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Movie Crash Course: Little Caesar

Welp, I’ve seen the ur-war film, now it’s the ur-gangster film.  At least the feature interviews on the DVD I got said so, with a handful of talking-head interviews with lots of film scholars. Even Martin Scorcese turns up to make that case. A friend who’d heard I was about to watch this pointed out that even Bugs Bunny cartoons patterned their “gangster characters” after Edward G. Robinson’s performance in this.

So it feels a bit unsporting to say that Edward G. Robinson didn’t seem to be quite so threatening a gangster.

The film is about the rise and fall of Caesar Enrico Bandello – who goes by “Rico” – in Chicago’s underworld. At the start of the film, he and his buddy Joe are small-town crooks robbing gas stations and drug stores, but after one of their heists they decide to go for broke in the big city. Rico is set on his life of crime, but Joe wants to go a different route – he wants to be a dancer. They head to Chicago to pursue their separate paths.

Rico stays in touch with Joe, though, and when Rico’s mob boss “Big Boy” proposes a hit on the night club where Joe works as a dancer, Rico bullies Joe into collaborating on the plot. During the furor, Rico ignores Big Boy’s order that they conduct a clean heist, and siezes the chance to shoot the police commissioner.  Big Boy dresses him down after the heist – but Rico argues back that his boss is just “getting soft” and declares that maybe he should take charge.

….I have to stop a moment – because this, here, is exactly where the film lost me.  Rico’s boss is one of Chicago’s main mob bosses, and here comes Rico, an upstart who’s disobeyed orders and declared that not only was he not wrong, but that he should take over.  Tony Soprano or Vito Corleone would have thrown the guy out of his office and then sent one of their other men to assassinate Rico a few days later, right?  Right.  But instead – Big Boy totally caves and puts Rico in charge, with only the faintest of protests. Which I didn’t buy in the slightest.  Unfortunately, Rico’s “meteoric rise to power” is told in exactly this flimsy a fashion, with a series of increasingly more powerful mob bosses simply rolling over in submission after Rico blusters a bit – making what was a major plot thread feel completely unbelieveable.

Ah well.

This isn’t to say that the film was a loss.  Instead, I was more fascinated by some things it was seeming to say about wealth and fame. In the first scene, the catalyst for Rico’s wanting to go to Chicago is a fluffy news piece about a big-name Chicago gangster enjoying a splashy party, and wearing a piece of diamond jewelry for the occasion.  In a later scene, when Rico is still one of Big Boy’s underlings, he’s tagged along in the entourage when Big Boy goes to a meeting with another mob boss; and the film makes a point of showing us when Rico covetously examines the other boss’s pocket watch, tie pin and other bling.  For Rico, the bling is the important thing; the bling is how he can be sure he is successful himself.  He wants his own name in the paper, for any price.  And – he does get that, for a time.

But every so often we get a glimpse of Joe’s path, which makes for a fascinating contrast. After the hit on the night club, Joe ghosts on Rico, devoting himself to his dancing job – and to his dancing partner Olga, who before long is shacking up with Joe. Rico stops by after a while – he’s afraid that Joe knows too much about him, and has come to convince Joe to work for him again. When Joe refuses, Rico considers killing him – but can’t.  This moment of Rico “going soft” is where his own luck takes a downturn, sending him into hiding at a flophouse while Joe and Olga continue on their own story.

At the very end of the film, we get one last glance at how these two friends’ paths diverged. As Rico gasps out his last breath after a shootout (“Mother of mercy, is this the end of Rico?”), the camera pans up – to reveal that he is lying under a billboard advertising Joe and Olga’s new show at a local theater.

So, I admit that this contrasting-paths perspective is very likely what the filmmakers intended – that we were to consider how the pursuit of a fast life and flashy status signifiers lead Rico to a bad end, while dedication to a craft and a passion led to real success for Joe.  But it seems that most people were more titillated by Rico’s story instead.  Whereas I didn’t buy it because it wasn’t mean enough.  I’m not entirely sure what to make of that.

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Movie Crash Course: Pandora’s Box

Where I went to college, the movie poster for Pandora’s Box was pretty common among the drama and film students I knew.  One of my roommates even had a copy – Louise Brooks, in the act of unveiling her heavy bangs and huge brown eyes, watched over me from a dorm wall through my senior year.  A second copy of the poster was on permanent display at the Angelika movie house on Houston Street, one of my regular movie spots; similar copies probably grace other movie houses to this day.

