Crime and Punishment Review
Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment first made the transition to screen in 1913. Fittingly this was a Russian production and it paved the way for what has been, to date, an entire century’s worth of adaptations. The most recent was a Kazakhstani picture by the name of Student, which competed in the Un Certain Regard section of the 2012 Cannes Film Festival, and there is also a modern day Australian version currently in the works. Not that the globetrotting is a recent phenomenon; over the years we’ve seen adaptations from Mexico, Peru, Sweden, France, Germany and more besides, not to mention, of course, from the UK and US. Some major directors have also been drawn to the novel, whether Josef von Sternberg (with Peter Lorre in the lead role) or Aki Kaurismäki, and there’s a small subset of versions which have taken it to unexpected places: the environs of an American high school (Crime + Punishment in Suburbia) and film noir (1946’s Fear and 1959’s Crime and Punishment, USA); or that of half-hour anthology television (an instalment of Climax! starring John Cassavetes); even a TV movie reunion ‘episode’ of The Rockford Files (written and directed by David Chase, no less).
Under the circumstances you’d be forgiven for thinking there were no straightforward takes, ones that were faithful to period, location and the intricacies of Dostoevsky’s original. When Tony Marchant took on the novel for the BBC in 2000, his version had the advantage of being able to film in St. Petersburg plus the extended running time befitting a television miniseries. The Russian setting lent this particular Crime and Punishment a certain authenticity (the previous Beeb adaptation, from 1979, had to content itself with Edinburgh locations), though it was hardly the first. Indeed, alongside the 1913 silent there was another homegrown interpretation. Made in 1969, this one came courtesy of Mosfilm and, much like the Marchant, had the luxury of a three-hour-plus duration.
Crime and Punishment, as envisioned by director and co-writer Lev Kulidzhanov, was a two-part epic, shot in black and white ’scope with a host of celebrated Soviet performers. Admittedly many of them may not be immediately recognisable to UK viewers (with the possible exception of Innokenty Smoktunovksy, who had played Hamlet for Grigori Kozintsev in 1964), though that only adds to the sense of place. We’re assured of the quality of the performers, but are unlikely to be distracted by their other roles. Instead they are free to settle into their parts, and into the authentically Russian locations, creating a screen version of Crime and Punishment with an added advantage over the many of the others. The combination of Dostoevsky’s tongue and intended setting, not to mention the requisite length with which to tell his tale, adds up to one of cinema’s more definitive takes.
Not that Kulidzhanov concerns himself with strict reality. The opening credits unfold over a dream sequence, one that’s marked by its use of freeze frames, jump cuts and slow motion. It immediately puts us inside the mind of Raskolnikov, the ex-student who will soon commit premeditated murder to test his theory that he is a “great man” and therefore exempt from moral codes. From this point onwards we are firmly with him throughout his deterioration. We hear the internal monologue, we are subjected to further dream sequences (though nightmare would be more applicable) and to a style that is often woozy or oppressive. Interestingly, watching the 2.35:1 frame on a widescreen television it almost feels as though the black bars are closing in on Raskolnikov. The framing seems to take away from the screen rather than add to it; much as Dostoevsky describes his protagonist’s room as being “just like a coffin”, so too the very film itself borrows such dimensions.
For all the style Kulidzhanov never loses sight of his performers. Georgi Taratorkin is superb in the lead, visibly weakening as the film progresses to the point where, oddly enough, he reminds of Terence Stamp’s Toby Dammit in Federico Fellini’s portion of Histoires extraordinaires (Spirits of the Dead); a usually handsome actor reduced to his own sickly, pale shadow. Kulidzhanov’s close attention to his cast is best witnessed in A Few Days of One Film, the 50-minute TV documentary put together, in part, by assistant director Ara Gabrielyan. There’s no commentary or context, just a succession of eavesdropped moments as the actors are quietly spoken to in-between takes. Kulidzhanov prefers the close psychological reading and it shows, both during these little chats and the end results. Indeed, his Crime and Punishment stands up there with cinema’s very best.
This review relates to the three-disc set issued by Ruscico in 2004 and recently made available to UK buyers via MovieMail (link). Handsomely presented in a digipack, the main feature is split across two DVDs (part one totals 106 minutes with part two coming in at 104 minutes) with the vast majority of the extras included on the third. Given that the release is now some eight years old, potential buyers should be warned that the presentation standards are not quite as we would expect today. Crime and Punishment is presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio (not 1.85:1 as stated on the case), anamorphically enhanced, but the image is also somewhat soft, demonstrates some prominent haloing and also has a hard time not turning the heavy grain of some scenes into heavy noise. It’s all watchable enough, though do bear in mind the age of the disc.
The soundtrack is available in its original Russian mono plus a bunch of other options: Russian DD5.1, English DD5.1 and French DD5.1. The same languages are also available in subtitle form, alongside Spanish, Italian and German. I’ve no idea from when the English dub dates from (whether it was newly created for this particular release or dates back to 1969), but it’s hardly the greatest of dubs and the 5.1 rendering is entirely superfluous. The Russian mono is the one to go for – it copes just fine with the dialogue and Mikhail Ziv’s disconcerting score. The subtitles, incidentally, are of the white variety and present no problems.
Photo galleries and cast and crew biographies/filmographies accompany the main feature on discs one and two, with the major additions occupying the third. A Few Days of One Film is included in full and is undoubtedly the pick of the bunch. With that said, the seven-minute interview with Gabrielyan (in which he talks, for the most part, about his documentary) and the more substantial 25-minute chat with Kulidzhanov’s widow are both equally deserving of a watch. The other filmed pieces – a roughly filmed six-minute tour of the Dostoevsky Museum in St. Petersburg and a four-minute impressionistic video piece entitled ‘Raskolnikov’ – are a bit more disposable. The third disc also finds room for further photo galleries plus there a bunch of cross-promotional trailers for other Rusisco releases.