Stark, sturdy, Pierre Chenal’s Crime et châtiment strips Dostoievski’s novel nearly bare, dispensing with its plot density and philosophical richness, to focus on two things: dropout law student Raskolnikov’s anguished poverty, which motivates his rash acts (whatever his rationalizations, including the compensatory one of his intellectual and moral superiority, hence, existence above the law); after he murders and robs the pawnbroker (and also murders her sister), presumably because she embodies (for him) all those forces that exploit his condition of poverty (although it is to avoid the trap of poverty for herself that Aliona functions as pawnbroker), the cat-and-mouse game between Raskolnikov as suspect and the investigating magistrate who shrewdly bedevils him and to whom he eventually confesses his double murder with an ax.
The film opens as Raskolnikov, in his threadbare rented room, contemplates committing the crime; we see him reach the point of decision. “Heh!” he ejaculates; “Will I be scared?”—this speech, purely for his own ears, underscoring the solitude and status as outsider that poverty has enforced upon him. In a marvelous stroke, Raskolnikov’s seated appearance generally evokes Rodin’s sculpture The Thinker—visual irony puncturing Raskolnikov’s self-image as a superior soul. That the boy’s first name is Rodion is serendipitous, although sculpture—actually, sculptures—and book all emerged in the second half of the nineteenth century.
Let’s be honest: Chenal’s serviceable film exists for the brilliant acting of Pierre Blanchar as Raskolnikov (best actor, Venice) and the even more brilliant acting of Harry Baur as Porfiry/Porphyre Petrovich. The cat will surely bag his mouse.
Coincidentally, Josef von Sternberg’s version starring Peter Lorre and Edward Arnold appeared the same year. The two best film versions, however, are Robert Bresson’s searing Pickpocket (1959) and Aleksandr Sokurov’s voluptuously moody, melancholy Whispering Pages (1993).
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