The Crank: ‘Crime and Punishment’ Program Notes (4/11/13 Screening)

The Crank is a graduate student organization that runs weekly screenings of the UCLA Film & Television Archive’s extensive holdings. The Crank shows films that either are not widely available on video or are such spectacular specimens of nitrate and celluloid that merely to see them on a television set would be a crime both to the student of film and to the canon of film history.


Following the box office disappointment of The Scarlett Empress (1934) and the political controversy of The Devil is a Woman (1935), director Josef von Sternberg parted ways not only with Paramount but also with his frequent collaborator and muse, Marlene Dietrich. According to von Sternberg, he was “liquidated by Lubitsch,” an ironic musing since the latter did little to interfere as production manager on the film except change the title.

Luckily, Ben Schulberg, who had just signed a production deal with Harry Cohn at Columbia, enlisted von Sternberg after his ousting at Paramount, offering him a two-picture deal and a fresh start. Soon von Sternberg’s fortunes became tied with another European émigré signed with the studio, the Hungarian-born actor Peter Lorre. Known primarily for his theater work in Germany with Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, Lorre had left his mark as the murderer in Fritz Lang’s M (1931) and had just starred in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much (1935) in London. Eager to establish himself in Hollywood, Lorre presented Cohn with the idea of adapting Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment as a vehicle for him to star in as its conflicted and murderous criminology student, Roderick Raskolnikov. As Hollywood legend has it, Lorre had his secretary type a monosyllabic synopsis to prove to Cohn that translating Dostoyevsky’s novel from page to screen was possible. Allegedly, Cohn, who was enraptured with the idea, only had one question for Lorre: “Tell me—has this book got a publisher?” Continue reading “The Crank: ‘Crime and Punishment’ Program Notes (4/11/13 Screening)” »

The Crank: ‘Thunderbolt’ Program Notes (10/11/12 Screening)

The Crank is a graduate student organization that runs weekly screenings of the UCLA Film & Television Archive’s extensive holdings. The Crank shows films that either are not widely available on video or are such spectacular specimens of nitrate and celluloid that merely to see them on a television set would be a crime both to the student of film and to the canon of film history.


When asked about the transition to sound, Josef von Sternberg remarked, “There never were silent movies. The actors spoke and the titles reproduced their lines. There also was the accompanying music, which I preferred to choose myself. Thus, far from being opposed to the talkies, I made sound films myself right away. I even made one before The Blue Angel.” Indeed, sound has always played a highly important role in the work of von Sternberg. Yet the director’s first sound film, Thunderbolt, is frequently overlooked in surveys of the director’s career.

George Bancroft plays the titular character, Thunderbolt, a gangster on death row, in a performance that would earn him an Academy Award nomination. Upset that his girl (Fay Wray) has moved on to a new man, Thunderbolt conspires from behind bars to frame him. When his rival is placed in the cell next door, Thunderbolt’s new goal becomes to stave off execution long enough to get revenge on the man who stole his girl. The gangster film continues in the tradition of two of von Sternberg’s earlier films also starring Bancroft, Underworld and The Dragnet (a film that is unfortunately lost to us today). Andrew Sarris is careful to note that the von Sternberg rendition of the gangster story is more akin to a gangster fantasy than to a gangster film. Continue reading “The Crank: ‘Thunderbolt’ Program Notes (10/11/12 Screening)” »