That poster, I’ve realized, doesn’t actually say anything about the plot of the film itself – it showcases Brooks, and Brooks alone.  Anything else about the film – the plot, the other cast, the director – is incidental.  We get it, the studio seemed to say – we know why you’re going to see this, and it’s for Louise.  Period.  They kind of have a point, too – Brooks is far and away the most striking thing about this film.

The plot is a pretty run-of-the-mill cautionary tale of a Girl Gone Wrong – Brooks plays Lulu, a flirty showgirl, who starts out living in a luxury apartment as the kept mistress of Herr Schon, a wealthy older publisher.  However, Lulu is prone to flirting with other guys as they catch her eye.  She also maintains slightly-warmer-than-normal friendships with other men, like Schigolch – who may be her pimp, or may be her father, or may be both – and Schon’s son, Alwa, a theatrical producer. There’s a countess who also seems to be pining for Lulu’s affection as well, and a chance to start a vaudeville act with a guy named Rodrigo.

The vaudeville act gives Schon the perfect out – he’s been getting uneasy with Lulu, and is preparing to marry a much more respectable society woman in an attempt to go straight.  When he arrives to cut things off with Lulu, he softens the blow by offering to ask Alwa to feature her act in his next stage show.  She accepts, Alwa also loves the idea, the Countess gets all caught up in designing the costumes, and everyone’s happy – until opening night, when Schon brings his fiancée backstage with him when he goes to wish Lulu luck, and she throws the mother of all temper tantrums and locks herself in a broom closet, vowing that she “will not dance for that woman!”  Schon goes into the closet to talk her down – and somehow ends up getting manipulated into ditching his current fiancée and marrying Lulu instead.

Lulu is her usual outre self at the wedding reception – dancing intimately with the Countess, then getting up to some titillating hijinks in the master bedroom with Schigolch and Rodrigo – and Schon has his own tantrum, kicking everyone out and then ordering Lulu to kill herself to spare him his honor. But somehow Schon himself is the one who gets killed.  Lulu’s tried for manslaughter, but her entourage – Alwa, the Countess, Rodrigo and Schigolch – stage a diversion and smuggle her away.  The last third of the film sees our band of fugitives poorly treated indeed – hiding out in boats, losing money at gambling tables, getting sold into Egyptian bordellos (with a last-minute rescue), and various members getting arrested or killed, until finally it’s just Alwa, Schigolch, and Lulu living near the London docks; Schigolch is drinking himself to death, Alwa considers running off to join the Salvation Army, and Lulu is turning tricks in their apartment to make ends meet, until the night when one of her johns has a more violent fantasy in mind.

Director G. W. Pabst wanted Brooks as Lulu from the first. She initially wasn’t available, though, and Pabst reluctantly looked elsewhere for his Lulu, to the point that he had drawn up a contract to give Marlene Dietrich the role.  But legend has it that as Dietrich was about to sign, Pabst got word that Brooks was available for the part after all; so Pabst tore up Dietrich’s contract, raced to meet Brooks with an armful of roses and begged her to be his Lulu after all.  It’s a wise choice – Dietrich’s Lulu would have been all “bad girl”, seductive heavy-lidded stares and manipulative looks.

Brooks, meanwhile, plays Lulu as a seductress with some innocence to her; she likes sex, and she’s going after what she wants, but she simply is driven by her own id, and doesn’t know any better.   Where Dietrich would have played the part with a sly smile, Brooks instead excels in wide-eyed trusting looks and childlike radiant smiles – this is how love is, in her experience, and that’s all she’s trying to do, is find love.  Brooks’ performance is what makes what could have been a cliché about a bad girl getting her comeuppance into a sympathetic tale of a young woman whose luck simply ran out.

Movie Crash Course: School Holiday Notice

(tiptoes in)

Hi all, I realized I should have said something:  I’m kind of saying offline until I can see the latest Star Wars movie so as to avoid spoilers.  Next review coming soon.

(tiptoes out)

Movie Crash Course: A Throw Of Dice

In a sense this film is one of the precursors to Bollywood – produced on location, with a cast of Indian actors instead of Europeans in makeup, and with lavish art direction and a huge cast.

