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?”
After being assured that the novel was, in fact, in the public domain and securing a deal with MGM that would loan Lorre to the studio for Karl Freund’s Mad Love (1935), production could begin on Crime and Punishment. Tasked with the enormity of translating Dostoyevsky’s novel to the screen, von Sternberg later boiled it down to a genre film in his autobiography, stating, “At best it can be no more than a film about a detective and a criminal.” While setting itself apart from its epic source material, the film also exemplified Hollywood’s trend of adapting classic works of literature to lend an air of prestige to motion pictures.
Throughout filming Crime and Punishment faced myriad challenges. Sam Lauren, who collaborated with von Sternberg on Blonde Venus (1932), rewrote Joseph Anthony’s screenplay to make it more cost-effective as well as more universal by relocating the story from St. Petersburg. The cast was composed of both Columbia contract players and inexpensive freelancers, reflecting the film’s modest budget. Character actor Edward Arnold, who clashed with von Sternberg, assumed the role of Inspector Porfiry, the inquisitive cat to Lorre’s cornered mouse. In another instance of notable casting, eccentric stage actress Mrs. Patrick Campbell, on whom George Bernard Shaw based Pygmalion’s Eliza Doolittle, came on board to play the callous pawnbroker and also proved a handful. Despite these obstacles, Sternberg immersed himself in every aspect of the production, including rudimentary tasks such as moving equipment and touching up sets. The minimalism on display in Crime and Punishment almost serves as a penitent response to the characteristic excess in von Sternberg’s earlier work.
After its premiere, Crime and Punishment was largely overshadowed by Pierre Chenal’s French adaptation, which was also released in 1935. Nevertheless, as Andrew Sarris notes, “Chenal’s tantalizing theatrics hardly compared with the mood and feeling generated by the more reflective style of the von Sternberg version.” Despite being eclipsed by Chenal’s effort, von Sternberg’s film received praise for Lorre’s intriguing acting. The New York Times commended the actor, remarking that “Mr. Lorre gives a fascinating performance, revealing once again his faculty for blending repulsion and sympathy in the figure he projects to his audience.” In several scenes, Lorre also displays a notable comedic talent, heretofore unseen on the screen.
While often overlooked, Crime and Punishment marks a turning point for von Sternberg as he set out to establish an identity separate from Dietrich. The film serves as a reflection of the director himself with, as Sarris observes, “von Sternberg display[ing] his own stylish bravado through the Napoleonic and Nietzschean poses of Peter Lorre’s” character. Moreover, as von Sternberg approached the later stages of his career, his male characters began to reflect not only different aspects of his personality but also different stages of his life. As von Sternberg aged, “a paternal and magisterial attitude toward his own youth emerges through the characterizations of Lionel Atwill in The Devil is a Woman, Edward Arnold in Crime and Punishment, and Walter Huston in The Shanghai Gesture .” Consequently, the film is as much the story of von Sternberg as it is of Raskolnikov in how both men ultimately strive for reinvention and redemption.
Special thanks to Janet Bergstrom, the UCLA Film & Television Archive, the Department of Film, Television, and Digital Media, and the Program in Cinema and Media Studies.
Baxter, John. Von Sternberg. Kentucky: University Press of Kentucky, 2010. Print.
Beltzer, Thomas. “‘Crime and Punishment’: A Neglected Classic.” Senses of Cinema. April 2004.
Sarris, Andrew. The Films of Josef von Sternberg. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1966. Print.
Von Sternberg, Josef. Fun in a Chinese Laundry. New York: Macmillan, 1965. Print.
Youngkin, Stephen D. The Films of Peter Lorre. New Jersey: Citadel Press, 1982. Print.
Laura Swanbeck is a staunch cinephile, film festival enthusiast, and Master’s student in Cinema and Media Studies at UCLA. She spent the last few years working in film programming and championing independent filmmakers at the California Film Institute and San Francisco Film Society. Areas of interest include Middle Eastern and European transnational cinema with a specific focus on immigration, exile, and diaspora. Currently she’s enamored with French film after covering the ColCoa Film Festival. She has recurring nightmares about DCP issues, unabashedly loves feminist film theory, and probably would have been Pauline Kael’s arch-nemesis had she been born a few decades earlier.