Cast & Crew
Josef Von Sternberg
In Russia, university student Roderick Raskolnikov graduates with honors. Even though he is hailed as an authority on crime, Roderick lives in poverty. When Roderick learns that his family is coming to visit, he decides to pawn the heirloom watch he received for graduation. At the pawnbroker's, Roderick sees an unfortunate street urchin, Sonya, receive only one ruble for her valuable Bible, and when she is pushed out the door by the pawnbroker, she loses the ruble. When Roderick learns that Sonya supports her family, he gives her the rubles he receives for his watch. Later, Roderick's mother and sister, Toni, arrive at his apartment, and he learns that Toni lost her job because her employer's husband, Grilov, tried to force himself on her. With the family in dire poverty, Toni has agreed to marry the pompous, aging Lushin. Angry at Toni for selling herself to Lushin, and desperately in need of money, Roderick kills the cruel old pawnbroker, and rummages through her room for valuables. The next day, Roderick is arrested, not for the pawnbroker's murder but for overdue rent. Inspector Porfiry is eager to meet the criminal expert, and he has Roderick observe the interrogation of an innocent prisoner suspected of the pawnbroker's murder. Porfiry, who has solved all crimes assigned to him, confides to Roderick that he is willing to send an innocent man to prison in order to maintain his record. Later, Roderick goes to the office of the Current Review and the editor, excited over the response to Roderick's last article, agrees to give him 1,000 rubles for another article. Certain that he is not suspected of the crime, Roderick returns to see his family, where he mocks Lushin, and in doing so, ends Toni's engagement. Meanwhile, Sonya is questioned by Porfiry, and his suspicions about Roderick are aroused. Roderick then shows up at the police station, and Porfiry invites himself to meet his family, who he questions vociferously until Roderick forces him to apologize. Later, Grilov arrives and tells Roderick that he is now a widower, then offers Toni 500 rubles as compensation for his actions. Now wracked by his conscience, Roderick visits Porfiry, who admits that he suspects him; however, the innocent man confesses, thus causing Roderick to feel more guilt. Roderick goes to Sonya, and terrifies her with crazy talk, and she begins to read the Bible to him. No longer able to endure his guilt, Roderick confesses while Grilov listens outside the door. Grilov then tries to blackmail Toni, but relents when he sees her hatred of him. Meanwhile, Roderick returns to his apartment and finds Porfiry, who accuses him of the crime and threatens to send the innocent man to Siberia and leave the injustice on Roderick's conscience. Roderick goes to Toni, who is now engaged to his friend Dmitri, and asks her to look after their mother and Sonya in his absence. As Roderick leaves, Sonya asks him to leave the country with her, but he asks her to wait for him, and they go to Porfiry's office together.
Josef Von Sternberg
Mrs. Patrick Campbell
Frank G. Fanning
Lieutenant George Blagoi
Jack H. Richardson
Crime and Punishment (1935)
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
Crime and Punishment (1935)
The film opens with the following prologue: "The time of our story is any time, the place any place where human hearts respond to love and hate, pity and terror." The film's opening credits list Dostoevsky, whose name is spelled Dostoievsky onscreen, with story credit. His name is followed by an asterisk, with a note at the bottom of the card reading, "Feodor Dostoievsky, Russia's foremost author/wrote Crime and Punishment in 1866." According to the MPAA/PCA Collection at the AMPAS Library, Production Code officials first viewed the Victor Wolfson stage production of the novel in 1935. Vincent G. Hart of the Eastern Studio Relations Office of the MPPDA noted that "serious thematic difficulties will be encountered because of the characterization of the heroine as a prostitute. This characterization is a definite part of the plot." He goes on to note "the failure of the police to arrest and prosecute the young college student for murder." Both of these plot developments were changed for the screen version. The MPAA/PCA file also includes a script written by Sy Bartlett and Charles Belden, entitled Untitled Outline No. 1. The plot of that script bears little resemblance to the released film. The extent of Bartlett and Belden's contribution to the final film has not been determined.
In his autobiography, Josef von Sternberg wrote that he regretted the selection of the actors, particularly Mrs. Patrick Campbell, the famous British stage star, but noted that he had no control over her selection. Sternberg thought that Peter Lorre was inappropriate, but noted that he was the only cast member who read the Dostoevsky novel. Sternberg generally believed the project was doomed from the start. In a New York Times interview, Lorre said that he had been brought over to the United States from England by Columbia and placed under contract, with ten months of idleness following. Rejecting a role in a Jack Holt vehicle, Lorre suggested Crime and Punishment, and finally agreed to a deal whereby the picture would be made and directed by Sternberg, if Lorre agreed to a loan to M-G-M to appear in Mad Love. The Columbia film was released almost simultaneously with a French version, Crime et Chatiment, directed by Pierre Chenal and starring Pierre Blanchar as "Roderick." The American adaptation generally suffered by contemporary critical comparison. A contemporary Philadelphia newspaper review noted that the French version stayed true to the novel, in that "Raskolnikov" killed both the pawnbroker and her sister. Several reviews noted Chenal's use of silent film technique. The New Theatre Magazine wrote, "The film possesses many of the virtues of the silent movie and few of the vices, if any, of the talkie era." Other versions of Dostoevsky's novel Crime and Punishment include a 1917 Arrow production directed by Lawrence McGill and starring Derwent Hall Caine (see AFI Catalogue of Feature Films, 1911-20; F1.0839), a 1923 German film entitled Raskolnikov, directed by Robert Wiene and starring Grigori Chmarna, a 1946 Monogram production entitled Fear, directed by Alfred Zeisler and starring Warren William, and a 1959 Allied Artists film, Crime and Punishment USA, directed by Denis Saunders and starring George Hamilton.