Inspired by a story from the Sanskrit epic Mahabharata, A Throw of Dice is the story of two royal cousins, each with their own kingdom.  Ranjit is handsome and kind, but a bit of a gambling addict; Sohan also likes to gamble, but is more interested in thinking up ways to steal Sanjit’s kingdom.

One idea he has early on is to have his henchman “accidentally” shoot Ranjit during a tiger hunt – but as luck would have it, they’re near the forest home of a reclusive healer, living there with his daughter Sunita. Ranjit’s men bring him to the hermit, with Sohan tagging along out of “concern”.  He’s not too pleased to hear that Ranjit will recover – but meeting Sunita softens the blow for him.  Sunita isn’t that impressed with him, however.

Ranjit is a different story – she and Ranjit fall in love during his convalescence, and when he recovers enough to leave, she tags along, as his fiancée.  Sohan tries another scheme or two to win Sunita or discredit Ranjit, but wedding plans proceed nevertheless. Then the night before the wedding, Sohan shows up to present Ranjit with an early wedding gift – a beautiful game board and new dice.  And hey, he proposes, maybe they could try it out with a game. But why not make the stakes interesting – instead of just gambling for cash, how about…each other’s kingdoms?  Or….Sunita?

There’s a plot twist towards the end that resolves things satisfactorily. And that may be why I was ultimately “meh” on the story – it’s a love story with a satisfying ending, and I’ve never really been a fan of the love story as a genre.

This is not to say I didn’t like the film.  I didn’t looooove it, but it was certainly pretty to look at; the film makes frequent and lavish use of various sites in India, instead of the filmmakers trying to shoot everything on a back lot. There are also some tiny moments that caught my eye, like when Sunita – still adjusting to her new life – has arranged for a secluded tryst with Ranjit.  She happens to glance into awater jug she’s carrying, sees her reflection and is struck by it.

And I also found the backstory pretty impressive.  One of the biggest reasons A Throw of Dice used so much Indian locations and casting was because it was a truly Indian production. Himansu Rai, who played Sohan, co-produced the film along with German director Franz Osten.  Rai teamed up with Osten five years previously, when he traveled to Munich specifically seeking a partner for a unique film partnership – Rai had the cast, the locations, and the funding, but none of the technical expertise. Osten was able to provide the camera crew, the film, and the director (himself).  The pair collaborated on three films, effectively launching India’s entire film industry.

From The Projectionist’s Booth: A Policy Statement From the Movie Crash Course

The day I write this is about one month after we all first heard about the movie producer Harvey Weinstein’s decades-long habit of sexually harassing women. Over the course of that month, since the first allegations, over 75 women have come forward to say they faced inappropriate attention from Weinstein; another dozen have made the further claim that he went all the way into rape.  It is also two weeks since we heard similar allegations against the actor Kevin Spacey, with 13 people coming forward so far.  And just today, a friend of the late actor Corey Haim accused Charlie Sheen of sodomizing Haim on the set of his very first movie, when Haim was only 13.

Everyone has been horrified at these allegations – understandably so. The stories about Harvey Weinstein have sparked particular shock – the sheer number of cases prompted men to ask if the problem of sexual harassment has really been as rampant as all that, causing women to revive the existing “#metoo” hashtag and revive discussion on this issue yet again. Amongst my friends – many of which are theater professionals – the discussions have been especially harrowing, since some of us know others of us who have gone on to work in film – and have had their own stories to tell, or know people who’ve had stories. Spacey’s actions renewed the conversation yet further, and brought in a swath of other theater folk with yet more stories.  …For the record: I’m relieved to say that I never encountered any sexual harassment when I worked in theater (other kinds of gendered attacks are something else again, albeit on a minor scale). However, I’ve heard a story or two of people I’ve personally worked with later having sad stories of their own.

It’s making us all want to do something. Talking hasn’t worked in the past, and just ignoring it isn’t good – it’s just too big and shocking. We want to act somehow; maybe we can put Harvey Weinstein in a stockade and throw rotten eggplants at him or something.  But the only power this time is in the hands of the courts and all we can do is watch and wait for them to act.  Which somehow doesn’t feel like enough, so people are flailing a little and thinking of ways to act.  Donating to a charity, perhaps, or taking people on over on Twitter.

