Available on Blu-ray Mon 29 Jul 2019.
Peter Lorre, utilising the full potential of the greatest set of eyeballs in cinema, is the best thing about Josef von Sternberg’s 1935 Dostoyevsky adaptation. After murdering a downright nasty pawnbroker, Lorre’s intellectually rich but materially impoverished Raskolnikov enters a cat and mouse game with Edward Arnold’s shrewd Inspector Polfiry. But the real battleground is Raskolnikov’s own conscience, as he wrestles with feelings of guilt, love, intellectual superiority and deep despair.
By the 1930’s, Lorre was best known for his compassionate portrait of a child-killer in Fritz Lang’s M and the villain in Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much (by which point the actor had fled Nazi Germany). Hitting Hollywood and signing to Colombia Pictures in 1935, he carried enough influence to place himself centre-stage for this prestige adaptation of Crime and Punishment. Oscillating between academic bravado and sweaty paranoia, Lorre’s complex anti-hero is never less than captivating.
The extras on this new Blu-Ray release present some interesting material, in particular a 1984 German documentary on Peter Lorre and the full audio of a 1947 radio play in which he reprised the role. But the additional content is not persuasive enough to make the film itself seem particularly worthy of rediscovery, despite contextualising Sternberg’s lack of enthusiasm for the project.
At a low ebb following his seven film collaboration with Marlene Dietrich and unhappy departure from Paramount, Sternberg unsurprisingly viewed Crime and Punishment as an assignment. Despite strong supporting turns and a particularly well-staged murder, Sternberg’s direction is functional but simply fails to capitalise on the intensity of Lorre’s performance or crack open the complexities of the source material. We are left with a Peter Lorre vehicle that stands squarely on the merits of his compelling, expressionist performance – full of melancholy and longing.