Tonight’s Saturday Night Cinema feature is simply a masterpiece. Overly condensed, of course, this adaptation of Dostoevsky’s novel features a young, intense Peter Lorre as the arrogant Raskolnikov, committing a murder and then fighting it out both with his conscience and police inspector Arnold. Lorre is – as ever – marvelous.
Shortly upon his arrival in Hollywood (after escaping the rise of Nazi power in Europe), Peter Lorre began a successful campaign to convince Columbia Pictures to allow him to star in an adaptation of what is arguably Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s best-known novel, Crime and Punishment (1866).
Crime and Punishment (1935)
Josef von Sternberg is one of those auteurs we thought we had pegged – as Dietrich’s Svengali, as a petulant arch-expressionist wrestling with the studio system, as the artist who turned his ambiguous ardor for Marlene into absurd, campy sand castles of light and fetishized iconicity, and then wandered in the desert without her, creating dark fantasias out of lurid genre films (The Shanghai Gesture ,Macao ) that remain fascinating because of their wild wrongness. And we did peg him, as far as it goes. But should it ever be done right, the picture will change – as if, perhaps the Dietrich movies, which are slow and arch and extremely, knowingly silly, were merely one way for this fascinating artist to attack the medium. (Honestly, the gritty realism of The Blue Angel  is light years away from, say, The Scarlett Empress‘s  arch, silvery fakeness, and only a few years separate them.) For one thing, you can look at the new Criterion Collection DVD box of long-unavailable silents (Underworld ,The Docks of New York ,The Last Command ) made on the cusp of the sound era, you can’t help but think that maybe von Sternberg had his most eloquent years before talkies burdened the production process.
Certainly, his version of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, released in 1935, belies all expectations. It doesn’t feel like a von Sternberg film as we’ve come to know them – it is spare, no-frills, unadorned. Von Sternberg was a famous and shady prevaricator, and what little we know of his biography are often outright lies. (His dryly riotous memoir, Fun in a Chinese Laundry, is more of a cranky editorial rant on the man’s career than a recollection of it.) But it must be significant that Crime and Punishment, executed by von Sternberg as a contractual obligation, came immediately after his last film with Dietrich. Whatever kind of obsessive romance Dietrich and von Sternberg had had during their six years of feverish image-making together – no one knows if they were lovers, or created their intimacy through the camera – their falling out in 1935 must’ve been heartbreaking, for one or both. We’ll never know for sure, but here comes this small-boned, low-budget studio riff on Dostoevsky’s essentially unfilmable novel, trailing after one of the most rhapsodic relationships between director and star in the history of movies (see Shanghai Express if that statement seems hyperbolic to you, and then it won’t), and you can see bitterness leak out of every frame.
If anything, this almost rudimentary tour through the novel’s agonized psychology and ethical struggle plays something like a pre-noir – and it shares a lot of visual and thematic elements with another ultra-cheap tour of hell, Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour (1945). Shot on barely decorated studio sets and shot with confrontational simplicity, von Sternberg’s film attends briskly to the book’s story: Raskolnikov (still-chubby recent émigré Peter Lorre) graduates from university a brilliant and cynical scholar, but is soon reduced to poverty, as is his family. As his sister contrives to wed a rich fool, Raskolnikov, thinking his intelligence places him on a distinct moral plane, decides to kill an usurious pawnbroker. Afterwards, his guilt and dread eat away at him, as a sporting police chief toys with the culprit, waiting for him to implicate himself or confess.
Of course, in Dostoevsky the action is mostly interior and philosophical, and attending to von Sternberg’s film as an adaptation, or anything but a student’s introduction to the novel, is a mistake. (Von Sternberg dismissed the movie himself, as he did most of his assignments, saying it was “no more related to the true text of the novel than the corner of Sunset Boulevard and Gower is related to the Russian environment.”) In any case, no adaptation of any Dostoevsky novel is an unqualified success; some authors are immune to cinema. (Hollywood takes on classical European fiction are not famous for fidelity at any rate.) Instead, it’s a grim, bell-jar dissertation on criminology and personal responsibility, resembling more an experimental play than a typical studio film of the ’30s, with its Nietzchean “ubermensch” talk not only beating Chaplin’s postwar postures in Monsieur Verdoux (1947), to the punch (“If you wipe out thousands, no one condemns you!” Raskolnikov barks at the individual-vs.-the-state hypocrisy), but echoing the mindset of the Leopold and Loeb murderers a decade earlier.