One really popular step has been the Public Boycott – a declaration that “that’s it, I’m never watching any of their movies again!”  Some people have been so shaken by the allegations that they realize they will never be able to see Kevin Spacey or Charlie Sheen, or watch anything with the Weinstein name on it, without remembering the allegations.  Those movies are forever tainted for them.  Others are more pragmatic – they don’t want to give Kevin Spacey money, and watching his movies gives him money.  Therefore, no more watching his movies. QED.  I also considered this step for a couple seconds, to be honest – but then realized that three of Kevin Spacey’s movies – The Usual Suspects, American Beauty and Se7en – are all on the master list of the Movies To See Before You Die.  And so is Platoon, featuring Charlie Sheen.

Hmm.

I’ve got a while to go before I get to these films; easily a few years. By the time I get there, no doubt whatever trial Kevin Spacey is facing will have run its course and whatever punishment he is charged with will be underway.  Same with Charlie Sheen, and almost certainly the case for Harvey Weinstein. I doubt I’ll be able to forget that these incidents happened, but the story will be further along – the wound will not be as fresh.  It may be okay.

However, the problem is that this is not a unique scandal for Hollywood.

  • The silent film star Errol Flynn was accused of statutory rape in 1943. He was acquitted, largely thanks to the assistance of public donations enabling him to hire really good lawyers.
  • Actress Tippi Hederen has stated that director Alfred Hitchcock sexually assaulted her during the filming of The Birds.
  • 1930s star Loretta Young’s career was tainted by scandal when she conceived a child out of wedlock. It wasn’t until 1998 that she finally revealed that the father had been Clark Gable – and it had been an instance of date rape.
  • European director Roman Polanski had sex with a 13-year-old at Jack Nicholson’s house at a party in the 1970s, was found guilty of statutory rape and fled the country – and has been a fugitive from justice to this day.
  • Shirley Temple even once had a producer expose himself to her when she was only twelve. Fortunately he didn’t touch her – by all reports her nervous giggles brought him to his senses and he buttoned back up.
  • Producer Louis B. Mayer was the Harvey Weinstein of his day, regularly propositioning actresses and pressuring them into sex – he once literally chased Jean Harlow around his office in an effort to seduce her. Mayer also would sit Judy Garland on his lap and had her sing so he could “study her technique” by placing his hands on her chest.
  • ….And then there’s whatever the hell is going on with Woody Allen.

If I wanted to boycott Kevin Spacey or Harvey Weinstein’s work, I’d have to also consider boycotting Errol Flynn’s, Alfred Hitchcock’s, Clark Gable’s, Roman Polanski’s, and Woody Allen’s as well.  And if I did – well, to be honest, that would knock out a huge swath of my list, and the Movie Crash Course would essentially be over.  So from a practical perspective alone it doesn’t really make sense to boycott these works.

But there’s an even better reason to keep watching them despite their creator’s foibles – and that is that none of their films were solely their work.  Scores of other artists were also involved in each of their films, most of them wholly innocent – some even their victims.  And they shouldn’t be punished.

Way back when I reviewed Birth of a Nation, I spoke of having wanted to see the 2016 film with the same name; director Nate Parker used the title for his story about the rebellion of the slave Nat Turner. I’d actually been looking forward to it prior to its release – not because I knew anything about Parker, but rather because of the actor Colman Domingo, who was also cast in the work.  Colman is one of my “I knew him before” stories; we worked on a play together in 2003, and I’ve been watching the growth of his career from the Facebook-friends-feed sidelines ever since. And during the building to the film’s release, Colman spoke with great pride and excitement about the film and his colleague’s work, and mentioned how eager he was for everyone to see it and give their feedback. But right before its release, a story re-surfaced from director Nate Parker’s past, concerning an allegation of a rape when he was in college.  The scandal irretrievably tarnished the film, and it died a quick death in theaters.

There is actually some debate about whether Nate Parker did or did not commit the crime of which he is accused. But one thing is certain – Colman did not do it. And yet it feels like Colman – as well as the rest of the cast and crew of that film – was being punished for Nate Parker’s actions. And it doesn’t seem like that helps – especially if any of the actresses in the film were themselves harassed by someone somewhere along the line.

