Erich Von Stroheim's 1922 films Greed can make many claims to greatness. Among them: it's the first great butchered movie masterpiece and the first great movie about dentistry. It's also a great city movie. Adapting Frank Norris' novel McTeague, Von Stroheim lets the commonplace moral themes of folk tales and murder ballads play out in a San Francisco that's still coming into full flower as a metropolis.
Von Stroheim insisted on shooting on location, one of the many reasons his movie became a money-sucking monster taken out of his control. But it was the right decision capturing, however accidentally, an American city still shedding the 19th century as it covered itself in the 20th. Some of my favorite shots, well, ever come when Gibson Gowland's sort-of dentist works on patients from his Polk Street office.
The novel places this at 309 Polk Street above a post office. Later it would serve as a real dentist office, which must have confused readers of the novel. Now it's overshadowed by city hall. I'm not sure Von Stroheim used that exact address. Maybe someone in San Francisco could tell me.
Here's the shot that I love (and, as above, pardon the poor image quality. I'm working from YouTube since the film is, confoundingly, not on DVD.
Imagine for a moment being in that chair. If you could get past the anxiety of having dental work done by a man without a license (though you wouldn't know that) who looks a bit like a half-wit (which you undoubtedly would know), would you see a city in transition? If you were older, would you take a moment to note the Model Ts and cable cars that have nudged the carriages off the street? Could you imagine for a moment the San Franciscos to come from the neurotic, obsessive streets of Vertigo through the Vietnam-era anxieties of Dirty Harry and beyond? Could you see the present for what it was and imagine the future?
I think about that corner every time I pass by a bank here in my Chicago neighborhood. It was my first bank when I moved here, chosen as much for aesthetic qualities as any other reason. It has a classic look, complete with an old-fashioned giant vault in the back. (What it didn't have at the time was online banking, thus necessitating an eventual switch.)
A few years ago it added a tacky-looking LCD screen as a concession to modernity, which disappointed me, although I'm guessing others were just as bothered when they added the classic-looking stainless steel clock however many decades past. Around the same time they added something else: A neon sign in the second floor office. Squint and you can just make it out in the photo below.
It says "Dentist." Now I find myself wondering what the patients getting work done up there see looking out on our corner of the world. And what they can't possibly know to look for.