I’m trying to decide which Sokurov movie(s) to watch in preparation for Francofonia opening in theaters, and this description of Whispering Pages catches my eye:

With this film, Alexander Sokurov “leafs through the pages” of a classic work of Russian prose. Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment supplies this work with its ideological theme and the historical setting, but [not] its plot. The novel’s events and familiar characters are simply not mentioned. If anything, they are represented in an “inverse perspective,” where proximity is united with remoteness, beginning with end, the present with the absent.

At the same time I’m watching animated shorts, this week by Piotr Dumala, leading up to his half-hour Crime & Punishment, which the IMDB reviewers agree has beautiful illustration with no discernible story. I don’t even know the story of Crime & Punishment myself, so rather than read the book, or even its wikipedia entry, I thought I’d start with a more narrative movie version, holding a small Crime & Punishment Marathon. But I forgot, one shouldn’t count on 1935 Production Code Hollywood for stories of moral ambiguity.

Lorre, the moment after the crime:

Some Sternbergian-lit close-ups and nice shadow play, but overall it’s a talky studio picture with clunky dialogue, not what I would’ve figured the great Sternberg made between The Scarlet Empress and The Devil is a Woman. I think his heart wasn’t in it.

Peter Lorre’s Raskolnikov graduates with top honors, and writes an acclaimed article about criminal psychology, but then as now, writing acclaimed articles doesn’t pay the bills. Nearly destitute, he knocks off a pawnbroker and steals some stuff, but flees the scene before getting anything of real value. Rask decides since he’s a crime expert he can’t get caught, so he puffs himself up and offers help solving the crime to chief inspector Edward Arnold (a Capra regular who’s very good here, given the time and space to do his own thing). Emboldened, Rask marches into a publishing house and demands a large advance to write new work, which he receives, and begins throwing money around. Though Rask is becoming megalomanic, he’s still pretty incompetent in the real world, and his growing guilt plus the poor religious girl Sonya who he met at the pawn shop the day of the crime set him straight, and he turns himself in with a look of humble enlightenment.

All in English with a few odd references to Russia (rubles, Siberian prisons) to remind viewers of the story’s global-lit origins. Also a whole side plot about Rask’s sister Antonya, who’s going to marry a rich buffoon (Gene Lockhart, Crachit in the Reginald Owen A Christmas Carol) until Rask gets wealthy and chases the man off – and a nosy fellow named Grilov who knows the sister and overhears Rask, who is generally bad at covering his tracks, speaking about the crime.

Lockhart at center, with the while Rask family:

I assumed the Bible-carrying Sonya convincing Rask to turn himself in was a Hollywood addition, but after the major discrepancies between this and the Kaurismaki version I finally read the novel’s wikipedia plot summary and the Christian repentance comes from the book. Some other interesting wiki tidbits: “His motivation [to kill] comes from the overwhelming sense that he is predetermined to kill the old woman by some power outside of himself.” In this film, the motivation seems like pure desperation, and his delusions of outside powers begin afterward. “He also kills [the pawnbroker’s] half-sister, Lizaveta, who happens to stumble upon the scene of the crime.” Here it’s a couple of dudes, and Rask runs from them in a panic. Lorre (“the celebrated European star,” as he’s introduced in the opening titles) was between appearances in Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much and Secret Agent, and this movie could’ve used more Hitchcock – or even more Sternberg.

We lost our little bird, so picked the two dumbest movies we could find to unwind. This is a not-great musical version of Ninotchka with a not-good romance featuring a few sublime dance scenes. Cyd Charisse comes to life in those, is otherwise buttoned up as the humorless Russian sent to collect three bumbling government agents who were sent to collect a defecting music composer who is writing new music for Hollywood producer Fred Astaire who is mangling the serious tunes into upbeat dance numbers and falling for Ninotchka.

Nice Cole Porter songs. Predictably, my favorite was the one about filmmaking with separate verses about color and widescreen processes. I also dug Fred’s attack on the passing fad that was rock & roll music. “Happy” ending has all Russians staying in California, embracing capitalism, decadence and popular music, and Fred making all Cyd’s decisions for her.

Astaire’s last musical for a decade and the final film of Mamoulian (Queen Christina, Love Me Tonight). Cyd and Fred had previously starred together in The Band Wagon. Janis Paige plays the star of Astaire’s film, an Esther Williams caricature whose quirk is whacking her head to get water out of her ears. She got her start in the movies last-billed in Esther Williams’s Bathing Beauty. Naturally no Russians appear in the movie. The composer is Dutch Wim Sonneveld, Hungarian Peter Lorre plays one of the comic-relief agents alongside NYC-born Jules Munshin (Kelly & Sinatra’s co-lead in On The Town) and Lithuanian (close enough!) Joseph Buloff.

Some boring rich vacationers casually befriend a spy who is immediately killed, shot whilst dancing. Their daughter is kidnapped to shut them up. The couple (Leslie Banks, star of The Fire Raisers the same year, and Edna Best of The Ghost and Mrs. Muir) sulks back to Britain sans daughter, deciding that if they can’t tell the police, at least they can solve the case themselves. Actually, espionage and adventure isn’t for ladies, so Banks goes off on his own.

Banks and Wakefield go to the dentist:

A sinister dentist is dispatched with his own gas, and I didn’t exactly get the involvement of a basement-dwelling cult (“The Tabernacle of the Sun”), but wooden chairs prove to be good defence against revolvers, and the place gets trashed. Some delightful villains emerge, much more colorful than the heroes (despite an aborted attempt to involve a monocled uncle, Hugh Wakefield of Blithe Spirit, as comic relief). Prominently-chinned Frank Vosper (who’d soon die falling off an ocean liner) and frown-mouthed nurse Cicely Oates would’ve been fine, but Peter Lorre…

DCairns:

Frank Vosper is a good sleazoid bad guy (the only obvious thing Hitch took from Waltzes), but obviously Peter Lorre is the important character here. Although the plot throws out a whole gallery of malefactors, including an old lady with a revolver, a threatening dentist, and an evil hypnotist, Lorre dominates effortlessly, just by constantly making strange. Still sporting the carnival-float head of solid fat he modeled in Lang’s M, and decorated with a skunk-like white stripe and a dueling scar to match Banks’, Lorre as “Abbott” drools cigarette-smoke and apologises to the hero after striking him. He’s good-naturedly contemptuous of his own hired hitman, devoted to his nurse, and prefers to avoid unnecessary bloodshed, but his goal is to plunge the world into war.

Trying to rescue his daughter, Banks gets kidnapped too, caught in the villains’ hideout during a massive police shootout after an Edna Best-thwarted assassination attempt at the Royal Albert Hall. Best then shows up at the shootout and saves her own daughter from Vosper, some 70 minutes after the movie pointedly established her as a celebrated sharpshooter.

Pilbeam and Oates:

No insufferable child actor, daughter Nova Pilbeam is a daughter worth saving, out-acting both of her parents at times. She would return as star of Hitch’s Young and Innocent. This was the first of Hitch’s six Gaumont movies, and Lady Vanishes (more vacationers caught up with spy rings and kidnappings) was the last. Must now watch the ones in between.