So. I will not be boycotting any of Kevin Spacey’s films – because they’re not just Kevin Spacey’s films.  Instead, when I see The Usual Suspects, I’ll watch it for Gabriel Byrne and Benicio Del Toro.  I’ll be watching Thora Birch in American Beauty, and Brad Pitt in Se7en.  When I watch Platoon, I’ll be watching for Willem DaFoe instead of Charlie Sheen.  When I watch The Birds, I’ll be watching for Tippi Hederen instead of Hitchcock.  I’ll watch Gone With the Wind for Vivian Leigh’s sake instead of Clark Gable’s.  I’ll watch Annie Hall for Diane Keaton.  I’ll watch Rosemary’s Baby for Mia Farrow’s acting instead of Roman Polanski’s direction.

The biggest argument in favor of boycotting these films is that “you shouldn’t separate the art from the artist”. However, each film has more than one artist in it. I’ll simply watch for one of the others.

Movie Crash Coures: Seven Chances

So last night I had three options for films-to-watch – one on DVD, and two online.  While trying to decide which one to watch, I realized one was a Buster Keaton film and then it was no contest.

Here, Keaton plays junior broker Jimmy Shannon – a partner in a brokerage firm that’s about to go bankrupt.  But – what luck! – a lawyer arrives with the news that an aging relative has just died and left Jimmy several million dollars in his will, on one condition: he must be married by 7 pm on the evening of his 27th birthday.  And it just so happens that Jimmy’s 27th birthday is that same day.  Fortunately, he’s been summoning the courage to pop the question to his sweetheart Mary anyway, and he rushes over to propose to her.  But when she finds out the mercenary motivation, an offended Mary dumps him.

Jimmy is left reeling, but his partner Billy Meekin is by now rallied to the cause, going to greater and greater lengths to get his partner hitched – first dragging him off to their country club to try his luck with the seven ladies visiting that afternoon, and ultimately placing a “Calling All Brides!” ad in the paper.  But meanwhile, a repentant Mary sends a message to Jimmy giving him another chance and asking him to show up at her house that evening, preacher in tow.  Will Jimmy get that message in time? Will he end up with one of the seven women at the club?  Or, perhaps, with one of the 100-plus women at the church?….

Actually, the bulk of the film doesn’t deal with any of that – it’s an extended chase scene, with Keaton going to greater and greater lengths to escape a stampede of angry women in white dresses, tangling along the way with turtles, bees, streetcars, boats, cranes, canyons, bricks, and such, in a scene that comes across like a merry fever-dream combination of the Pamplona bulls, the boulder scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark, and a sale at a David’s Bridal outlet.

Keaton actually didn’t want to make the film at first. It was based on a stage play from 1916, and one of Keaton’s frequent producers, Joseph Schenck, was convinced it would make a good film adaptation. Keaton hadn’t liked the play, though, and kept putting him off – until he got into debt with Schenck and agreed to the film to help settle the debt.  He even tried to convince Schenck to change the ending, suggesting they fade out in the middle of the chase scene.  (Schenck said no.)

The one thing that finally cheered Keaton up was when an audience at a test screening unexpectedly burst out laughing when Keaton’s character, fleeing down the side of a mountain, dislodged a couple of rocks and then had to dodge them as they rolled after him.  It had been a happy accident at the time of filming – but Keaton had to admit it was funny.  So he expanded the sequence with several more minutes of himself fleeing from ever-bigger rocks (fake ones, of course) cut into the action.  Keaton still wasn’t crazy about the film, but the rock sequence, he liked.

Keaton does find space for other bits of schtick throughout the paper-thin plot – from the exact nature of his proposals to the various women at the country club, to a war of wills with a hat-check girl.

Disappointingly, some of the gags come at the expense of the women themselves – there are a few instances where Keaton recoils in horror from a woman who is either too old or too fat, and in one uneasy moment, he is on a street and about to tap the shoulder of a passing woman and make his offer, but at the last minute he sees that she is African-American and he flees in panic.  That kind of thing was par for the course in 1926, unfortunately.

Surprisingly, I also learned that this film has had a modern remake – Seven Chances was actually the basis for 1999’s The Bachelor, with Chris O’Donnell and Renee Zellweger.  From the looks of the trailer, they kept things like the basic plot and the bride chase, but forgot to put in Keaton’s charisma.

….You may notice a change in my habit of relaying the entire plot of a film – I’ve had it pointed out that that may not be exactly fair to y’all wanting to watch things yourselves.  It’s actually an old habit from some of my theater review writing days, and I’m going to try to get rid of that crutch now.

