playing the stockbroker, is shown working at his business. Fannie Ward, his wife, models an expensive hat. Sessue Hayakawa, the Asian ivory dealer, examines an ivory figurine and brands it with a hot iron in the shape of his chop.

But I’m not going to show my audience this, because I haven’t time to show the whole picture. I’m going to tell what happens in the first half: the foolish wife in her lust for new clothes gambles the Red Cross fund on a stock deal, and loses; the ivory dealer, who we thought was her platonic friend, offers to make up the money in exchange for sexual favors, to which she agrees; her husband comes into sudden wealth, and gives her enough to discharge the debt; in the dark of night she goes to the ivory dealer to pay him. Why doesn’t she mail him a check?  Ah, but then there would be no movie.

Having described the first half, I’ll show them the last half of The Cheat, cutting straight to the sex and violence. The lighting is moody, the shots are as interesting as anything Griffith did, and Sessue Hayakawa’s acting is superb. Plus he’s a total hunk. See it if you get a chance. Better yet, come to the conference.


Yes, folks, at last the book is out, and as they say, the proof is in the pudding. (They’re supposed to say, “The proof of the pudding is in the eating,” but they don’t. People are just lazy nowadays.) Anyway you can now eat the pudding, metaphorically speaking, and see if you like it. I think it’s pretty good. THE EDGE OF RUIN. Look for it.



The Hat Contest

For a couple of weeks now I’ve been running a contest to see who had the best picture of herself (or her relatives, dolls, etc) in a hat. The prize is to be a copy of THE EDGE OF RUIN, one prize every week, out of the box of books that I confidently expect to receive from the publisher any day now.

Last week somebody sent in a picture of herself as a child in her Easter hat. Remember those? It may be that they are coming back, for I was offered a list of rules for wearing Easter hats today by Diana, one of the online how-to-dress mavens. Here’s the link to that:

The little girl in the Easter hat won the prize for the week, being not only cute but also the only entry I received that week. But now they are trickling in. A number of writer friends have sent me their pictures in hats. A good-looking bunch of women. My sister-in-law Lanelle sent me a picture of her grandmother, carrying my father-in-law in her arms.

This week’s contest ends tomorrow. Check out the entries. They can be found at

Right now I’m inclined to give this week’s prize to Vicki Delany, the one with the wildest hat, even though she lives in Canada, to which country they say it’s hard to mail books, and the second prize of a copy of THE PROSECUTION RESTS — MWA’s collection of short stories, including one of mine — to my sister-in-law, not only because of Grandmom’s astounding hat but also because I promised to send her a copy anyway. If you have a better hat picture than Vicki’s, send it on. Or keep it and enter it in next week’s contest. I’m going to do this every week between now and April 27.

Five more weeks until THE EDGE OF RUIN goes on sale.

Left Coast Crime

I’m finally coming out of the fog of jetlag to tell you how things went at Left Coast Crime in Los Angeles. The Omni Hotel was a palace, the help cheerful and friendly. The conference organizers were charming and diligent.

One afternoon some of us took a walking tour with Gary Phillips, where I took some pictures. I meant to upload them to the blog at once, but technical problems arose involving the Kodak and the Macbook.  Now that I’m home with the old PC, here they are:

Here is the Los Angeles City Hall. You’ve seen it in a hundred movies.

Here is our tour guide, Gary Phillips. He kindly paused on the steps to let me take his picture.

We continue the tour. Here is City Hall again, reflected in the windows of another municipal building.

This is the world’s shortest railway, or so it is said, known as Angel’s Flight. It was right next to our hotel, which is built on Bunker Hill, once the home of Los Angeles’s rich people. The cook and the butler used to take the funicular down to the market below, and when they came back up the butler would  carry the food the cook had bought. 

If you go down Angel’s Flight and through the market right across the street, you come to the Bradbury Building, a breathtaking piece of architecture where many movies were made.

Here I am standing in it, awestruck.

With all this travelogue I haven’t mentioned my panel, which went well, or the new friends I made, who were lovely, or the good time I had playing hooky from the conference with Harold, walking up and down the steep streets. I haven’t mentioned our one-night stay in Beverly Hills, or Rodeo Drive, where I tried on a seven hundred dollar jacket and was relieved to find that it didn’t fit.

I cannot close, however, without showing you one of the main things that I went to California to see, and that’s the native vegetation as it used to be when Emily Daggett Weiss went west to Hollywood in 1913. My old friend Chip took us on a special trip to find me some weeds, half an hour north of Hollywood. Sagebrush! You can’t imagine how nice it is in the winter, green and fragrant.

Launching the Lectures

I’m pulling together a lecture on the earliest early movies, called The Birth of the Movies. It’s illustrated with videos of real products of the Edison studios, as well as work by D. W. Griffith and Cecil B. Demille. Here’s a look at what it’s all about: 

Coming Clean About the Trailer

For those of you who saw my trailer for THE EDGE OF RUIN (and for those who haven’t, check it out in the previous post, Come Into my Trailer), you may have noticed that while I told you about all the places where I stole the images, secure in the knowledge that any applicable copyrights had long ago expired, I never explicitly mentioned the music. Now it can be told. In fact, now it has to be told, because by some strange computer alchemy the YouTube people have ferreted out the truth and published it.

I stole the music from an old CD I found among the dust bunnies under my bed.

Granted, it was an excellent CD, Ivan Moravec playing selections from the piano works of Debussy and Chopin, gentle music to fall asleep by. But it had spent enough time under the bed to gather some serious dust. Who would notice if I ripped off a piece of it to use as background to a trailer for a murder mystery? Was Mr. Moravec likely to view my trailer, ignored as it was by millions? Would he recognize his own playing of the incomparable Mazurka number 21 in C sharp minor, opus 30, number 4? Would his lawyers come after me? It seemed so unlikely.

And yet. The other day I had a look at the trailer on YouTube only to find the piece of music identified, and the artist, and the album, with links included to ITunes, EMusic, and AmazonMP3, where one might buy it and have it for one’s own. Of course, this is a good thing. People should know where to buy a lovely piece of music. It’s bad to steal. I’m covered with shame at having been caught out.

What I want to know is, how in blazes did they do that?

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