Simple-minded dentist John McTeague marries Trina after she wins $5000 on the lottery. His jealous friend Marcus, accuses him of chasing the money. But she become obsessed with not spending her winnings, forcing the couple into penury, a fact made worse when Marcus informs the police McTeague is working without a licence. A situation that will end in murder.
No one alive has seen the full version of Eric Von Stroheim’s naturalistic tale of the labours and perils of life and money. Based on Frank Norris’ Depression era novel, the immigrant director in search of a near lunatic level of reality, envisioned his film to come in at nine hours long. He even screened it for critics and studio heads without a single break, before unsurprisingly, although much to his chagrin, MGM demanded he cut it.
He returned with a four and a half hour version, which they chopped in half again resulting in a fistfight between a truculent Von Stroheim and Louis B. Mayer (Mayer won on all counts). The missing footage has taken on the aura of lost treasure, as various archivists and historians seek it like the Holy Grail.
But that is history, what of the film that remains, a mutilated version that is still deemed a masterpiece of silent cinema? This may be down to what it represents of the director’s ambition, but there is no doubting the marshalling of intricate lives turning in the coils of money, something Stroheim sought to preserve in each delicate beat.
Trina (Zasu Pitts) reflects an ultimate absurdity in winning money then, despite falling into poverty, worshipping it, unwilling to sully her cache with spending. With rich intensity, Von Stroheim reveals the shocking effects of human pettiness, an innate absurdity of existence. It is not the girl Gibson Gowland and Jean Hersholt fight over in the film’s loose love triangle, it is not even the money, it is thought of the other besting them. It is a dance of jealousy that will spiral to a Grand Guignol of death and ruin. And to assist his verite mood the director shot in real locations (in and around San Francisco) rather than on soundstages, a realistic tapestry that would be sliced apart and resown; many of his striking compositions, invested with emotion, were borrowed by Orson Welles.
Incidentally, there now exists a restored version made by Rich Schmidlin. He found a trove of lost material — production stills, a note book, unseen footage— and has edited it all in to give it a more documentary styled indication of what that epic original version must have attempted.
Cinema verite on top form... and alot of it, running at 2hrs and 20mins.