Monday 14 September 2009

The Brothers Karamazov (1958)

Director: Richard Brooks
Stars: Yul Brynner, Maria Schell, Claire Bloom, Lee J Cobb, Albert Salmi and William Shatner
There are probably a lot of reasons to watch The Brothers Karamazov. It's the screen adaptation of one of the great novels of world literature, by all accounts, though I haven't read it or anything except short work by Dostoyevsky. Yet I'm watching for William Shatner and not because I'm a Star Trek nut either (I'm a fan but not a nut). I'm fascinated by his film career, which until Star Trek hit the big screen and he became a highly successful caricature of himself, was an amazing thing, including everything you wouldn't expect him to appear in. This is the youngest I've ever seen him, three years before The Explosive Generation and eight before Star Trek. He doesn't look quite right here, as if he hasn't grown into his own face yet. He's also the first person we see, though he's far from the star as young Alexi Karamazov, going home to see his father.

It's 1870 and we're in Ryevsk, a town in Tsarist Russia, where Fyodor Karamazov is a dirty old man in the able form of Lee J Cobb who could do this in his sleep. It's amazing to realise that he's only a year old here than he was in 12 Angry Men. We first meet him pouring wine down the throat of a gorgeous young thing that he's tied to his bed, smothering her with kisses as a gypsy band plays. It's hardly the vision that his son Alexi wants to see, given that Alexi is a monk, but Alexi leaves the judgement to God. He doesn't judge any of his brothers, which would be a very easy thing to do given what a mess the family is.

He's there to collect some money to bail his elder brother Dmitri out of trouble, Dmitri always being in trouble, though as he's played by Yul Brynner he's generally charming enough to keep getting himself back out of it. We meet him in an inn, losing money at cards and starting a fight. He quickly ends up in an army prison because he gave the 5,000 rubles that Alexi brought him to Katya, his commanding officer's daughter, to save him from a scandal, but he owes money everywhere. Only when Katya comes back to marry him with an 80,000 ruble dowry can he get himself back on his feet, but he's too proud to let her pay his debts.
We have something of a tangled web here. Katya loves Dmitri, but her love isn't returned, instead being his brother Ivan who loves Katya. Dmitri soon falls for Grushenka, a lovely and enchanting innkeeper who has bought up his debts because she's also his father's mistress and Fyodor doesn't want to pay his son the 25,000 rubles his mother left him when she died. Grushenka plays up to Dmitri like she falls as hard for him as he for her, but she's a conniving little imp if ever there was one so all we know for sure is to distrust anything she says or does. Every time Lee J Cobb steals the whole show, Maria Schell promptly steals it right back.

What surprises most is how alive this film is. It's full of lust and violence and love and death, its characters so full of life that sometimes they're bursting at the seams with it. Yet it's based on the last work of Fyodor Dostoyevsky before he died in 1881, a nineteenth century Russian novel that takes up about a zillion pages with dry ethics and morality. So I thought. While philosophical notions of free will and destiny are rife in this film, it's hardly dry and its nearly two and a half hour running time zips by like it was half as much. It's not even in black and white, as I expected it to be.

It's a complex web but a believable one, involving not just the characters I've already mentioned: Fyodor Karamazov; his sons Dmitri and Alexi; and the ladies, Grushenka and Katya; but the other two brothers too. Richard Basehart plays Ivan Karamazov, a Moscow journalist, who causes much here not through his actions but by his inactions. Lastly there's Albert Salmi as Fyodor's epileptic bastard son Smerdyakov, who hangs on and around and waits. As Dmitri and his father head towards a violent showdown over Grushenka, the others start to plot and plan, something that's fascinating to watch, not just because Salmi often slips into a Peter Lorre accent.
The only flaws really are ones that the film can't be held responsible for, namely that the Metrocolor used in 1958 has lasted inconsistently. Some scenes are lush in their colour, colour often used for deliberate purpose, but others are faded to varying degrees, so that as scenes cut to other scenes, it sometimes looks more like formerly deleted scenes cut back in. The successes are numerous and include the acting across the board, the fast paced story and the way that so many little subplots work so well. Characters redeem themselves, others doom themselves, and all believably. It's a riot, one that utterly surprised me, but in all the right ways, even if there are Hollywood touches here and there. How many, I can't say, but a few are pretty obvious.

Even Shatner avoids overacting, but then this was early for him. It was his first real role, after a couple of minor parts in earlier Canadian films. He played 'a crook' in The Butler's Night Off in 1951, at the age of twenty, then in 1957 appeared in the chorus of Oedipus Rex. I haven't found either film yet so can't even suggest how much or how little he even appears in them. Here though he's an integral part of the film, so really beginning a unique screen career that really runs through another couple of decades to 1978, at which point he started only playing a caricature of himself. These two decades though are becoming a real fascination to me, and each film I find merely enhances that feeling.

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