Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Crime and Punishment (B. P. Schulberg Productions/Columbia, 1935)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I screened Charles our “feature” for the evening, a quite fascinating film from Josef von Sternberg at Columbia in 1935 based on Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s classic novel Crime and Punishment. Sternberg had just been fired from Paramount, where he’d become a star director with the 1927 film Underworld which set the template for the gangster movies of the late 1920’s and early 1930’s. In 1930 he’d arranged with the German UFA studio to make a film there for Emil Jannings, who’d just been let go by Paramount because they didn’t think his English would be good enough for sound films, and the film was The Blue Angel, a tale of a middle-aged college professor and the young cabaret entertainer who seduces and ruins him. To play the young cabaret entertainer Sternberg tested almost every actress in Berlin with a voice and a figure, including a woman named Marlene Dietrich who’d been passed over two years previously by G. W. Pabst for the role of Lulu in Pandora’s Box in favor of American actress Louise Brooks. Having already lost one big role, Dietrich showed up for her audition with Sternberg with a bored, world-weary attitude because she was convinced she’d never get the part and was just going through the motions — and Sternberg immediately decided to use her because that bored, world-weary attitude was just what he wanted for the character. Sternberg took Dietrich back with him when he returned to the U.S. and Paramount, and starred her in a series of six films that started out as both artistic successes and commercial hits: Morocco, Dishonored, Shanghai Express and Blonde Venus. Then the box-office receipts began to fall and Paramount’s head of production, Emmanuel Cohen, decided to have Dietrich work with Rouben Mamoulian on a film called Song of Songs, which flopped. Dietrich and Sternberg resumed their collaboration in 1934 with two great films, The Scarlet Empress and The Devil Is a Woman, which were huge box-office failures. Paramount blamed Sternberg for Dietrich’s box-office decline and fired him, whereupon he was picked up on a sort of corporate rebound by Harry Cohn, head of Columbia Pictures, one of whose joys was having successes with major talents who had bombed elsewhere.

The mastermind of the deal to have Sternberg work at Columbia was B. P. Schulberg, the Paramount studio head who had signed both Sternberg and Dietrich and run the company until Emmanuel Cohen forced him out. (Schulberg’s son Budd never forgave Cohen and used him as the model for the nasty, avaricious, unscrupulous Sammy Glick in his classic Hollywood novel What Makes Sammy Run?) Schulberg decided to put Sternberg in charge of a film adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment at a time in Hollywood history in which, as Richard Griffith noted in his contribution to the film history book The Film Till Now, studios were sneaking in social comment by dressing it up in period drag and adapting classic novels that involved the class conflicts of previous eras. It was a time when Hollywood was big on Charles Dickens — in the 1930’s the U.S. studios made films of Great Expectations, David Copperfield, A Tale of Two Cities and A Christmas Carol — and Schulberg seems to have been drawn to Dostoyevsky as a sort of Russian Dickens, one whose works could likewise be tapped to dramatize antagonisms between rich and poor and offer at least some hint of a social critique. The agenda is even stated on screen in a title card at the opening which reads, “The time of our story is any time, the place any place where human hearts respond to love and hate, pity and terror.” Sternberg later claimed in his bitter autobiography, Fun in a Chinese Laundry, that he hadn’t wanted to make this movie and had been forced into it by a contractual obligation, but (as with his later film The Shanghai Gesture, which he said he did just as a favor to an old friend who was producing it) it comes off as a genuinely personal movie. Screenwriters Joseph Anthony and S. K. Lauren had the unenviable task of adapting a substantial novel (though Crime and Punishment is relatively short compared to Dostoyevsky’s other works) into the script for a 90-minute film, but they did a good job not only conveying the essence of the story but tapping into Dostoyevsky’s beliefs on religion, morality and class.

Sternberg also got a good cast together, including Peter Lorre in his second U.S. film as Raskolnikov (rather jarringly his first name in the movie is “Roderick”!), the star college student turned impoverished writer who kills an avaricious pawnbroker (Mrs. Patrick Campbell, the veteran stage star who nearly three decades earlier had created the part of Eliza Doolittle in the world premiere of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, and who complained that she had wanted to suggest the character’s ugliness with facial expressions alone, and instead Sternberg and cinematographer Lucien Ballard used every camera trick in the book to make her look awful and essentially do her acting for her). Top billing went to Edward Arnold, who plays Inspector Porfiry, the police official who finally figures out that Raskolnikov committed the murder after nearly condemning the usual obvious suspect — even though he doesn’t appear until half an hour into this 88-minute movie — and his whole approach to the investigation makes him seem like the ancestor of Columbo, the detective who solves a crime essentially by annoying the suspect into confessing. Crime and Punishment is a rich, deeply rewarding film, and blessedly Sternberg, Anthony and Lauren resisted the temptation to “lighten it up” and insert the usual unfunny “comic relief” characters. (The same year, Edward Arnold also played a police detective in James Whale’s marvelous comedy-thriller Remember Last Night?, an otherwise great movie in which Whale and his writers saddled Arnold with a comic-relief sidekick and Whale let him get away with a big beaver job on the scenery — which makes it all the more impressive that Sternberg actually got the usually overbearing Arnold to underact.) The film is a major accomplishment, with three star performers gripping the screen — Arnold, Lorre (billed as “The Celebrated European Actor, Peter Lorre”) and Marian Marsh (who’d played Trilby to John Barrymore’s Svengali four years before), who plays Sonia, Raskolnikov’s prostitute (at least it’s hinted in a film made when Production Code enforcement was at its most draconian) friend. Sternberg’s direction of her proves that he hadn’t lost his command of women when Hollywood politics split him and Dietrich up professionally; her performance is equal to those of her more legendary male colleagues and offers the same kind of world-weariness Sternberg got out of Dietrich in The Blue Angel.

The film also offers some other acid-etched performances, notably those of Raskolnikov’s family — Elizabeth Risdon as his mother and Tala Birell as his sister Antonya — and one of its best aspects is the absolutely vicious characterization of Lushin (Gene Lockhart), a well-connected upper-class twit who boasts that he’s landed two government jobs (which causes Raskolnikov to ridicule him in a series of ever-nastier insults in which the two jobs become seven and then 10) and who basically shows up in the lives of Raskolnikov’s family by essentially offering to buy Antonya, insisting that he’ll share his riches with them in exchange for her total obedience, telling Raskolnikov, “I prefer a girl, like your sister, who’s experienced poverty. I believe that a wife should always look up to her husband as a benefactor.” The 1935 Crime and Punishment is a fascinating movie, proof that all those years glamorizing Marlene Dietrich hadn’t taken away Sternberg’s ability to do a socially conscious movie and making me more curious than ever to see Sternberg’s 1930 film of Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy (a movie Sternberg got put on after Paramount’s original choice, Russian master Sergei Eisenstein, got himself fired for ramping up the novel’s social comment when Paramount wanted it toned down), which I suspect is a lot better than George Stevens’ terrible 1951 remake, A Place in the Sun. When the Metropolitan Opera did a production of a recent operatic adaptation of An American Tragedy their magazine, Opera News, published an article about previous adaptations of the story that included stills of the lake scenes from both the Sternberg and Stevens film — and the Sternberg was awesomely beautiful, full of dappled reflections of light on the lake surface and a visual look that conveyed an air of doomed romanticism, while the Stevens version of the same scene was photographed as flatly as a picture postcard. Crime and Punishment came from my backlog of home-recorded DVD’s and was a movie I hadn’t seen until now, but it was well worth the wait, a finely honed production that may not have done justice to the letter of Dostoyevsky’s novel but certainly communicated its spirit.