As is typical of the era, the cast’s heavy dose of personality makes the movie compulsive watching. Lorre, so quickly a Warner Bros. character-actor joke that he was often caricaturized for Bugs Bunny cartoons, is surely one of the Golden Era’s most distinctive personages, a sweaty homunculus with eyes the size of 8-balls and a desperate whine of a voice that here, under von Sternberg’s sotte voce guidance, rarely rises above a self-involved mutter, and then it does rise, to a raspy bellow. (Dietrich also learned how to understate her readings under von Sternberg, speaking so drolly from her diaphragm you barely see her lips move.) Edward Arnold, who gets top billing, plums it up as the affable policeman, but more interesting are Douglass Dumbrille, who brings his typical stalwart sensitivity to the role of a squelched suitor to Raskolnikov’s sister, and the all-but-forgotten Tala Birell, who in the thankless sister role is altogether regal, acidic and fascinating. Still, arguably, it’s the unseen man behind the camera that dominates the mood, casting about angry and desperate on these cheap sets, looking for the raison d’etre he’d just recently lost for good.
Producer: B.P. Schulberg
Director: Josef von Sternberg
Screenplay: Joseph Anthony, S.K. Lauren (writers); Fyodor Dostoevsky (novel)
Cinematography: Lucien Ballard
Film Editing: Richard Cahoon
Cast: Peter Lorre (Roderick Raskolnikov), Edward Arnold (Insp. Porfiry), Marian Marsh (Sonya), Tala Birell (Antonya Raskolnikov), Elisabeth Risdon (Mrs. Raskolnikov), Robert Allen (Dmitri), Douglass Dumbrille (Grilov), Gene Lockhart (Lushin), Charles Waldron (University president), Thurston Hall (Editor).
by Michael Atkinson
Seventy years later, a different pespective:
Crime and Punishment: A Neglected Classic
By Thomas Beltzer, Senses of Cinema, November 2004
Film lovers who are loyal to the notion of auteurism will automatically think of Crime and Punishment as belonging to Josef von Sternberg, but they would be mistaken. This version of the Dostoyevsky classic is Peter Lorre’s, a vehicle for the actor’s particular talents. After the box-office failure of The Scarlet Empress (1934) and the political suppression (due to complaints by the Spanish government) of The Devil is a Woman (1935), Sternberg was banished from Paramount. As David A. Cook reports: “This was the end for the director. Destroyed by his refusal to compromise with the studio system and by his own profligate style, his contract was cancelled” (1). Crime and Punishment, for him, was just an assignment (2), but for Lorre, born to play Raskolnikov, it was a cherished project. In fairness to both artists, I think that is how the film should be viewed – a Peter Lorre tour-de-force ably assisted by Josef von Sternberg. In that light, it certainly deserves more credit than it has received – dismissed as “limp” in Cook’s A History of Narrative Film (3) and virtually ignored on the Internet. Faithful to the spirit and not the letter of Dostoyevsky (in my view, a requirement for a good screen adaptation), Lorre and Sternberg – with the able assistance of character actor Edward Arnold as Inspector Porfiry – created a Kafkaesque fable, presented to us in the timeless landscape of a disturbing dream.
According to Hal Erikson of Allmovie.com, the villain and rising star of Lang’s M and Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much had his secretary type up a synopsis of the novel in words of one syllable and presented it to Columbia’s chieftain Harry Cohn (4). Allegedly, Cohn loved the idea and asked, “Tell me – has this book got a publisher?” Be that as it may, Lorre is showcased to great effect, using his villainous and creepy demeanour to create an anti-hero who is genuinely complex – disturbing and sympathetic at the same time, an obvious goal of Dostoyevsky’s source novel.
