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Crime and Punishment Reviews

The American version of the great Dostoyevsky novel had to compete with the French production which had been released one week earlier, but in many ways this film provides a greater insight into the Russian classic, even though one of the two murders in the original was eliminated for the sake of time. Peter Lorre, as the guilt-laden student Raskolnikov, is superb. His murder of the pawnbroker (Mrs. Patrick Campbell) is ostensibly committed to aid his mother and sister (Elizabeth Risdom and Tala Birell), and his guilt is affixed by his own arrogance and conscience. He becomes apprehensive when first called into police headquarters, but learns with relief that he is there to answer charges of not paying his rent. His confidence inflated, he then foolishly accepts an invitation by Inspector Porfiry (Edward Arnold) to observe the investigation into Campbell's murder since he, Raskolnikov, has written an academic article critical of police methods. Raskolnikov's ego exults in being able to follow his own spotty trail with the pursuer, but his vanity gets the better of him and he begins to volunteer small clues to the identity of the killer. When the inspector set his intellectual trap, he knew Raskolnikov would do just this. (Oddly, the very same thing occurred during the famous 1924 investigation by Chicago police of the murder of a child, Bobby Franks, by Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb. It was Loeb who volunteered his investigative services to police, even though he had read the Dostoyevsky novel.) Raskolnikov and the inspector play cat-and-mouse with each other, but the latter's case is thin and he knows it. Raskolnikov, by turns a profound depressive and superman optimist, is persecuted by his own inner feelings, and further confused by the love he feels for Sonya, the prostitute (Marian Marsh) who stops him from committing suicide when his sense of guilt becomes overwhelming. He confesses all to her and she convinces him to turn himself in. Josef Von Sternberg's direction is masterful, quickly paced and economically shot, with Lucian Ballard's moody, murky lensing adding just the right somber quality to the film. Much was made of converting CRIME AND PUNISHMENT into a popular vehicle, and Von Sternberg took most of the criticism despite not actually having wanted to make this film in the first place. He had inherited the assignment at Columbia where he had an iron-clad two-film contract to fulfill. The French version has always been more acceptable to critics, but it is showier, Pierre Chenal's actors offering histrionic melodrama in contrast to the more subdued approach of Von Sternberg which is really in keeping with Dostoyevsky's reflective novel. The director also had his hands full with the temperamental cast. Certainly Lorre does a magnificent job of condensing his impossible role, alternately displaying the intellectual confidence of an arrogant killer and then being overcome by nagging guilt. He was, however, a morphine addict and often intoxicated by the drug while on the set. Even harder to handle was the notorious eccentric, Mrs. Campbell, a star of the legitimate theater for decades who found Hollywood tasteless and repugnant. (She would regally sweep into Hollywood galas with her white Pekinese, Moonbeam, tucked under her arm and pretend not to know the famous people around her, suggesting to already established stars that they try for screen tests. Marie Dressler provides a parody in DINNER AT EIGHT.) When she first arrived on the set, she informed the disgruntled director that she hadn't read the Dostoyevsky classic or even the screenplay with her part. Ultimately, however, she did play the pawnbroker to perfection.