Movie Crash Course: Greed

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Oh, I didn’t want to watch this…Greed was a 1924 Erich Von Stroheim epic, which was cut down from its original nine-hour running time to being just shy of two hours after the studio intervened. The missing seven hours of footage had been assumed lost, but film historians have found enough still photos and shooting scripts that they have edited together a sort-of thing that gives a flavor of Von Stroheim’s vision, and clocks in at four hours.  Classic masterwork or not, four hours is a long time to dedicate to a movie without a break.

But this turned out to be…not bad.  Dammit.

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Based on an 1899 novel, Greed is the story of MacTeague (the film never reveals his first name), a big galoot of a guy working in a California gold mine. His parents are also in the same mining town – his mother is a cook in the mine’s kitchen, and his father is a lush. Mom MacTeague fears her son is destined for the same path as her father, so when a traveling frontier dentist comes to town, she begs the dentist to take her son on as an apprentice. MacTeague stays with the dentist for five years, until his mother finally dies, leaving him a modest inheritance of $250; he uses it to settle down in San Francisco, buy his own storefront and start his own practice.  For the next few years, business is modest, but steady, with MacTeague mostly serving the people in the boarding house where he lives and on his street, including a guy named Marcus, who becomes one of his good buddies.

Then one day, Marcus brings his girlfriend Trina by; it seems they’d been on a merry-go-round at a carnival and Trina broke her tooth, so Marcus brought her to his buddy MacTeague to fix it.  MacTeague agrees, but is also instantly smitten with Trina.

Trina, however, just wants her tooth fixed at that point. She’s nervous about being “permanently disfigured”, and to calm her nerves while she waits for him to work on her, she buys a lottery ticket from the odd-job woman working at the boarding house.

But MacTeague devotes himself to helping her, seeing her daily for a solid two weeks in an effort to design the perfect replacement crown for her; he also falls even more in love with her, and finally confesses his feelings to Marcus.  Marcus is initially jealous when MacTeague tells him, of course, but after a couple minutes admits that he’s not the best for Trina and gives MacTeague his blessing to go after her, even offering to introduce MacTeague to Trina’s family.

Trina and her family welcome MacTeague; she’s happy with her tooth, first, but she soon warms to MacTeague the man as well.  But after several months, she is still reluctant to marry him.

But then – the long-forgotten lottery ticket pays off. Trina discovers – she has won five thousand dollars!  As she shares the news with MacTeague, Marcus, and the rest of the gang, she wonders aloud what she will do with the money.  “Why don’t you and MacTeague get married with it?” someone proposes.

And so they do.

Initially all is rosy – Trina buys MacTeague a big gold-plated tooth to hang in his storefront as an eye-catching ad, and MacTeague in turn presents her with a loveable pair of pet canaries.

Marcus does grumble a bit about the couple – Trina’s new fortune has been giving him seller’s remorse for giving her up – but he keeps his peace for a while, finally moving out to the country to start a ranch, he says.

But that’s not the only hiccup in the new marriage. For all her wealth, Trina seems strangely miserly. She invests the full five thousand in her uncle’s storefront for safekeeping, and hoards any other money the couple gets, stowing it away in her hope chest and taking it out only to admire and polish it.

But then the California state dentist’s board – tipped off by a jealous Marcus – sends MacTeague a cease-and-desist letter. He’s not an accredited dentist, they decree, and so he must stop his practice immediately.

Times get hard for the couple. They sell off almost all they own and move into a cheap flophouse, MacTeague doing odd jobs to make ends meet. Trina becomes even more fanatic about saving money.  MacTeague, suspicious she’s keeping money from him, harrangues her for it, and once gets into such a fit of rage that he tortures her by biting her fingers until she gives him some of her hoard.

Finally, Trina comes home from grocery shopping one day to find that MacTeague has broken into her hope chest and stolen her savings, totalling $450 by then.  She searches his usual haunts, but he’s nowhere to be found. And then the bitten fingers – which Trina has been trying to nurse – turn so infected they need to be amputated. Abandoned, robbed, and an amputee, Trina gives up on MacTeague and strikes out on her own.  She gets a job as the cleaning lady at a local elementary school, sleeping in the back room. Once she’s settled there, she visits her uncle and takes back her five thousand-dollar investment; although she doesn’t want it to spend. Instead, she literally sleeps with it.