Lorre’s nuanced performance allows the film to capture the author’s key concerns which are essentially religious in nature. Eastern Orthodox values, as Russians tend to interpret them, can be strange and even incomprehensible to Westerners. However, perhaps their living connection with Eastern Europe helped Lorre and Sternberg to understand and accurately depict these values. Secret humility and repentance coupled with a redemptive view of suffering, in Dostoyevsky’s mind, result in the merciful championing of the most abased characters. St. John of Kronstadt (a contemporary of Dostoyevsky and priest to Czar Alexander) writes, “Humble yourself inwardly before everybody, counting yourself lower than he or she” (5), and Dostoyevsky’s treasured St. Isaac the Syrian says, “When he sees all men as good and none appears to him to be unclean and defiled, then in very truth his heart is pure” (6). Dostoyevsky himself writes in his journal regarding Crime and Punishment,
The Idea of the Novel
1. Orthodox View. What Orthodoxy is.
2. There is no happiness in comfort. Happiness is purchased by suffering. (7)
The film is filled with moments that are difficult to understand unless one is familiar with these basic underpinnings and motivations. For example, Raskolnikov gives away money he doesn’t really have and refuses to explain to the Inspector his sudden good fortune. Raskolnikov is not only motivated by misguided Nietzschean/Napoleonic arrogance, he is also motivated by love twisted with despair.
The novel is so much more than just a guilt trip, and Lorre’s supple face and body language brilliantly capture these complex themes, shifting from elation to despair and from paranoia to bravado in a way that indicates a deep understanding of the Russian spirit as embodied in Raskolnikov. The brilliant performance of Edward Arnold as the Inspector and the subtle cat-and-mouse game portrayed by him and Lorre can only be properly understood in all its layers in this Russian context. The Inspector truly loves Raskolnikov and is seeking to redeem him rather than merely apprehend him. Between them are moments of black comic brilliance, and the interaction between the two is one of the greatest performances by a duo in the history of cinema.
As for Sternberg, he may have been down, but he was certainly not out. This third outing in Russia doesn’t offer the baroque visual thrills of The Scarlet Empress but, in its own way, its lean austerity is a mythopoeic “painting with light” (8). Erikson claims that “the story is subtly updated, though any distinctly ‘contemporary’ touches such as automobiles, telephones and current slang are studiously avoided” in order to “make the film even more accessible to a mass audience” (9). This may have been the original intent, but I see it as an effective decontextualisation in order to place the story into the realm of universal myth and recurring nightmare, giving it a timeless, placeless quality that makes us all Raskolnikov and its images perpetually relevant. Lorre is dwarfed by the shadows on his staircase, and time and again he steps malevolently out of darkness into light. In the closing scene the shadow of an imperial eagle/cross falls onto his chest creating an effective symbol of judgement and mercy. A favourite moment of mine has a slouching Lorre rising and stepping aside to reveal a portrait of a slouching Napoleon who looks suspiciously like Peter Lorre.
We watch Crime and Punishment with the luxury of having both artists’ complete work available to us. Peter Lorre and Josef von Sternberg carry an artistic resonance with them that through juxtaposition adds rich levels of meaning and aesthetic pleasure to this little seen film. For us, all of Lorre’s character’s, from M‘s Franz Becker to Mr. Moto to Joel Cairo and Ugarte, can be layered onto Raskolnikov to great effect, and, for me at least, it is impossible to watch this film without remembering the angry visual critique of Czarist Russian decadence found elsewhere in Sternberg’s work. There is a larger-than-life grandeur and lyricism that may not be entirely in the film itself but washes in from the rest of Sternberg’s oeuvre, and his grim world-view also informs our viewing. Their personalities and talents combine beautifully here to give us a neglected classic.
- David A. Cook, A History of Narrative Film, 4th ed., W.W. Norton, New York and London, 2004, p. 258.
- Peter Bogdanovich, Who the Devil Made It: Conversations with Legendary Filmmakers, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1997, p. 241.
- Cook, p. 258.
- Hal Erikson, All-Movie Guide Database.
- John Kronstadt, My Life In Christ. Part II, trans. E.E. Goulaeff, Holy Trinity Monastery, Jordanville, 1977, p. 28.
- Isaac the Syrian, The Ascetical Homilies of Saint Isaac the Syrian, trans. Holy Transfiguration Monastery, Holy Transfiguration Monastery, Jordanville, 1984, p. 177.
- Feodor Dostoyevsky, Crime and Punishment, ed. George Gibian, trans. Jessie Coulson, W.W. Norton, New York, 1964, p. 536.
- Cook, p. 259.
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