Dostoyevsky’s story has been filmed a number of times, but I have to confess I was not familiar with any of the versions until I viewed this 1935 film. It’s almost impossible to think of Josef von Sternberg without also thinking of Marlene Dietrich, so closely connected were their 30s careers in Hollywood. Crime and Punishment was only the second American picture von Sternberg made without his leading lady, and his best period was already behind him. This was a very low budget affair, made for Columbia, yet he still managed to turn out a film that remains visually interesting. Of course it didn’t hurt to have two up and coming talents involved, namely star Peter Lorre and cinematographer Lucien Ballard.
Basically, what we have is a tale of desperation. Raskolnikov (Lorre) is a brilliant young student of criminology, a man of great potential. Before long, however, we can see that this potential is not to be fulfilled. Both Raskolnikov and his family have fallen on hard times and he finds himself facing the threat of eviction. But Raskolnikov is a man of great pride, considering himself morally and intellectually superior to others. This pride, bordering on pomposity, is tested to the limit when he receives a visit from his mother and sister. The very real prospect of his sister allowing herself to be forced into a clearly unsuitable marriage purely out of financial necessity spurs him to act. A visit to a parasitic pawnbroker results in murder for profit, yet this great intellectual finds himself not much better off. Panicked into flight with only a fraction of the loot, his self-doubt and guilt quickly assail him. Having acted rashly due to desperation, he soon finds that a new variety of desperation awaits him. Inspector Porfiry (Edward Arnold) is the ever-smiling, unctuous figure that appears on the scene, apparently grateful for any assistance the brilliant young student of crime can offer. The truth is the policeman is never really taken in, and it’s only a question of whether he can wheedle a confession out of Raskolnikov or whether the young man’s mounting guilt and paranoia will do the job for him.
Peter Lorre was in his pomp when this film was made, riding high on a wave of critical success following Lang’s M and Hitchcock’s Man Who Knew Too Much. He had the kind of face that was ideal for expressing fear, despair, self-loathing, anger and swaggering confidence, and all in quick succession. You can almost taste the terror as he shrinks back into the shadows when he’s on the point of being discovered at the scene of the crime, his round features bathed in cold sweat. Conversely, there’s real arrogance to the way he later struts into Porfiry’s office, casually putting his feet on the furniture, while he taunts the policeman. Edward Arnold was the perfect foil here (Sydney Greenstreet would fulfill a similar function a few years later) for Lorre’s emotional grandstanding. His ebullient Porfiry is like a great, fat spider spinning a web around, and toying with Lorre’s bug-eyed and hopelessly trapped fly. The scenes between these two, as they indulge in an intellectual duel, are the best parts of the film. The budget was obviously tight as the whole movie is studio bound and the cast is minimal, but von Sternberg never lets it look cheap. There are plenty of expressionistic shadows and the limited sets are all well photographed by a very young Lucien Ballard.
Crime and Punishment is a pretty rare film, but it has been given a DVD release in R2 in continental Europe. I picked it up purely on a whim when I noticed it on the shelf for a low price, and I’m very happy I did. Sony have provided a spiffy looking transfer that has clearly been cleaned up and really does justice to a film that’s almost 75 years old. There are a plethora of subtitles and dubs available but no other extras. There were rumours of a Peter Lorre box in R1 from Sony, and judging from the handsome look of this title I’d expect it to turn up there sooner rather than later. I don’t think Crime and Punishment is one of the lost greats, but with the high class talent involved both in front of and behind the camera it’s a movie I’m very happy to have in my collection.