Crime and Punishment (Josef von Sternberg / U.S., 1935):

Sergei Eisenstein had the killing of the pawnbroker as one of the main assignments in his directing class; Josef von Sternberg, who once took Dreiser out of Eisenstein's hands, aces it with a fire-poker blow, an offscreen thud, plus Peter Lorre's ocular sublimity. Lorre's Raskolnikov emerges out of the faceless collegiate mass with the promise of Übermensch brilliance, in the following passage he lives in a pauper's flat with a Napoleon portrait nailed to the wall above his mattress. He meets Sonya (Marian Nash) at the pawnshop, where the miserly owner (Mrs. Patrick Campbell) takes the girl's Bible (one ruble) and his graduation-day present, a watch (10 rubles); killing her would be "a service to humanity," Raskolnikov deduces, passing from student of crime to criminal. The bludgeoning complete, his nausea switches to exaltation: In a Beethoven-scored flush he demands money and fame for the stories he's written, the editor is nonplussed: "What's all the rumpus? Someone giving birth to an idea?" Such dreamlike aperçus are born recurrently under the watch of Sternberg, whose mind is honed by the truncated budget and, it must be said, not the least bit interested in faithful adaptations. Example: Raskolnikov's putdown of the rich suitor of sister Antonya (Tala Birell) is offered as gauche farce, complete with a smashed top hat, only for Antonya to display emotional intensity worth a whole picture of its own in her three minutes with a tenacious old lover (Douglass Dumbrille). Inspector Porfiry (Edward Arnold) boasts of "inhuman skill" and keeps it avuncular, the better to lull the prey and suddenly snap at an innocent's phony confession -- Lorre seizes the instant for quicksilver jesting, and goes from sweaty terror to mocking insouciance as if changing a fur coat. Still, Sonya tremulously quoting the raising of Lazarus pierces the hero and redemption comes acerbically, the irony reflected shimmeringly on the river at night. Dostoyevskian? No -- Sternbergian. With Elisabeth Risdon, Robert Allen, Gene Lockhart, and Thurston Hall. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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