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As a filmmaker, writer/director Richard Brooks was not one to back down from a challenge. Few challenges could be as daunting, however, as translating one of the richest, most complex and most acclaimed works in world literature into two and a half hours' worth of screen narrative. His take on Fyodor Dostoyevsky's 1880 novel The Brothers Karamazov (1958) is a worthy effort that does an effective job of evoking the themes of the author's work.
History has shown the titular characters of Dostoyevsky's final opus to each embody separate aspects of the author's personality. The soldier Dmitri (Yul Brynner) is passionate, intemperate, and a slave to a gambling compulsion that keeps him mired in debt. The journalist Ivan (Richard Basehart) is intellectual, rational, and unable to reconcile with the abiding faith of his younger brother, the novitiate priest Alexei (William Shatner). Last in line is Smerdyakov (Albert Salmi), the epileptic, amoral, unacknowledged bastard who lives in service to their father, Fyodor (Lee J. Cobb).
The sons all chafe under the control of their father, a sybaritic lout who keeps a close grip on the inheritances left by his late wives. Particularly galled is the always-needy Dmitri, who chooses to confront the object of Fyodor's favors, the free-spirited slattern Grushenka (Maria Schell). Dmitri finds himself falling for Grushenka, much to the public humiliation of his fiancΘe Katerina (Claire Bloom).
Brooks opted to leave his primary focus on the arcs of Dmitri and Grushenka, and the murder mystery that followed in their passion's wake, leaving the moral dilemmas of Ivan and Alexei as peripheral elements. He also attempted a form of visual shorthand to capture the essence of Dostoyevsky's novel, as evidenced by the bright palate of primary tints that he and cinematographer John Alton hoped would evoke states of mind that could not be conveyed by dialogue. With little onscreen time to convey the piety of Alexei's mentor Father Zosima, Brooks cast the actor William Vedder in the belief that he "would give, by his very appearance, an immediate and lasting impression of the spiritual qualities required."
The best successes of The Brothers Karamazov lay with the performances that Brooks coaxed out of his cast. Cobb heartily devoured the scenery as the boorish patriarch, and procured an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor as a result. Salmi, who would go on to be a ubiquitous character heavy, was quite effective as the calculating Smerdyakov, as was Shatner (in his first film appearance) in conveying the placid selflessness of Alexei.
Schell made the most of her luminous smile in conveying the girlish abandon of Grushenka, a role that Marilyn Monroe had desperately wanted to play. Brynner, at the height of his star power, lent the requisite intensity to Dmitri. For him, it was the most daring artistic challenge of his career to date. "When we were working out his character in Karamazov," Brooks revealed in an interview, "Yul must have asked three hundred questions a day. He was constantly aware of the importance of the picture and of himself in it." Brynner's contract for the film also reflected his serious intent; the studio was obligated to provide him with his own private Russian historian (Count Andrei Tolstoy, the nephew of the novelist, was eventually hired to instruct him). Brynner's dedication to his part is much more remarkable in light of the fact that he cracked two vertebrae on the first day's shooting. While filming one of The Brothers Karamazov's more memorable set pieces, Dmitri's horseback competition with a Russian officer, Brynner felt a pop in his back, and he collapsed on his dressing room floor an hour later. "On the next day, Friday, he missed work," recalled Rock Brynner in Yul: The Man Who Would Be King: A Memoir Of Father And Son (Simon & Schuster), "but he was back in front of the camera first thing Monday morning-broken back and all."
While his degree of success at adapting Dostoyevsky to film has and always will be vigorously debated, Brooks and his collaborators at the very least rendered a compelling entertainment in The Brothers Karamazov. Saturday Review critic Hollis Alpert probably put it best in his February 1958 review when he opined "Why, after all, should the combined efforts of many skilled people, the outlay of a few million dollars, ever be expected to approximate the achievement of one poor man of genius?"
Producer: Pandro S. Berman
Director: Richard Brooks
Screenplay: Julius J. Epstein, Richard Brooks, Philip G. Epstein; based on the novel by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Costume Designer: Walter Plunkett
Cinematography: John Alton
Editing: John D. Dunning
Music: Bronislau Kaper
Cast: Yul Brynner (Dmitri Karamazov), Maria Schell (Grushenka), Claire Bloom (Katya), Lee J. Cobb (Fyodor Karamazov), Richard Basehart (Ivan Karamazov), William Shatner (Alexei Karamazov), Albert Salmi (Smerdyakov), Judith Evelyn (Mme. Anna Hohlakov), David Opatoshu (Capt. Snegiryov).
C-147m. Closed captioning.
by Jay Steinberg