Lively, entertaining reviews of, and essays on, old and newer films and everything relating to them, written by professional author William Schoell.

Thursday, September 20, 2018


Peter Lorre and Edward Arnold
CRIME AND PUNISHMENT (1935). Director: Josef von Sternberg.

"You said you'd show me some of your blundering police methods, and you certainly have!" -- Roderick to Inspector Porfiry.

Roderick (Peter Lorre) is a poor but talented writer on criminal psychology who is months behind in his rent. He is forced to bring some of his possessions to a pawnbroker, Leona (Mrs. Patrick Campbell), a loathsome old lady who insults her clients and offers them little money for their items. Roderick hatches a scheme to get the money he needs, but things go wrong almost from the start. Now Roderick has to deal not only with Inspector Porfiry (Edward Arnold of Lillian Russell), who admires Roderick but comes to suspect him, but with his own conscience. One could argue that the movie is a cinematic "cliff's notes" version of Dostoevsky's famous 1866 novel, but the story and its implications and ironic aspects remain powerful. Lorre gives a great performance, nearly matched by Arnold, and there is also fine work from Marian Marsh [Svengali] as Sonya, whom Roderick has fallen in love with; Tala Birell [The Frozen Ghost] as Roderick's sister, Antonya, who is willing to make any sacrifice for him; Campbell as the old lady and murder victim; Gene Lockhart as Antonya's much-older suitor; Douglass Dumbrille as another man who is in love with the sister; and especially Elisabeth Risdon as Roderick's mother, who gets at least one very strong scene when she finds out the truth about what her beloved son has done. One problem with the movie is that our modern-day knowledge of criminology might cause us to look less sympathetically at Roderick. Nowadays we might even see Dostoevsky's anti-hero as a borderline narcissist and even a sociopath -- his crimes are even worse in the book than they are in the film -- and his "conscience" could simply be worry over being caught, thereby proving him not to be quite as superior as he thought.

Mrs. Patrick Campbell originated the role of Eliza Doolittle in Shaw's Pygmailion on the stage.  She was perhaps most famous for her oft-quoted line: "It doesn't matter what you do in the bedroom as long as you don't do it in the street and frighten the horses." More of a theater person than a film personality, she had only six movie credits, of which Crime and Punishment was the last. She did not enjoy working with von Sternberg, possibly because  he (appropriately) made her look horrible on camera.

Verdict:  Some very raw and powerful acting in this. ***. 


angelman66 said...

Hi Bill...this is another that I have only read about and have yet to see, but it looks like a winner. I loved reading the Dostoevsky novel in high school but have never seen any screen adaptation...I guess because the novel is an entire inner monologue that it never seemed cinematic in nature to me. But as a huge fan of Von Sternberg and of Lorre, I must finally catch this one, too, and also get a glimpse of the fabled Mrs. Patrick Campbell!
- Chris

William said...

She's something else, that Mrs. Campbell, playing a real harridan. I don't know what she expected of von Sternberg, as she had to know her part would be unsympathetic and ugly in every sense of the word. Let's hope she didn't "scare the horses," LOL!