One of the more ridiculous aspects of auteurism (the theory that film directors have discernible styles that can be distinguished regardless of variations in content) is its practitioners’ tendency to ascribe genius to work of questionable worth because of who made it. Taken to extremes, the most obscure work of the chosen few is pored over with leaden seriousness, as if every frame were a mark of profundity and brilliance. Meanwhile, potentially interesting work from less favored filmmakers is ignored.
Despite such excesses, auteurism is not nonsense. Some of its heroes deserve attention. The work of Joseph von Sternberg, for example, is rightly admired for his visual imagination and baroque sensibility. Most famous for his collaborations with Marlene Dietrich, Sternberg nonetheless made far more films without her, most of which display varying degrees of his signature style. And some, like his 1935 version of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, are just downright bad.
Peter Lorre stars as Raskolnikov, but while the film may have been adapted from a novel, it feels more like it comes from a play adapted from a novel. There are no scenes with more than a few characters. The story is advanced almost exclusively by the dialog. The camera sits on the actors as they talk, and only once in a very great while does an interesting shot suggest Sternberg’s presence. Indeed, the director’s contribution is almost negative in the sense that only a man working by his own rules could make something this clumsy. A hack director would have known how to make the story telling moderately engaging, to keep it hopping along in true assembly line fashion. Sternberg’s inattention just reveals it as awkward. (To be fair, he disavowed the film.*)
With one exception, all of the performances other than Lorre’s are declamatory and wooden. That exception, when Elizabeth Risdon, as Raskolnikov’s mother, emits a harrowing, gut-wrenching scream at hearing what her son has done, hints at where the rest of the film could have gone had Sternberg been more engaged. Even Lorre seems to jump from one emotion to another, giving Raskolnikov an undeniable unpredictability, but also making it difficult to empathize with his mounting paranoia.
As for the usual strengths of a Sternberg film, the decor and lighting, both seem embarrassingly threadbare. Since Crime was made the same year as Sternberg’s most opulent Dietrich film, The Devil is a Woman, the mundane visuals cannot be attributed to a decline in his powers. A tighter budget seems the likelier explanation, but that is not to suggest that his best work results purely from having a lot of money to spend. If auteurists have contributed anything, it is to make us recognize that not all Hollywood directors are created equal. It’s just that faced with duds like Crime and Punishment, some have difficulty accepting a commonsensical recognition of failure.
* See Sternberg’s autobiography, Fun in a Chinese Laundry, p. 168-170.