Friday, August 13, 2010


Years ago, I tried reading Dostoyevsky's "Crime and Punishment" without the benefit of a teacher or a classroom of students to give me the impetus to finish--I didn't finish it. I imagine that this relatively short Hollywood film doesn't really do the huge book justice; nevertheless, on its own terms, this is a well-done B-thriller with strong performances and good atmosphere courtesy director Josef von Sternberg. Peter Lorre is Raskolnikov, a student who graduates with honors; months later, he has a promising article on criminology published, though anonymously at the insistence of his editor, and lives in dirt poor conditions. The contents of the article are never made clear, but Roskolnikov believes that actions of superior people should be above the law, and he puts this theory into practice when he kills a nasty pawnbroker who is, in his eyes, the scum of the earth, for doing dirt not just to him but to lovely young Sonya (Marian Marsh), a whore with a heart of gold. There is a plotline involving his mother and sister, both of whom he believes are at the mercy of an obnoxious man (Gene Lockhart), but the focus here is on the cat-and-mouse game that develops between Roskolnikov and Inspector Porfiry (Edward Arnold). Lorre and Arnold play off each other very well, and Marsh is beautiful and almost believable in the stock role of the bad girl who is actually too good to be true. Mrs. Patrick Campbell, a legendary stage actress, has one of her very few film roles as the horrid pawnbroker, who does indeed seem to deserve a bad fate, if not perhaps death. Douglass Dumbrille has a small but important role as a figure from Roskolnikov's sister's past who shows up near the end. Discussions of the nature of mankind, religion, atheism, and crime, which most likely take up many pages in the novel, frequently seem on the verge of breaking out here, but never really happen. Still, a much better movie, in acting and in visual style, than I would have expected. [TCM]

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