MacTeague, who’s finally spent through her $450, tracks her down and begs her to take him back. She refuses. She also refuses his request for some money for a meal. Then a desperate MacTeague breaks in, beats her to death and steals the five thousand, leaving San Francisco for good.

At first he takes up his old job in the mine again, but fear of the law sends him further afield, to give prospecting a try. As luck would have it, he end up near the same town where Marcus now runs a ranch; Marcus sees the “Man Wanted” posters going up in town and eagerly joins the posse heading off in search of MacTeague, eager for revenge.

The posse follows his trail to Death Valley, realizing that he’s set off into the valley alone. The others prepare to ride around and meet him on the other side, but a crazed Marcus heads into the valley to confront him. In their ensuing struggle, they manage to kill both their horses and spill all their water; but Marcus still demands MacTeague give him the five thousand dollars. MacTeague finally clubs him to death.

However – with his last breath, Marcus manages to slip a pair of handcuffs he’s carrying onto MacTeague’s other arm, cuffing the two men together.  MacTeague realizes he’s now stuck there in the desert with him, with no water and no hope of rescue. The spilled money lies out of reach, as does the canteen.  The only thing he can reach is the cage with Trina’s canaries, which he has tenderly kept with him; he opens the cage and sets free the canaries, but they succumb to the heat and fall to the ground right away, dying just as MacTeague soon will.

The end.

So, it was okay.  Von Stroheim stays behind the camera this time; I wasn’t as impressed with his performace in the last thing he directed, so him staying away was a welcome development.  But his attention to detail and his commitment to vermissilitude were still there, and probably did him in; for the Death Valley scenes, Von Stroheim insisted on shooting in Death Valley, at great risk to the health of his actors and the functionality of the equipment (he had to wrap iced towels around the camera during shooting to offset the extreme heat).  So Von Stroheim was already on thin ice when he brought his original cut to the studio heads.

The nine-hour version he showed them was only ever screened for those men, that one time. Von Stroheim reportedly sat in the front row, staring straight ahead at the camera, subtly shaming them into watching the whole thing uninterrupted along with him; he didn’t include any breaks for bathroom runs, meals, or anything. It was too much – the studio insisted that they would be making cuts, and that was that.  Von Stroheim objected strenuously, and the studio insisted just as strenuously; at one point Von Stroheim got into a fist fight with Louis Mayer, the head of MGM, over the cuts.

But cut things they did.  And, based on what I saw restored, I would be inclined to agree with half of it.  …I actually should speak to how the restoration I saw worked first: the actual cut footage had long since been destroyed, but historians found some of Von Stroheim’s notes about what some of the missing title cards would have been, as well as some corresponding still photos.  Those both have been edited back into the four-hour version of the film – lengthy takes of the still shots interspersed with the title cards, sometimes with a close-up on key details from the image.  It’s a bit jarring at first, but I got used to it quickly.

The biggest cuts were made in two sub-plots Von Stroheim intended to show as parallel stories of how other couples handled money; first, with the odd-job woman who sells Trina the lottery ticket. For the first part of the film she’s a poor dreamer, making up stories about how her family once owned a solid gold dinner service just to cheer herself up. Another fellow in the boarding house marries her, then asks whether she knows where the set is.  He keeps after her about how she should track the set down so they can have it; but when she keeps refusing, he finally kills her.  The other subplot concerns a pair of elderly boarders in the boarding house – the veterinarian Dr. Gilpin, and the elderly Miss Baker, who have been living in rooms next door to each other and admiring each other from afar. Near the film’s end, Dr. Gilpin comes into his own five thousand dollar windfall, and proposes to Miss Baker; she’s unconcerned about the money, though, and just wants him. They use the money to install a door in the wall between their rooms, and then marry. The story of Dr. Gilpin and Miss Baker is sweet, but honestly I wouldn’t have missed it.

The performances in the main story are compelling enough, though, that I do regret some of the cuts to that story; Trina’s family is an especially quirky lot, a family of German immigrants with three lively little kids and a papa who likes to lead them on mock “parades” to get them into line.  It may be a little unnecessary – but in one of the early scenes, when MacTeague is first meeting her family, it’s a charming lot of detail, winning the hard-luck MacTeague over into a whole new idea for how his life could be.  It’s part of what makes him fall for her – and adds to the poignancy when their rmoance, which did start out so well, gets corrupted by greed.